Bass drum

Brief description

  • Name: Snare drum, side drum
  • Spelling
    • German: Große Trommel
    • French: grosse caisse
    • Italian: gran cassa, gran tamburo
  • Classification: Percussion instrument, membranophone with indefinite pitch, cylindrical drum, double-headed drum
  • Shell: Cylindrical; Material: wood (beech, walnut), more rarely plywood or metal; depth 35–65 cm
  • Heads: Batter head, resonating head. Material: calfskin or plastic, diameter 70–100 cm
  • Tensioning screws: 10–16 screws for tensioning the heads
  • Sticks: Bass drum sticks with soft felt heads; timpani mallets, wood sticks
  • Frame with swivel attachment: Frame from which the drum is suspended at several points and in which it can be placed at any angle

The bass drum plays an essential role in several western musical styles. Its variable timbre can be used to mark the rhythm not only in large orchestras but also in small ensembles: in military music, where it is played together with the cymbal, in pop, rock and jazz, where it is played using the bass pedal as part of the drum kit, or in the orchestra.

The bass drum covers the bass register within the orchestra percussion section, while the tenor drum corresponds to the tenor, the snare drum to the treble register.

Because the bass drum produces not only some of the most subtle and soft effects in the orchestra but also some of the loudest, it is customary in orchestral works to use only one. Only in exceptional circumstances is more than one bass drum used.


The Turkish drum

The modern bass drum as played today in every military band, in the orchestra and in jazz, rock and pop, was imported from the Middle East, and did not, as may be assumed, evolve from the various drums that were widespread in the whole of Europe from the Middle Ages. It is a direct descendant of the davul, also known as the tabl turki (Turkish drum), which is known to have existed in Mediterranean regions from the 14th century. This was a large, cylindrical drum with a narrow shell and two thong-braced heads which was played without snares.

In Europe a 1502 painting by the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio is the first portrayal of a Turkish drummer with an instrument of similar proportions to the modern military bass drum (a narrow shell with a head about 70 cm in diameter). The drum hangs at the drummer's breast where it is beaten with two thick wood sticks. Until the middle of the 18th century such Turkish drums were a rare sight in Europe.

Janissary music

Large numbers of Turkish drums came to Europe in the 18th century with Turkish troops and their military bands and were enthusiastically received and immediately integrated into European military music. The initial impression to western ears of an exotic sound was due principally to the combination of Turkish drum, cymbals and triangle that was found in Janissary music.

Not only was the large size of the drum a novelty but the playing technique was new as well: the instrument was either placed vertically on a base or, for marching, hung at the breast. The head was struck from the right-hand side with a large wood stick with no padding while the left hand rested on the left-hand rim of the shell. On the left side, the drummer struck the head with a single rod held as flat as possible, which produced a snapping sound. The wooden drumstick was used on the accented beat, the rod on the unaccented one. If a drum with only one head was used, which was only rarely the case, the drummer would beat the head alternately with the stick (right hand) and the rod (left hand).

A Turkish flavor

In the second half of the 18th century Janissary bands were very popular at the courts of European princes. One consequence of this was the gradual introduction of the large Turkish drum into orchestra music, especially into the opera, usually to create an oriental atmosphere. Gluck used it as a stylistic device in his Le cadi dupé (1761), Mozart in his Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). Haydn used it in accordance with its origin in his Military Symphony (1793/94). In these early orchestra works the Turkish drum, or big drum as it was called owing to its enormous proportions, was still played in the Turkish style, i.e. with a wood drumstick and a rod, with double note stems written into the scores.

In addition to oriental-style drums with a narrow shell, other bass drums were used in military bands and the orchestra into the 19th century, the shells of which were wider than the head diameter, which was about half a meter. These long, tube-shaped drums became known as long drums.

The bass drum as an orchestra instrument

At the beginning of the 19th century Spontini, in his opera The Vestal Virgin (1807), became the first composer to require the bass drum to be struck with felt-covered mallets. By so doing he deprived the instrument of its oriental tone.

