The history of percussion musical instruments

According to Wikipedia, a percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater. By attached or enclosed beaters or rattles struck, scraped or rubbed by hand, or struck against another similar instrument.

Besides, zoomusicological instruments and the human voice, the percussion family is believed to be the oldest musical instruments.

In this article, we will tell you where the percussion musical instruments originated from, as well as, the first ancestral percussion instruments.

In addition, we will brief you about the contribution of the various cultures to the development and evolution of these instruments. It will be a pleasure for us that this article broadens your knowledge regarding musical percussion.

Image of drums

Ancient percussion

At the beginning of civilization, primitive man communicated with other beings by touching, shaking, or hitting elements of nature. All these were done to provoke sounds and rhythms where signals were given such as warnings of possible enemies, religious rituals, or hunting activity.

That is, primitive man used percussion instruments to communicate with their gods, also to recreate in community.

Proof of this, archaeologists found important findings on the percussion instruments used by the first humans. These include clay drums, wood, and bones to percuss, what we have better known as collision instruments or idiophones. These do not need additional stresses to produce sounds.

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Traditional Japanese musical instruments Percussion Guqin Xylophone, Ancient  Chinese xylophone, angle, chinese Style, classical Music png | PNGWing
Ancient xylophone

In the caves where the primordial human lived, archaeologists discovered paintings, writings, engravings, and sculptures that attest to the musical activities that they carried out.

We can then affirm that the human being, before speaking, communicated through art, and more specifically through percussion instruments. The early human used logs as a sounding board to be struck with animal bones.

Centuries later, this trunk incorporated animal skin, the first vestige of the family of membranophone instruments, to begin to model what we would later know as the Drum, which is executed with tensioned membranes. 

As civilization evolves, so do musical instruments, and, in the case that interests us, percussion instruments. The discovery of iron gave impetus to the development of idiophone instruments, such as cowbells and shears.

Over the centuries, the classifications of the idiophone and membranophone instruments begin to appear.

Chinese Ancient Drum Musical Percussion Instruments Cowhide Waist Drum  Children Toy with Sticks Straps | Lazada Singapore
Chinese ancient drum

Classification of Percussion Instruments

Idiophone instruments are classified into:

  • Shock percussion instruments: these are pairs of instruments that are handled with two hands, such as castanets, harpsichords, cymbals, or maracas.
  • Simple percussion instruments, such as bells, marimba, and vibraphone.
  • Shake instruments, such as rattles and checkers.
  • Pulsed percussion instruments, such as the Kalimba or Samza.
  • The rubbed percussion instruments, such as the cuica and the zambomba.

Membranophone instruments are classified according to the material with which they have been made, the shape they have, the number of membranes used, the way the membranes are placed and held, and the way they are executed (if it is with the hands or with friction).

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There are stringed instruments such as the psalteries, which by evolution will give birth to what we know as the harpsichord and then to the piano.

Psaltery – Early Music Instrument Database

Percussion instrument families are derived from the above classifications, among which we have:

  • The Gons: originally from ancient China
  • Rattles such as bells, huts, or tambourines among others.
  • Metal instruments, such as the triangle, plates, cowbells, or curtains, among others.
  • Wooden percussion instruments, such as castanets, guiro, Chinese box, or keys among many others.
  • The reed instruments such as the xylophone, lyre, marimba, vibraphone, and many more.
  • Bell percussion instruments in all their models and sizes.
  • Membrane instruments such as symphonic timpani, tumbadoras, drums, bongos, and many more.
  • The modern percussion instrument such as drums, which includes: kick, snare, toms and cymbals.

Europe and Percussion Instruments

Membranophone | musical instrument | Britannica
Membranophone musical instrument

In Europe, the history of these instruments unfolds in two aspects. One regarding the instruments of ethnic and popular music and the other is regarding symphonic percussion instruments.

It was not until the arrival of the 20th century when the evolution of percussion instruments of ethnic and popular origin began to be analysed and classified.

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These classifications are based on the geographical location of origin of the same, which have characteristics of each native culture.

The real essence of percussion instruments originates with the history of the peoples. On this, there are testimonies and writings made by the people. And more recently by ethnomusicologists, who have been in charge of collecting the oral tradition of the peoples through research and their ancestral memory. 

As an example of this, we have instruments such as the African djembe, the Bata drums, and Afro-Cubans. Also, the steel drums of Trinidad the Indian tambourines, the Mexican rain sticks, or the Peruvian Cajon. indian Dafli/Tambourine Random colour 8 inch Hand Percussion  Musical Instrument: Musical Instruments
Indian tambourine
Anlo Ewe (African Tribe) – Discover The Real Africa | Drums, African drum,  African
African djembe

We would have to include these instruments in the classifications mentioned above, even though they are classified as exotic and ethnic percussion instruments

In the case of the djembe, the tambourines and the Bata drums would be classified as membranophone instruments. Specifically, the Bata drums would belong to the so-called bimembranophone percussion instruments because they have two percussive membranes or heads, unlike the djembe and tumbadoras.

Tumbadoras, Rumba Music | Liberty Park Music | Liberty Park Music
Peru's Cajon International Festival breaks Guinness Record for largest  ensemble | News | ANDINA - Peru News Agency
Image of people playing Cajon drums with their hands at Peru Cajon’s International festival


We can then conclude that percussion instruments have been, since their inception, the backbone of music and the evolution of our civilization.

Through these instruments, the tribal organization was developed that gave rise to the organization of work, religion, and the crude wars of conquest of the territory.

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