Field drum

Brief description

  • Name: Tenor drum/field drum
  • Spelling
    • German: Wirbeltrommel/RĂĽhrtrommel
    • French: caisse roulante, caisse sourde
    • Italian: tamburo rulante, cassa rulante
  • Classification: Percussion instrument, membranophone with indefinite pitch
  • Shell: Wood, occasionally metal; cylindrical, depth 40–50 (rarely 70) cm
  • Heads: Batter head, snare head; Material: calfskin or plastic, diameter 40–45 cm
  • With or without snares: 4–8 gut strings, snare release lever
  • Sticks: Drumsticks of hard wood (Brazil-wood, hickory, ebony) with round or oval tips; length approx. 36 cm
  • Stand: Height and angle adjustable

The tenor drum and field drum are drums in the tenor register. In both size and pitch they rank between the snare drum and the bass drum.

Historically the field and tenor drums are two different instruments. The former is up to 70 cm deep and has snares, like the side (lansquenet) drum of the late Middle Ages, while the latter is less deep, has no snares and was introduced in the 19th century to provide a contrast to the bright, snapping sound of the snare drum.

Today both drums are roughly the same size (50 cm deep on average) and possess a dark and somber timbre. In most orchestras one drum with snares (field drum) is used as an all-round instrument, the snares being lifted off whenever necessary. In Great Britain and the U.S.A. a drum without snares (tenor drum) is the standard instrument. Because the terms "field drum" and "tenor drum" are both used to designate a drum in the tenor range, it is important to write 'with snares' or 'without snares' next to the name of the drum being called for.

A special form of the field drum is the Basel drum (parade drum) with its head diameter of about 40 cm and a shell depth of 40–45 cm. Among its typical characteristics is a particularly tightly braced drumhead for a bright sound (something not desired of the tenor drum). The Basel drumming style places great importance on embellishments and ornamentation and is still maintained with great care and pride by the Basel carnival societies and by drum corps in the English-speaking world.


The field drum

The tenor drum used in today's orchestras evolved from the field drum, which was widespread in Europe from the late Middle Ages.

The field drum had developed in the 15th century from the tabor, a small, double-headed drum with a cylindrical shell of wood and several snares. The drum hung on a loop over the forearm of the musician, who beat the rhythm with one hand while playing a melody on a pipe with the other.

The minstrels' drum had to be fairly light and easy to carry and for this reason it was rather small and not very loud. In the course of the 15th century the drum, that was struck from the side, became ever larger and ever louder to meet the changing requirements of military bands. It became too large to be hung over the forearm and was now attached to a strap over the drummer's shoulder or tied to a belt round his waist. The widely known “Swiss" drums became the model for drum-makers all over Europe. The small tabor remained in use as a folk instrument while the new, large drum became an important instrument with lansquenets (German foot soldiers). It is for this reason that the side drum is sometimes also called the field drum, or, in historical contexts, the lansquenet drum (tambour de lansquenet) or long drum. “Fife and drum" symbolized the common foot soldiers, while trumpets and kettledrums represented the cavalry.

The field drum was between 50 and 70 cm deep (some models were as deep as one meter) and had a diameter of 50 cm. It was beaten with a pair of heavy sticks. From the 16th century the snares were stretched across the skin of the underside of the drum, the snare head.

The field drum's main task was to give signals and mark the marching rhythm. Single and double beats and rolls were already standard playing techniques.

Basel drum

In the 17th and 18th centuries the field drum continued to evolve within the context of military bands. One of the principal aims was to reduce its dimensions, especially the depth of the shell, while retaining the volume.

When in the mid 18th century the bass drum and Turkish drum arrived at the courts of European princes with Janissary music the depth of the side drum's shell had already been reduced to 40–45 cm, its diameter to 40 cm. The body, previously made of wood, could now also be brass.

This smaller version of the field drum is nowadays called the Basel or parade drum. The drums used by the distinguished Basel Drum Associations still have the original form, the head tensioned extremely tightly by criss-crossing cords to produce a bright tone. The Basel drumming style has a long tradition in which bounces and virtuoso embellishments play an important role. On contemporary models of this drum the head is tensioned with screws.

Admittance into the orchestra

100 years later than the timpani – in the second half of the 18th century – the side or field drum appeared in the orchestra for the first time, under the name tambour: Georg Friedrich Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck used the instrument in their Fireworks Music (1749) and Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779) respectively. But drums have never achieved the same importance as timpani in the orchestra and their chief province remains marching music to this day. Because the drum had often been used in the midst of battle its first tasks in the orchestra were to evoke a military atmosphere, as in Josef Haydn's Military Symphony (1794). Ludwig van Beethoven gave the drums authentic tasks in his battle symphony Wellington's Victory (1813), giving each of the armies its own drum signal.