In contemporary performance practice the cymbals were struck together with the somber and menacing-sounding drum, which had only simple sequences of beats to play, unless cassa sola was required. The cymbal notes were an integral part of performance practice and were not written into the score. This is true especially of Italian operas of the time, e.g. Verdi's Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853). In many cases the cymbals were mounted directly on the bass drum and played by the drummer.

Gradually more complex playing techniques for the bass drum became widespread. In his Symphonie fantastique (1830) Berlioz scored the first roll, which he explicitly required to be performed by two timpanists with timpani mallets. The first roll to be performed by one percussionist appears in Liszt's Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (1849). Later, rolls were also performed with one stick, the drummer beating either with the head and the end of the handle alternately or with a two-headed stick.

In orchestras of the late Romantic period (last third of the 19th century) the bass drum became firmly established in the orchestra percussion section. It was beaten from the side, albeit not directly as in Janissary practice, but in a large downward arc. In addition, musicians began to position the drum differently: it was placed on a wood stand (wood block) so that the head, now lying almost horizontally, could be beaten.

Fashion-conscious composers used the bass drum with a cymbal mounted on it to such a degree that Berlioz felt moved to complain in his Instrumentation Theory (1843) that it was being subjected to “the most dreadful abuse”: the bass drum was being used by “effect-hungry art novices” who only wished to impress “through orchestra pomp and power effects” to the detriment of musical appeal.

Modern forms of the bass drum

From the middle of the 19th century rope tensioning was gradually replaced by screw tensioning. The shell was no longer made solely of wood but also of brass or aluminum. The skin of calves or horses, and very occasionally of donkeys (it being hard to come by) was used for the head. Nowadays the bass drum in the orchestra is usually suspended from a frame, allowing it to swing freely and to be positioned at any angle. Occasionally it is placed on a special drum stand. Today orchestra drums have a diameter of 70–100 cm and the shell is 35–55 cm deep.

In the middle of the 19th century a version of the bass drum with only one head gained popularity, particularly in England. This drum had a narrow shell, open on one side, and became known as the gong drum. It was said to have superb resonance, but tended to produce a definite pitch, a characteristic that drums were not supposed to have. Gong drums are now used only very rarely.

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Gong drum

From the beginnings of Janissary music to the present day the bass drum has played an important role in military and wind bands. It performs the task of emphasizing the accented beat, especially in marching music. Bass drums used in military music are about 25–45 cm deep and 35–75 cm in diameter and are therefore smaller than their counterparts in the orchestra.

Drum kit

At the beginning of the 20th century the bass drum became an important part of jazz percussion and a new playing technique emerged: striking the drum with the bass pedal, invented in 1909 by William F. Ludwig in Chicago. The bass pedal made it possible for drummers to play other instruments, such as the snare drum and the cymbals, at the same time as the bass drum. The practice of entrusting the entire percussion set (drum kit) to a single player spread from big bands and be-bop combos to rock and pop music and the bass drum became smaller and smaller in order to produce the dry, short sound favored in popular music. Today, models with a depth of 30–40 cm, a diameter of 45–70 cm and plastic heads are used in popular music.


The bass drum consists of a cylindrical soundbox (shell) made of wood (occasionally of plywood or metal) and two heads stretched across the open ends of the shell.

As on the snare drum the two heads are stretched over a flesh hoop, which has a slightly larger diameter than the shell. A counter hoop placed on the flesh hoop is attached with screws or threaded rods to the tensioning brackets which are mounted on the shell. The heads are tightened by screws (10–16 depending on the size of the instrument) which allow the heads to be precisely tensioned.

In the orchestra calf heads are generally used. Donkey skin is equally suitable but harder to come by. Smaller drums such as those played in pop, rock and military music (especially those used by marching bands in the open air) normally have weather-proof plastic heads. The batter head is usually somewhat thicker than the resonating head and both should be made of the same material.

