What is a Frame Drum? All You Want to Know

by Madonna

The frame drum is a musical instrument that boasts an ancient lineage, possibly making it the first drum ever invented. This versatile and widespread instrument has permeated various cultures around the world, embodying a range of traditions and playing techniques. In this article, we will explore the definition and origin of the frame drum, its construction and materials, playing techniques and styles, and the varieties and names it goes by in different regions. Through this journey, we will appreciate the frame drum’s rich history and cultural significance.

What is a Frame Drum? Definition and Origin

A frame drum is one of the most ancient musical instruments known to humankind, potentially representing the earliest form of drum ever created. The simplicity and effectiveness of its design have allowed it to endure through millennia, adapting to various musical and cultural contexts. The frame drum is characterized by its single drumhead, which is typically made from rawhide. However, modern versions of the drum may use man-made materials to accommodate different preferences and environmental considerations.


The defining feature of a frame drum is its greater drumhead width compared to its depth. This unique characteristic distinguishes it from other types of drums, which often have a more balanced ratio between the drumhead and the depth of the shell. The wide drumhead allows for a resonant and versatile sound, making the frame drum suitable for various musical styles and settings.


Construction and Materials

1. The Round Wooden Frame

At the heart of a frame drum is its round wooden frame, also known as the shell, which holds the drumhead in place. Traditionally, the frame is crafted from high-quality woods such as rosewood, oak, or ash. These materials are chosen for their durability and acoustic properties, which contribute to the overall sound quality of the drum. The construction process involves bending the wood into a circular shape and joining the ends together using a technique called scarf jointing. This method ensures a strong and seamless connection, allowing the frame to withstand the tension of the drumhead.


2. Traditional and Modern Materials

While traditional frame drums are made from natural materials, modern advancements have introduced the use of plywood and man-made materials in their construction. Plywood offers a cost-effective and stable alternative to solid wood, making frame drums more accessible to a broader audience. Additionally, synthetic drumheads made from materials like Mylar provide consistent sound quality and are less susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature compared to rawhide.

3. Enhancements: Metal Rings and Jingles

To add a layer of complexity and richness to the sound, some frame drums are equipped with metal rings or jingles attached to the frame. These additions create a shimmering, rhythmic accent that enhances the drum’s overall sonic palette. The inclusion of metal elements varies by region and cultural tradition, reflecting the diverse ways in which the frame drum has been adapted and personalized over time.

Playing Techniques and Styles

1. Hand Techniques and Finger Artistry

Frame drums are primarily played by hand, allowing for a wide range of expressive possibilities. Players use their fingers, palms, and sometimes their fists to strike the drumhead, producing different tones and rhythms. The subtle variations in touch and pressure enable skilled musicians to create intricate patterns and dynamic contrasts. Techniques such as finger rolls, slaps, and taps are commonly employed to achieve a nuanced and lively performance.

2. Beaters and Mallets

In addition to hand techniques, beaters or mallets can be used to play the frame drum. This approach is less common but can be found in specific musical traditions and contexts. Using beaters allows for a different texture and attack, offering another dimension to the instrument’s versatility. The choice of playing method often depends on the musical genre, cultural background, and personal preference of the musician.

3. Cultural Variations and Ceremonial Uses

The frame drum’s playing styles and techniques vary significantly across different cultures. For instance, in many Middle Eastern traditions, the drum is played with a focus on rapid finger movements and intricate rhythms. In contrast, Irish frame drum players might use a more steady and rhythmic approach, often accompanying folk dances and songs.

Larger frame drums are frequently used in spiritual and ceremonial settings. In some cultures, these drums are played by men during rituals and ceremonies to invoke a sense of communal unity and spiritual connection. Medium-sized frame drums, on the other hand, are often played by women and are integral to various traditional dances and celebrations. The drum’s role in these contexts highlights its significance beyond mere musical expression, serving as a vital element of cultural and spiritual identity.

SEE ALSO: How to Play Samba Drums?

Regional Diversity of Frame Drums

Frame drums come in a wide variety of forms, each with unique characteristics and cultural significance. Here are some notable examples from different regions around the world:

Bendir (North Africa, Turkey): The Bendir is a traditional frame drum used in North African and Turkish music. It often features a snare across the back of the drumhead, creating a buzzing sound that adds to its distinctive timbre.

Bodhrán (Ireland): The Bodhrán is an Irish frame drum that has become a staple of Celtic music. It is typically played with a wooden beater called a tipper, producing a rich, resonant sound that drives the rhythm of traditional Irish tunes.

Daf (Iran, Middle East): The Daf is a Persian frame drum used in both classical and folk music of Iran and the broader Middle East. It often has metal rings or jingles attached to the frame, adding a bright, metallic shimmer to its deep, resonant tones.

Tambourine (Europe, USA): The Tambourine is a well-known frame drum that features small metal jingles called zills. It is used in a variety of musical genres, from classical and folk to pop and rock, making it one of the most versatile frame drums.

Other Frame Drums from Around the World

In addition to the well-known varieties mentioned above, there are numerous other frame drums that reflect the instrument’s global reach and adaptability:

Adufe (Portugal): A square frame drum with origins in Portuguese folk music, often played by women in religious ceremonies and festivals.

Buben (Eastern Europe): A traditional Slavic frame drum used in folk music, often featuring jingles or small cymbals attached to the frame.

Crowdy-crawn (Cornwall, UK): A Cornish frame drum typically used in traditional Cornish music and dance.

Kanjira (South India): A small frame drum used in classical Carnatic music, often made with a lizard-skin drumhead and played with rapid finger techniques.

Pandeiro (Brazil): A Brazilian frame drum that resembles a tambourine, used extensively in samba and other Afro-Brazilian musical styles.

Riq (Middle East): A small, high-pitched frame drum with jingles, used in Arabic classical and folk music.


The frame drum stands as a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of early human cultures. Its simple yet effective design has allowed it to transcend time and geography, becoming a cherished instrument in various musical traditions around the world. From its ancient origins to its modern adaptations, the frame drum continues to captivate musicians and audiences alike with its rich, resonant sound and versatile playing techniques.

Whether in the hands of a skilled musician performing complex rhythms or a participant in a communal ceremony, the frame drum serves as a powerful symbol of musical and cultural heritage. Its enduring presence in diverse musical genres underscores its importance as one of the foundational instruments in the history of music. By understanding the frame drum’s construction, playing techniques, and cultural significance, we gain a deeper appreciation for this ancient instrument and its lasting impact on the world of music.


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