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I was wondering why doesn't most classical music use drums? For example when I type in "classical music" on youtube, most of the music I hear doesn't have drums. Take Bach, Mozart, Beethoven as an example of what I mean. I saw that some orchestras have drums, but the drums usually accent the music rather than drive it.

In contrast, today's music is built on top of drums. It usually starts with a beat and then melody/harmony is layered on top of it, especially in Hip hop and EDM. But in classical music they don't put as much emphasis on drums or beats. I was wondering why this is so?

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    Symphony with drum-roll by Haydn just to mention the most obvious? – guidot Dec 17 '19 at 7:48
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    The term 'classical' needs defining in this question. That in itself can make a huge difference to answers. – Tim Dec 17 '19 at 11:24
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    Ravel Bolero? Khachaturian Sword Dance? Copland Fanfare for the Common Man? All with lots of drums. – Brian THOMAS Dec 17 '19 at 12:59
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's just plain wrong. – Carl Witthoft Dec 17 '19 at 14:33
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    How about asking something more specific like, why isn't Western classical music composed between the years 1750-1850 driven by drums and percussion? Why did they use drums and percussion mainly for accenting, not driving the music? Why are there no polyrhythms? Why is there a conductor, not a drummer driving the music? Why does Western music need to have a beginning and end, why can't music just be played for hours or days? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '19 at 10:04

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What you are thinking of as "drums" is really a collection of drums, percussion & cymbals gathered together in such a way as they can be played by one person. A drum kit or trap kit.

This idea came about initially at the end of the US civil war. Until then, marching bands had always been on the move - one drum per drummer was the standard setup.
Drummers in orchestras would also be booked one man per drum, but in smaller theatres with lower budgets, people were trying to come up with methods to reduce the costs.
The first of these was a snare & bass drum, with an overhanging pedal arrangement so one man could play both. Because techniques were still based on marching - we got the bass drum on the 1 & 3.. blend that with early jazz & vaudeville had begun.

Drummers would supplement this basic setup with maybe a cymbal, as Chinese immigrants brought that idea with them & a whole set of things to rattle, blow & bang - tambourines, swanee whistles, wood blocks & cow bells - which they would keep on a tray above the bass drum. This was their 'contraption tray', abbreviated to trap… from where we get the modern definition of a trap kit.

Add to that a couple of Chinese tom drums, then the last part to really complete what we think of as a modern kit came in 1926 with the invention of the hi-hat stand.

So, TL:DR pre-20th century orchestras didn't use drum kits because they didn't yet exist.

Also see Zildjian/Vic Firth's A Century of Drum Set Evolution with Daniel Glass. Well worth a watch.

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    This answer has a lot of interesting information, but I don’t think it answers the question. You explain why classical music didn’t use a drum kit, but the question is about how drums are used within the music, which is quite different. Plenty of non-modern genres (in Western classical tradition and elsewhere) use regular drum patterns as a constant driving force much like how modern pop, hiphop, etc do; conversely, plenty of modern pieces use drum kits, but in ways much more like the classical/romantic use of percussion, as a seasoning not a substrate. – PLL Dec 19 '19 at 20:11
  • Yup, and lots of other people have already covered that. I read the "question within the question" & answered that, Vote up which answers you like & vote down those you don't like. I'm not going to be modifying my own answer to cover the myriad new viewers who only found this because it hit the HNQ list. – Tetsujin Dec 19 '19 at 20:14
  • Fair enough — I’m not asking you to modify the answer, I’m just following the etiquette that when one downvotes, one should leave a comment explaining it. – PLL Dec 19 '19 at 20:21
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    @PLL - ahh, fair point. I actually hadn't even noticed it had attracted downvotes. As always happens when a question hits HNQ, vote numbers just go out of all proportion to any 'normal' question & any fairly short answers already leading the votes also get disproportionally high extra votes… then come the comments as to why the answer isn't 'perfect' & covers all eventualities. The answer to that is really just 'it was a quick response to what at the time was a rather vague question' - it's only since it hit HNQ that more scrutiny has been applied. – Tetsujin Dec 20 '19 at 8:46
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Classical music did use drums: timpani and bass drum for starters.