In the orchestra the bass drum is suspended on leather or rubber straps (very occasionally on wires) in a special, usually round frame in such a way that it can swing freely and be placed at any angle or playing position.


Bass drum sticks

The bass drum is generally struck with the bass drum stick. This has a thick handle and a thick felt head which is considerably larger and heavier than that of the large timpani mallet.
Head: Diameter 7–8 cm.
Material: wood core with thick felt wrap.
Handle: Length 25–35 cm, made of beech or hornbeam.

Smaller bass drum sticks with thinner handles and soft felt heads are used for strokes at lower dynamic levels. The sound they produce is more slender, and they are also used for the performance of rolls. In rare instances timpani mallets are used in the orchestra for rolls on the bass drum, or for rhythmically complex or rapid passages. This depends on the type of drum head, the size of the instrument and the passage to be played.

Bass drum sticks

Other sticks

The bass drum is sometimes beaten with other sticks to create nuances or effects:

Hard felt sticks: the timbre is harder and has less volume.
Leather sticks (French: mailloche): wood sticks with heads wrapped in leather. Produces a hard timbre.
Wood sticks (like cymbal or xylophone sticks): sticks with wood heads. Sound dry, hard-edged and noise-like. The attack is distinctly audible.
Side drum sticks: sound very dry, dead, hard, precise and noise-like but are far too light to produce the bass drum's full resonance.
Brushes: depending on which technique is used the sound produced is between hissing and buzzing and is also noise-like.
To produce a hard timbre with less volume marimba or vibraphone mallets are used.


Modern notation

Since the 20th century the bass drum part has been written on a single line with no clef. This type of notation became standard because the drum has no definite pitch.

In jazz, rock and pop music the bass drum part is always written at the bottom of a system.

Historical notation

In older works the bass drum part is usually written in bass clef on the A3 line, or sometimes as a C3 (like the tenor drum).

In old scores the bass drum part often contained notes with two stems. These indicated that the note was to be played with the drumstick and the switch simultaneously (the switch is an older and less commonly used form of “brush”, normally consisting of a bundle of twigs tied together).

Sound production


In the orchestra the bass drum is generally struck with a large, soft stick which is heavy enough to cause the instrument's large soundbox to vibrate. The stick is held in the right hand (or left hand of left-handed players). The striking spot for full-sounding single strokes is about a hand-width from the center of the head. The percussionist must first locate the ideal striking spot by trial and error because every bass drum sounds different.

Nowadays the drum is normally positioned so that the heads are vertical but at an angle. The percussionist strikes the head from the side. In some orchestras the head is struck in an almost horizontal position. If the drum is completely horizontal the sound quality is poorer because the vibrations are reflected from the floor. To perform rolls the player uses two sticks which are somewhat smaller and lighter than those used for single strokes. The batter head is damped either with the fingers, the hand or the entire arm, the resonating head with the left hand.

The practice of mounting a cymbal on the shell of the bass drum, which was widespread in the 19th century, is now no longer usual. However, because several composers explicitly ask for this in their scores it is still sometimes done. Although this device guarantees greater coordination between the drum and the cymbal it detracts from the sound especially of the latter instrument. It also makes it extremely difficult to damp the resonating head.

Tuning of the drum

Unlike the timpani, for which a definite pitch is desired, pains are taken when constructing and tuning a drum to avoid a definite pitch.

If a drum head is struck at its edge the head's proper tone is heard. The bass drum in the orchestra is tuned to a pitch between C and G, whichever is more appropriate to the drum's resonant chamber (i.e. its size). The resonating head is tuned to about a half step lower in order to dispel any impression of a definite pitch and to ensure the drum produces the necessary volume. Striking the drum with a large, soft stick helps to remove any traces of pitch.