The drum was used more extensively in the opera orchestra, e.g. by Gioacchino Rossini, who even used it as a solo instrument in his opera The Thieving Magpie (1817), which earned him the nickname “Tamburossini".

Beside the tambour – in historical scores this refers to whichever form of the side drum was in use at the time – an instrument with the name tambourin enjoyed huge popularity especially in 18th century French opera. This was a drum played with one hand and made of very light wood, with a shell about 70 cm deep and a single head. Direct descendants of this tambourin or tambour provençal are still used today in folk music in southern France. The instrument should not be confused with the tambourine with its jingles.

The modern orchestra field drum

The modern orchestra field drums have varying dimensions: small models can be 40 cm in diameter and 40 cm deep (similar to the Basel drum), while the large version has a diameter of 40&ndash 50 cm and can be up to 70 cm deep. The shell is made of wood, rarely of metal, the heads are braced by means of rod tensioning. Four to six snares, made of gut, are stretched across the snare head. In the orchestra the field drum rests at a slight angle on a stand and is usually struck with drumsticks. The sound varies according to the size of the drum but is deeper, duller and darker than the snare drum.

The tenor drum

In the 1830s a tenor drum with no snares became popular in European military music. It had a diameter of 40–45 cm and a shell made of wood that was 30–50 cm deep.

The drum was used principally for the performance of rolls, which produced a very somber effect owing to the lack of snares, and was known as the tenor drum. It is still very popular today in military bands in Great Britain and the USA, where it is struck with soft timpani mallets, but is not found in German-speaking countries.

In the orchestra the tenor drum is also used chiefly to perform somber rolls, e.g. by Berlioz in his Requiem (1837). In 1905, Charles M. Widor wrote that the purpose of the tenor drum in the orchestra was to “give a rolling quality to the single beats of the bass drum." Depending on the desired timbre the drum is beaten either with drumsticks or with soft felt-covered mallets.

Field drum or tenor drum?

Many scores do not specify whether the composer requires a field drum or a tenor drum, in other words, whether a drum in the tenor register with snares or without them is required.

An additional problem is the general use of 'field drum' and 'tenor drum' as synonyms.

Examples of orchestral works in which a drum without snares is explicitly called for:

  • Hector Berlioz: Grande messe des morts (Requiem, 1837)
  • Richard Wagner: Rienzi (1842), Lohengrin (1850), Die WalkĂĽre (1870), Parsifal (1882)
  • Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (1897–8)
  • Darius Milhaud: Suite Provençale (1936)
  • Arthur Honegger: Pacific 231 (1923)
  • Edgard Varèse: Ionisation (1933)
  • Wolfgang Fortner: The Creation (1955)
  • Aaron Copland: 3rd Symphony (1946)
  • Benjamin Britten: The Prince of the Pagodas (Ballet, 1957)


Tenor drum

The shell of the modern tenor drum is usually made of wood; The drum's construction is basically the same as that of the snare drum, the two heads being braced by screws. The tenor drum is considerably deeper, however, and its head diameter is somewhat larger.

Orchestral models occasionally have an adjustable damper (a soft felt disc about 5 cm in diameter) for the batter head. The degree of damping can be adjusted by means of a screw.

Field drum

Unlike the tenor drum the field drum has snares, which are made of a lightly coiled metal wire.

Some models have heads which are still rope tensioned after the fashion of the medieval side drum; A criss-crossing or straight drum rope presses the two hoops against each other. The tension is regulated by moving the leather braces which each hold two strings.


In the orchestra, the tenor drum is normally struck with wooden sticks which have thicker tips than the snare drum's. The same grip (matched or traditional) is used as on the snare drum. Timpani mallets are also used.

Tenor drums (without snares) are played chiefly in military bands in Britain and the USA and are beaten with soft timpani mallets.

The snareless tenor drum also plays an important role in drum ensembles (drum corps) in Britain and North America, where they are generally beaten with felt sticks.

Left: Tenor drumstick; right: Snare drumstick


Nowadays, notation for the tenor drum, as for all drums, is written on a single line with no clef.

In the past it was written on a staff in bass clef as a C (sometimes as a D, e.g. in Gluck).

Because the terms "field drum" and "tenor drum" are often mistaken as synonyms, the score should always make it clear whether the drum in the tenor register should have snares or not.

