Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Tongue Drum

And now for something completely different, the tongue drum:

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The tongue drum is also known as the slit drum or xylo-slit drum. It is the modern descendant of the ancient log drum. This is a large 14 key unit tuned to a pentatonic scale in G. It can be played with mallets or your fingers (with somewhat of a quick, snapping-back style). The sound is very mellow and pleasing. Organic might be a good term. This particular item came from here.

Besides the tone, what I find interesting about the drum is that unlike most musical instruments, it doesn’t have a “normal” orientation. That is, the instrument can be approached and played from any of its four sides. You just don’t do that with other instruments. Nobody walks up to a piano, lays across the closed lid, and proceeds to play with bass keys to the right and treble to the left. There’s really only one way to hold a saxophone in all practicality. While some people have been known to arrange drum kits in non-standard ways, I don’t know of anything as simple and direct as a tongue drum which exhibits this sort of free-wheeling, play-me-from-any-side nature.

Why would anyone care? Well, the way you interact with an instrument, the way it talks to you and you get it to talk, depends in part on the way you approach it, both figuratively and literally. While my first inclination was play it in the horizontal mode pictured above, it quickly occurred to me that a 180 degree rotation changed the locations of the notes and thus an identical hand pattern produced a different, though related, melody. It was a short step from there to a vertical orientation, more like a glockenspiel than a xylophone. It’s almost like getting four instruments in one.

And ultimately, this reminds of another useful thing about electronic drums, and that’s the ability to assign sounds and pitches anywhere on the kit. I think it’s time to create a few new kits where the tom pitches are lowest toward the front and higher off to the sides.

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    May 13, 2008

    There’s really only one way to hold a saxophone in all practicality.

    Don’t tell Lester Young.

    (I saw Lester’s tenor at the Smithsonian years ago, and although the horn is displayed vertically, the mouthpiece is accurately set at about a 60 degree angle from horizontal.)

  2. #2 JimFiore
    May 13, 2008

    But the fingering is still pretty much the same. Now if he had rotated the mouthpiece 180 degrees and held the sax above his head, we might have something.

    Given the flexibility of MIDI-mapping software, I wonder if there are any pianists/keyboardists out there who have flopped the keyboard (bass to right) or done particularly odd things like highest pitch in center, descending pitches to either side, perhaps with different sounds on either side.

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