The bass drum outside the orchestra

Whereas for orchestral playing the bass drum is suspended in a frame, in popular music it is placed on the floor – on feet – so that the heads are vertical. The drummer strikes the drum by means of a pedal. This method does not allow any variation in intonation, the beats are monotonous and sound rather dead and dry. Cloths are often used to damp the sound further. Tubing is let into the bass drum shell on which other instruments such as cymbals, cowbells, tom-toms or small effects instruments are mounted. This combination of instruments, supplemented by snare drums and hi-hat, is known as the drum kit or trap set.

In military bands the bass drum is carried in front of the stomach and beaten on both heads. The heads of these drums are often plastic and of the same thickness.

Playing Techniques

Single strokes

Single strokes are played on the striking spot, which, depending on the size of the drum, is about a hand-width from the center of the head.

Strokes with a short note value are either performed in the center of the head where the vibrations are weaker and the resonance less, or damped in accordance with the note value.


Single strokes near the rim.


A single stroke, damped immediately after the attack. Both the batter and the resonating head are damped in this technique.


Damped strokes. A cloth is placed on the batter head, although not on the striking spot. This makes the timbre harder and dull. Occasionally the resonating head is damped as well. The area damped by the cloth depends on the head and the size of the drum.

Con la mano

Striking the head with the fingers of the right (or left :-) hand. Produces a bright, thin and soft tone.

Unison strokes

For powerful fortissimo effects the batter head is struck with two sticks simultaneously. Unison strokes with two sticks are used to increase the dynamics.


As on the timpani, rapid repetitions are not common owing to the instrument's tremendous resonance. If rapid sequences are required the bass drum is partially covered with a cloth (not for rolls) although this is not indicated in the score. This makes each individual stroke distinctly audible. For this technique hard sticks, or even wood sticks, are used.


Are performed with one stick in each hand. Rolls are played near the center of the batter head where the timbre is darker. Rolls played at the edge of the head sound brighter and can easily develop a definite pitch. Quiet rolls are often played near the rim, as on the snare drum. If a crescendo is required the drummer begins the roll near the rim and moves in toward the center, where the cut-off stroke is played.

In the past rolls were often performed using a stick with two heads because the drummer had to play the cymbal at the same time.

Today, if a drummer is required to play a roll with only one hand he uses two sticks in one hand (similar to the marimba or vibraphone technique) and performs the roll by rotating his wrist back and forth. This technique requires great skill and is possible up to mezzoforte.

Beater on beater

A beater is placed in the center of the drum head and its head is struck by another beater. Immediately after the attack the beater on the drum head is removed so that the sound can develop.

This technique is ideal for pianissimo and piano effects and can be performed only up to mezzoforte. It produces strokes as soft as velvet. The attack is not heard.

Wire brushes

The drummer either strikes the head with the brush, which produces a metallic buzzing sound, or firmly brushes it, which results in a dull, hissing noise.

Bass pedal

Attack using the bass pedal as in rock, pop and jazz music. No variations in intonation are possible so the notes sound dry, dead, more monotonous and dull. Some composers ask for this technique to suggest a particular ambiance (Heinrich Sutermeister in Raskolnikoff (1948), George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess (1935)).

Sound characteristics

Dark, sonorous, sustaining, full, resonant, soft, mighty, menacing, thunderous, gloomy, eerie, rumbling, thudding, pounding, hollow.

One of the main characteristics of the bass drum sound is its indefinite pitch. The large resonant chamber means that the tone is very deep; depending on the size of the drum it lies somewhere between C and G but is perceived as one or even two octaves lower.

Like the timpani's, the bass drum's timbre is composed of two elements: the attack, which possesses purely noise-like properties, and the resonance, which has a duration of around 3–4 seconds at mezzoforte.

Factors that influence the timbre

The bass drum possesses an enormous dynamic spectrum and a huge variety of timbres. The quality of the sound depends on a number of factors:

Force of attack

The possibilities range from a solo ppp, which creates an atmosphere laden with tension, to single strokes like a burst of cannon fire which can give the audience a shock.