Notation of tied trills, press rolls and open rolls

Tied trills, press rolls and open rolls are written as if they were either tremolos or trills.

When a trill (or tremolo) occurs in the score the drummer's decision of whether to play it as a tied trill, press roll or open roll is dependent on the tempo. At a fast tempo with two strokes in rapid succession a tied trill is always played; press rolls or open rolls are more suitable for longer rolls.

Sound production


The tenor drum is beaten either with wood sticks or (more rarely) soft timpani mallets. The grip and striking spot are the same as on the snare drum.

Owing to its size the tenor drum resonates briefly (a little longer than the snare drum). Because this resonance is short it is not damped.

Playing position

In the orchestra the tenor drum is placed on a stand. Because it is so deep the percussionist plays it standing up, unlike the snare drum which can also be played by seated drummers.

In marching bands the drum rests against the drummer's left hip and is beaten from the side.

Indefinite pitch

Owing to their construction drums have no definite pitch, or at least one that is only discernible with difficulty. The batter head and resonating head do not have the same thickness and are also tensioned differently (many drummers prefer the batter head to be more tightly braced). Both these factors, the different tension and head thickness, give rise to the impression of an indefinite pitch. The vibrations stimulated by striking the head are magnified by the resonance of the shell and the air inside it. They cause the resonating head to vibrate and this reacts both on the batter head, influencing (or "hindering") its vibrations. This retroaction results in complex asymmetrical vibration patterns which produce a sound that no longer has any definite pitch.

Definite pitch

One way to tune a drum to a definite pitch is to set the tension of each of the drumheads to a particular tautness in correspondence with each other. Through this technique, the snare head is tensioned more loosely than usual. Thicker heads also contribute to the development of a definite pitch. Modern production techniques produce drumheads with a very consistent thickness and this, coupled with the fact that the head can be fine-tuned with screws, means that drums can be tuned very precisely.

An earlier method of tuning involved placing the tenor drum on a horizontal base. This prevented the vibrating air inside the instrument from communicating with the outside via the snare head. This created a kind of 'kettle effect' as on the timpani. But this effect detracted from the sound which is why this method is no longer used today.

In his Requiem (1837) Hector Berlioz asks for a tenor drum tuned to Bb to support the timpani roll.

Playing Techniques


In principle the same playing techniques can be performed on the tenor drum as on the snare drum but such complex sequences as on the smaller drum are not usually required. The most important and effective technique on the tenor drum is the roll.

Single stroke

Single strokes are short sounds and are played with either the left or the right hand (L or R) as the drummer prefers.

Double stroke

The drummer makes use of the stick's rebound, allowing it to bounce again after the first beat with the same force by applying pressure with the finger. Also known as mammy-daddy beats or rolled grace notes, depending on the context. (LL or RR).


A sequence of single beats is played either with the left and right hand alternately (LRLR) or as a combination of single and double strokes (LRRLRR or RLLRLL), depending on the rhythm, accentuation and tempo. Repetitions can be performed at a very fast tempo up to roll speed. The paradiddle is a kind of rhythmically accentuated repetition.

Grace notes

Are among the tenor drum's typical techniques.


One faint beat is played as a grace note before the main stroke (lR or rL).


Two faint beats are played as grace notes before the main stroke either as single strokes (lrL or rlR) or as a double stroke (rrL or llR).

Three stroke ruff

Three faint beats are played as grace notes before the main stroke: three alternate single strokes (rlrL or lrlR) or a double stroke plus a single stroke (llrL or rrlR, or rllR and lrrL). At very fast tempos the three grace notes can also be played as a tied trill.

Four stroke ruff

Four faint beats before the main stroke. Possible variations: alternate single strokes (lrlrL or rlrlR) or two double strokes (llrrL or rrllR). At very fast tempos the drummer may choose to play the four grace notes as a tied trill.


This is one of the rudiments of drumming and is used mainly in military music. A rhythmic figure which alternates between a pair of single strokes and a double stroke (mammy-daddy stroke): L R LL R L RR L R LL R L RR etc. This gives the drummer the possibility of lively phrasing.

Tied trills

The drummer strikes the batter head with the drumstick, which he allows to bounce as long as required by the note value. The individual bounces should not be countable or heard as single beats. Multiple ruffs are often played as tied trills.


The supreme drumming technique – a series of strokes which are not perceived as individual beats and are free of accentuation.

