History of the tongue drum

The origin of the tongue drum

What is the tongue drum?

The tongue drum is a percussion instrument in the idiophone family; this means that the material the instrument is made out of actually also produces the sound itself, without the need for strings, a membrane, or external resonator. Other names for it include tank drum, Hank drum or steel tongue drum.

Resembling a flying saucer, it boasts a unique, pleasant timbre that results from hitting the “tongues.” The number of tongues varies by instrument, with each producing a different note.

rammerdrum tongue drum steel tongue drum rammerdrum

The Italian tongue drum Rammerdrum

How to play the tongue drum

The intuitive approach to playing the tongue drum sets it apart from many musical instruments. You don’t need any knowledge of rhythm, percussion, or music theory to play a beautiful tune. It’s impossible to play a bad note, and they all sound good together. You can either play it with your hands or use mallets.

History of the tongue drum

The tongue drum has ancient roots, but the instrument itself as we know it now is relatively new. Dennis Havlena, an American, developed it through some ingenious experiments involving a propane gas tank! The principle is quite simple: cut the bottom off two tanks, weld them together, and then cut out the tongues, whose width and length define the note.

Some continue to manufacture them this way, but nowadays, there are also industrial manufacturing processes.

tongue drum manufacturing

Steel tongue drum manufacturing

Tongue drum scales and types

Tongue drums come in many scales, and more recently, the market offers multi-scale models that allow users to tune the tongue drum to different scales. It’s a great way to play multiple scales without having to buy multiple tongue drums. Moreover, there are even electro-acoustic models that connect to an amp or a sound card for an infinite number of effects (Looper, delay, etc.).

Related instruments : Hang Drum & Handpan

Of course, we have to mention the Hang drum even if this site is not dedicated to it. As a "big brother" to the tongue drum, it does not have tongues, but its surface is hammered in a way that produces different notes. Fun fact: The alternate name for the tongue drum, hank drum, is just a mix between “tank” and “hang drum.”

Hang Drum panart

A Hang Drum from PANArt

Although belonging to the same family, these two instruments do not play quite in the same court, in particular at the level of the budget since basically it will take almost six times the price of a tongue drum to afford a hang drum or handpan...

See tongue drum manufacturers