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The Drum: A History by Matt Dean (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 743-744 | 10.1353/not.2013.0055

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Matt Dean is a working drummer based in London who has written instructional articles for a number of magazines. In this, his first book, he aims to provide a comprehensive history of drums and drumming from ancient times right up to the latest innovations in both popular and concert music, and the results are decidedly mixed.

The strongest section is the 135-page chapter on “The Modern Drum Kit.” With a little expansion, this could easily have been published as an independent volume. Dean begins this portion of his history in the vaudeville pit, where the need to save space and keep the number of paid players to a minimum led to the development of ingenious arrangements of several percussion instruments so that they could be easily played by a single musician. From these practical beginnings, Dean traces the development of the set as it was used in swing and jazz; rock and roll (of the 1950s variety); skiffle and beat; rock; pop; funk; disco; heavy metal; fusion; hip-hop, jungle, and drum and bass music; and finally reggae. For each genre, he describes the characteristic styles of drumming, and how the equipment and the style influenced each other. He also names many influential drummers, including many studio players not well known to the general public. While discussing modern players, Dean can sometimes get a bit bogged down in detailed specifications of some of their drum setups. He is also given to occasional digressions into realms of pop history only tangentially related to drumming. An example is a paragraph on how The Monkees “paved the way for the future of manufactured pop” (p. 242). However, these diversions tend to be brief, and the observations spot on, even if not really having anything much to do with drums and drumming. Overall, this chapter is quite readable, and easily the most informative portion of the book.

The longest portion of the book is the series of chapters devoted to the history of drums around the world. For each region, Dean begins with the earliest anthropological evidence of the drum and traces the development and use of percussion instruments at least up to early modern times. The coverage ranges broadly, touching upon nearly every nation and culture within each region, but is not particularly deep. Much of the discussion of the role of drumming is provided by anecdotes culled from books, many published in the first half of the last century, so that often a sense of the larger context is missing. The end result is a decent overview that conveys the idea that drums have assumed an important role in indigenous music making almost everywhere in the world, but readers interested in learning much more about any particular drum or culture will be better served by starting with relevant articles in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (New York: Garland, 1998).

In between these two sections, “The European Orchestra” dispenses with the evolution of orchestral percussion from the middle ages to the twenty-first century in a mere thirty-five pages. Dean has a penchant here, as in the anthropological chapters, to mention exceptional facts as though they were representative of common trends, such as his mention of timpani being tuned in diminished fifths in the classic era, and pieces being “scored involving up to ten kettledrums, still involving flamboyant performances with the performers racing between the drums and flinging the sticks in the air in some cases” (p. 172). While such pieces do exist, they were hardly thick on the ground. Dean is more successful in describing the evolution of tuning mechanisms for the timpani.

The balance of the book has the distinct feel of padding. There is a brief chapter on snare drum rudiments and rudimental drumming, much of which is taken up simply with lists of rudiment names. There are also short chapters on drum heads, drumsticks, practice kits and education, and some of the technical issues around recording drums. Most interesting of these brief fillers is the chapter on women drummers. While some of Dean’s assertions about ancient times are a bit suspect, the section ranging from the all-girl jazz bands of the 1930s to the...

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