...I'm talking where the rhythm is one of the main driving forces

Rhythm IS a driving force in classical music.

I think what you mean is a combination of: why didn't classical music use constant, repeated, dance patterns? and why didn't classical music use percussion throughout the orchestration of music as a principle instrument?

To the extent that sonata form is the epitome of classical form, repetitious dance patterns were not the norm, because sonata form focuses on different treatment of rhythm. Basically sonata form uses repetition on a much larger scale. It's a bit like asking why a novelist doesn't write all their prose in rhyming couplets... they don't because it's a different form. Sonata form doesn't use dance rhythm, because it isn't dance music.

Why percussion isn't used constantly in classical music can also be explained historically. The history of composition which eventually leads to the classical style starts with purely vocal sacred music, as music evolved wind and string instruments supported the voices, keyboard instruments also developed during those times, secular forms (like the madrigal) used instrumentation more or less similar to sacred. Within that historic context percussion would be associated with folk dance or martial music!

Fast forward to the styles that evolve into jazz - featuring drums as a principle instrument - and we see that the march genre is the direct ancestor! March > ragtime > jazz > popular blues > rock > disco. In other words, martial music, the march, is the form that evolves into jazz and various pop forms familiar now.

So, classical music didn't focus on percussion as a principle instrument like today's pop styles, because the style evolved from sacred vocal music rather than martial music.

Of course the are exceptional cases like Ravel's Bolero featuring the snare drum. Is that classical? Regardless, such exceptions don't make the rule.


Just a comment about folk dance. Obviously folk dance historically uses percussion. I regard that music as not the historic source for the development of classical style. So, for this question I don't compare modern pop with folk dance. Classical music did borrow from folk dance for effect - ex. musette - but folk dance wasn't the evolutionary origin of the classical style.

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    Nitpick: march and martial have different origins and meanings. To march comes from the French marche, or to walk, but martial is from Mars, the Roman god of war. I would remove references to martial music. – jcupitt Dec 19 '19 at 11:24
  • @jcupitt, I wasn't making an etymological connection. But, you were to make that connection, it would be: martial troops march, musical marches are an extension of that martial activity of marching. Marches are in fact martial music. – Michael Curtis Jun 30 at 13:52
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There's always been popular rhythm-based music that used drums and 'art music' that didn't so much.

Here's some pre-classical music.

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  • Nice Yt link, got there to have an ear, stayed for the comments :D – Kaddath Dec 17 '19 at 13:51
  • I do like your link so +1, but you know what I mean by 'classical'. – user34288 Dec 17 '19 at 16:39
  • Medieval music has changed since I was young and it still had a dipthong. (Remember Strangers on the Shawm?) I love the one that just refuses to lie down. Wild stuff, Laurence - thank you. – Old Brixtonian Dec 18 '19 at 0:35
  • Oh man I have that video in my favorites! – Renan Dec 18 '19 at 19:29
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Your post hints at a common misconception: that Classical music is "old music" and Popular music is "new music". Both traditions go way back, and continue to this day.

The definitions are sometimes contentious, but to get started, here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Art music:

Art music (alternatively called classical music, cultivated music, serious music, and canonic music) is music that implies advanced structural and theoretical considerations or a written musical tradition. The terms "serious" or "cultivated" are frequently used in relation to music in order to present a contrast with ordinary, everyday music (i.e. popular and folk music, also called "vernacular music"). At the beginning of the 20th century art music was divided into "serious music" and "light music".

Popular music;

Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training. It stands in contrast to both art music and traditional or "folk" music. Art music was historically disseminated through the performances of written music, although since the beginning of the recording industry, it is also disseminated through recordings. Traditional music forms such as early blues songs or hymns were passed along orally, or to smaller, local audiences.

I personally don't like these definitions, as the definition for Art music (and the name itself) is inherently derogatory of Popular and Folk music. So I prefer the term Classical. I also tend to lump Folk music in with Popular, as they're both music which is intentionally simple (so that it can be easily repeated, often by amateur musicians) and designed to have wide appeal.