Rolls can be performed in various ways:

  • As a rapid series of tied trills alternating between the left and right hand and overlapping. It is essential that the sound of the drumstick making contact with the head is not heard, which is extremely difficult to master. This type of roll is called the press or closed roll.
  • As a series of double strokes (the two-stroke or "legitimate roll"). This is the traditional roll and is preferred by a number of orchestra percussionists. It is the open roll.
  • As a series of single strokes (one-stroke roll). This technique originated on the timpani and was adopted chiefly by rock and pop drummers in the 20th century.

In more recent times, rolls have usually been notated as trills. In older scores they were also notated as tremolos.

Rim shot

The head and rim are struck simultaneously with one drumstick, which results in a cracking noise like a pistol shot. The technique originated in jazz and is extremely difficult to perform with precision.

Stick on stick

The drummer places one of the drumsticks on the drum so that the handle rests on the rim and the tip on the head between the center of the head and the rim. This stick is then struck with the other one. Although the effect is far less impressive, this technique is often used instead of the rim shot, which is extremely difficult to perform with precision.

On the wood

Some early 20th century scores contain the instruction "on the wood" (German: auf dem Holz, French: sur le bois). This was an instruction to strike the rim on the counter hoop, which at that time was still made of wood. Nowadays the wood or metal hoop is struck, or the shell, if this is made of wood.

Sound characteristics

Dark, somber, venerable, menacing, booming, hard, majestic, sonorous, full.

The tenor drum's sound is comparable to that of a snare drum tuned to a lower register and played without snares.

The field drum, played with snares, has a brighter sound, one that is a little less dull and somber. However, the snares have far less influence on the field drum's sound than they do on the snare drum's because they cannot vibrate so strongly owing to the large resonant chamber inside the shell. In terms of register, the tenor and field drum exist some where between the snare drum and the bass drum, in the region of C3.

Sound combinations

Its booming and somber character means that the tenor drum is used mainly to evoke an atmosphere of war. This corresponds with the function of its predecessor, the side or lansquenet drum. For this reason the tenor drum often partners the brass, especially when these are playing fortissimo passages.

The tenor drum covers more or less the tenor register within the orchestra percussion section, while the snare drum corresponds to the treble, the bass drum to the bass register. In this combination the tenor drum mostly performs rolls, while the snare drum plays rhythmic figures and the bass drum provides the underlying beat. Besides the heightening of tension that the tenor drum's rolls provide they also lend the bass drum's single strokes a certain rolling quality. The drum group is often complemented by the timpani.

Timpani + tenor drum rolls produce an intense booming effect that can be further reinforced and extended upward by the snare drum.

Repertoire (selection)

With snares (field drum)

  • Georg Friedrich Handel

    • Music of the Royal Fireworks (1749)
  • Christoph Willibald Gluck

    • Iphigenie auf Tauris (1779)
  • Joseph Haydn

    • Military symphony (1794)
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    • Wellingtons Sieg (1813)
  • Gioacchino Rossini

    • The Thieving Magpie (1817)
  • Richard Wagner

    • Rienzi, Lohengrin, Die WalkĂĽre, Parsifal
  • Richard Strauss

    • Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895)
    • Der Rosenkavalier (1911)
  • Sergei Prokofiev

    • Peter and the wolf (1936)
  • Paul Hindemith

    • Mathis der Maler, opera (1938)
  • Carl Orff

    • Die Bernauerin (1947)
  • Paul Dessau

    • In memoriam Bert Brecht (3 field drums)
  • Richard Mohaupt

    • Die Gaunerstreiche der Courage
  • Arthur Honegger

    • Symphony no. 4 (Deliciae Basiliensis) (1947)

Without snares (tenor drum)

  • Hector Berlioz

    • Requiem (1837)
  • Richard Strauss

    • Ein Heldenleben (1898)
  • Edward Elgar

    • Pomp and Circumstance, 5 orchestra marches (1901–1930)
  • Arthur Honegger

    • Pacific 231 (Mouvement symphonique no 1, 1924)
  • Darius Milhaud

    • Suite Provençale
  • Edgar Varèse

    • Ionisation for 13 percussionists, piano and sirens (1933)
  • Aaron Copland

    • Symphony no. 3 (1944–46)
  • Benjamin Britten

    • The Rape of Lucretia, chamber opera (1946)
    • The Prince of Pagodas, ballet (1957)
  • William Alwyn

    • Symphony no. 2 (1954)
  • Wolfgang Fortner

    • The creation (1955)

Basel drum

  • Rolf Liebermann
    • Geigy Festival Concerto (1958)