Striking spot

The usual striking spot about a hand-width from the center of the head produces a rich, resounding tone. The nearer the rim the head is struck the brighter the sound becomes; it is extremely resonant and tends toward a definite pitch. The center of the head produces a dark, slightly hollow sound with little resonance.


The softer the stick the more mellow and rich the sound. The harder the stick the more prominent the attack and the more precise the note.

Sound combinations

In the orchestra the bass drum performs important tonal and rhythmic tasks in both tutti and solo passages. The marking of rhythm on accented beats, its fundamental task in military, rock, pop and jazz music, is also one of its functions in traditional orchestral music. In more recent times composers have entrusted the drum with other tasks, too.

Because the bass drum possesses tremendous volume, dynamic levels in combinations with other instruments must be carefully balanced. A tonal blend is achieved especially with mellow and full-sounding bass instruments. The bass drum's great resonance often creates the impression that it is playing the same pitch as the bass instruments (which is why, when the instruction tacet appears, it is occasionally covered with a cloth, or the drummer places a hand on the head, so that it does not vibrate in sympathy).

Bass drum + other percussion instruments

Bass drum + other drums

Within the drum group, the bass drum, with its deep, dark timbre supplies the bass voice, providing a rhythmic and tonal foundation with its single strokes. The snare drum adds brightness and performs mostly rhythmic figures, while the dark and somber tenor drum plays rolls. The drum group is often complemented by the timpani.

The bass drum's function in the orchestra is by no means limited to accentuating the beat; apart from rolls it can also perform complex rhythmic figures.

Bass drum + timpani

On occasions the bass drum either replaces or reinforces the lowest notes of the D timpani, because in this register the loosely tensioned timpani head sounds dull while the drum sounds lively and energetic. In this instance the timpani notes are often played an octave higher.

Bass drum + cymbals

Since Janissary music the bass drum has had the function of providing the rhythm in marching music together with the cymbals. This combination remains the foundation of western brass band music today. For this type of music the cymbal is often mounted on the shell of the bass drum.

In the orchestra this practice is usually followed only in marches or waltzes or to suggest a military atmosphere. At certain dynamic levels and in certain playing techniques the combination of bass drum and cymbals is quite capable of creating subtle effects rich in nuances, e.g. by striking the rim of the cymbal only or striking the cymbal with a stick etc. The bass drum's single strokes in combination with a cymbal crash can sound majestic and solemn (the same is true of the gong and the tam-tam). One of the most powerful orchestral effects is the combination of the bass drum roll (especially as a crescendo) and an fff cymbal crash.

Bass drum + brass / woodwinds

The combination with the warm and fat sound of the tuba is particularly effective. Single drum strokes and rolls merge with the tuba's single notes and tremolos to form a composite timbre.

The bass drum's resonance is also relatively effective together with the bassoon and contrabassoon.

Bass drum + strings

Bass drum + double bass

Of the strings the double-bass is ideal for combinations with the bass drum. At appropriately low dynamic levels the bass drum's single strokes reinforce the double-bass's single notes and pizzicato. Its tremolos are also accentuated by the bass drum roll.

Repertoire (selection)

  • Hector Berlioz

    • Requiem (1837)
  • Giuseppe Verdi

    • Requiem (1874)
  • Béla Bartók

    • Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1938)
    • The miraculous mandarin (1919)
  • Gustav Mahler

    • Symphony No. 3 (1902)
  • Jean Sibelius

    • En saga (1892)
  • Igor Stravinsky

    • The Soldier's Tale (different kinds of beater) (1918)
    • Le sacre du Printemps (1913)
  • Carl Orff

    • Die Bernauerin, Antigonae, Oedipus der Tyrann (1959)
    • Prometheus (2 differently sounding bass drums)
  • Wilhelm Killmayer

    • La tragedia di Orfeo
  • Edgar Varèse

    • Ionisation (3 disparately sized bass drums)
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams

    • Sinfonia antarctica (1949–52)
    • Old Hundredth
  • Benjamin Britten

    • Peter Grimes (1944/45)