Arguments about definitions aside, the fact remains that Classical music is a response to Popular/Folk music. Folk music goes back to the earliest musical instruments that humans created, and Classical music takes those ideas and makes them as impressive as possible, in both construction and technical difficulty. Classical music has long forms like Sonata form and multi-movement symphonies, while Popular tends to use things like strophic or verse-chorus form. Classical music is written for extremely difficult instruments like violin, while Popular music is written for relatively simple instruments like guitar (and historically, guitar-like instruments such as the lute) and drums.

So that's the short answer: drums are too easy to play, and drum beats make for too simple of music.

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    "drum beats make for too simple of music" should be "the western culture has traditionally been rhythmically very limited, so the only rhythmic things that would cross anyone's mind have been simple" Harmonically rich, rhythmically poor. :) So if your answer is based on the idea that drums are easy to play, it's a misconception and -1 for that. Drums are easy to play only if you settle for dumb simple rhythms. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Dec 17 '19 at 8:18
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    Whatever the difficulty level of the violin is, it hasn't stopped people from regularly involving it in folk music (often as a "fiddle"). – Dekkadeci Dec 17 '19 at 12:06
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - How come none of the music class drum circles I've ever been involved in have ever been complete flops, then? You'd think that a class of more than 15 students under the age of 13 would be one of the most likely groups that would be collectively unable to get their rhythmic act together, but they never devolved into white noise or a continuous drum roll. – Dekkadeci Dec 17 '19 at 12:10
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    "drum beats make for too simple of music" You should change this into: Some people don't know who Terry Bozzio or Mike Portnoy are and are thus prone to silly statements. – Douwe Dec 17 '19 at 13:46
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    Sometimes "classical" means European music written during a certain span of years. Sometimes "classical" refers to a similar golden age for some other genus of music. Sometimes "classical" refers to music performed by professional musicians, dressed in formal black and white, performing before a seated, respectful audience, and playing from a score that was commissioned by some wealthy patron of the arts. Hard to say--maybe futile to say--which definition is the correct one. – Solomon Slow Dec 17 '19 at 16:25
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You are right that rhythm is usually not that important part of the classical music as for hip-hop or EDM. However, the dividing line does not go between classical and popular music as MattPutnam’s answer suggests. The criterion is whether the music is intended to be used for dance (or march) or for listening (concerts).

For dancing and marching, the strong rhythm feeling is important while it might be superfluous or even disturbing if you are seated and listening to a classical concert. The concert music rather focuses on melodic and harmonic parts of the music, the rhythm and tempo can also vary more likely. And if you are used to listening to the concert music, you’ll feel the rhythm just from the beats played by the melodic/harmonic instruments.

There are music pieces considered to be classical and use drums intensively. They mostly suggest dance music like Ravel’s Bolero or waltzes by Strauss. Anyway, there are not just two types of music, we could very well create a whole spectrum of music based on their rhythmicity. At the other end of the spectrum than very rhythmic EDM (i.e. Electronic dance music), we could probably find some of the church music, especially the Gregorian chant.

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    Looking at e.g. Chopin Waltzes or even Bach French Suites I don't agree with the dance/no dance boundary; I also don't recognize dancing and listening as complements. – guidot Dec 17 '19 at 14:51
  • Nevertheless, even church music may make heavy use of drums nowadays. In my church, we actually have a full rock-band line-up with drums, E-guitar, A-guitar, and keys. Other modern stuff like colored lights also have entered the scene. It's really a shift in paradigm that we witnessed in the west over the last century: Away from total focus on melody and harmony towards a more inclusive approach to music that embraces rythmic parts and generally uses whatever seems to make a good addition. – cmaster - reinstate monica Dec 19 '19 at 15:07
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Since it is Christmas, what about the first movement of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, with a drum solo right at the beginning.

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    Just so no-one impatient is confused, the Bach (with the drums) starts at 1:01, before that there are just church bells. This was also the first piece I thought of, but it does not really answer the question why drums play a different role, nor demonstrate that they do not: to me they see more a dramatic flourish than the basis on which the rest is built. But I could not resist voting up anyway! – PJTraill Dec 19 '19 at 19:16
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Historically speaking, classical music is largely from a Western European musical tradition that has never had much all that much emphasis (comparatively) on rhythm nor percussion --choosing instead to focus on the development of complex melodies and harmonic progressions.

In contrast modern popular music is all heavily influenced by music of the African Diaspora (blues, jazz, hip-hop, reggae, bossa-nova, etc.) which has always tended to have a strong percussive, drum-based element, going back to its African roots. So the disparity represents the different cultural origins of those types of music. There's probably no one identifiable reason why drums became less prominent in one culture's music than another --isolated artistic traditions always tend to diverge in one way or another.

It's worth noting, however, that this article argues that the relatively simple rhythms of modern pop music (as opposed to the highly complex and elaborated polyrhythms of African and Latin American music) are a result of its status as a hybrid of both African and European musical traditions (the same, perhaps, could also be said about its relatively simple harmonic progressions).

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Try Callirhoe - Ballet Symphonique, by the near forgotten Cecile Chaminade (BBC Concert Orchestra). Huge deep bass drum drives and underpins lively very-French and (I venture to say) very feminine composition. On the CD go to track 11. You need sub bass speaker strong down to bottom E for real thrill - as with many music genres. By the way, Alexa just apologises and goes away.

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Percussion was the last (but not least!) family to be incorporated into symphonic orchestras, since most percussion instruments and percussive elements used in classic music were developed in late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s a lot of historical reasons for this, but most are based in sound balance between instruments (and their blended sounds) and, at a later time, families. Same happened with instruments too mainstream today, as piccolo and trumpets - and still happens with others, as saxophones and guitars.

The music for large forms and operatic effects were some of the factors that drove percussion into a full family. A great anecdote of this topic is the anvil. It was first thought and used as a music instrument by Verdi and Wagner, in operas composed almost in the same year (Il Trovatore and Das Rheingold). Both composers faced similar needs (blacksmithing in scene) and had almost the same idea. Wagner grew a little megalomaniac about it and placed 18 anvils on stage, tuned in F, in a 3 octaves span. How for God’s sake he got tuned anvils in 1850’s I don’t know, hahaha.

But some instruments were there since the beginning consorts, pre-orchestra era: timpani, drums (snare and bass are the greatest examples), lots of cymbals, gongs, thunder sheets, tambourine...

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In pop music drums are used for utilitarian reasons of keeping time for everyone else to be sloppy about it. Classically trained musicians are independent units capable of keeping their own time according to the score. That's even more impressive in that the vast majority of pop/rap/rock is primitive common time, whereas a lot of especially later classical contain complex time signatures and poly rhythms.

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    "In pop music drums are used for utilitarian reasons of keeping time for everyone else to be sloppy about it." Or maybe they are a voice in the music in their own right and can be very simple like Meg White plays them or incredibly complex like Terry Bozzio plays them. – Douwe Dec 17 '19 at 13:53
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    @netfliks Hi netfliks! It's good to see you getting involved! You make a good point about the complex rhythms and time signatures of C20th and C21st classical music, and many here would agree, but the tone of "for everyone else to be sloppy about it" won't make you many friends! There are people here who are into all sorts of music: even pop music! – Old Brixtonian Dec 17 '19 at 14:36
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    If all members of an orchestra were keeping time on their own solely via the score, they wouldn't need a conductor, but conductors are still in common use to this day, and often considered the stars of the performance. (If you hear a classical piece on the radio, they'll generally give the conductor's name and the name of the orchestra, possibly a soloist, but none of the other performers.) – Darrel Hoffman Dec 18 '19 at 19:12
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    Seconding @DarrelHoffman's point. For example I have two recordings of Finlandia. When Sir John Barbirolli is conducting it lasts 8:16, but Herbert von Karajan takes 9:18 - one minute difference. If the musicians were to keep time on their own, what would happen? – Jyrki Lahtonen Dec 19 '19 at 7:18
  • Drummers are the new conductors! – YvesgereY Dec 19 '19 at 17:01