brake drum

Also:       irons      

Contextual Associations

The brake drum is a percussion vessel idiophone, probably originating in North America in the 20th century. They are repurposed motor vehicle parts used primarily in contemporary American and European percussion ensemble compositions. However, they are also used as part of the ‘engine room’ percussion battery in the steel band music tradition of Trinidad and Tobago. The brake drum is a classic example of an ad hoc or found instrument--an object made for a non-musical purpose being utilized in music making. Professional percussionists active in the performance of contemporary music will often assemble a collection of variously-pitched brake drums from scrapyards.


A brake drum is bowl shaped with a hole at its apex, and is made of metal. Brake drums are molded and come in a variety of diameters and thicknesses, two variables that when taken together determine the relative pitch a brake drum will produce when struck. Metal-headed hammers are used to strike the brake drums. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Typically, the rim of a brake drum is placed on a padded flat surface. The upward-facing flat surface is struck with handheld, metal-headed hammers or hard ball-headed beaters. Sets of relatively-pitched brake drums are assembled by a percussionist as dictated in the directions by the composer of a particular piece. The metal-on-metal striking of a brake drum produces a clear and penetrating sound, like that of an anvil.


The incorporation of brake drums into contemporary Western percussion ensemble music can probably be dated to the late 1930s and credited to John Cage (he calls for four brake drums in his 1939 composition First Construction in Metal) and other like-spirited composers of that time including Lou Harrison. Trinidadians have a long history of using found and repurposed objects as musical instruments (the pans in steel bands are themselves constructed from discarded 55-gallon oil barrels), but we could not find a date for the incorporation of brake drums into the steel band tradition.

Bibliographic Citations

Beck, John H., and James A. Strain. “Percussion Music,” in Grove Music Online, accessed June 27, 2015:

Holland, James. 2005. Practical Percussion. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.

________, and Janet K. Page. “Percussion,” in Grove Music Online, accessed June 27, 2015:


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Formation: cosmopolitan (Euro-American)

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

111.2 idiophone--percussion idiophone: the instrument is struck either with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker) or against a non-sonorous object (human body, the ground)

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: bell-shaped vessel - with opening

Sound objects per instrument: multiple sounded discretely

Resonator design: sonorous object itself is a general resonating space

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: striking - direct

Sound exciting agent: beater/s - mallet-shaped hammer/s

Energy input motion by performer: hammering

Pitch of sound produced: relative pitch

Sound modification: none


9.2 to 13.6 in. diameters

Primary Materials



found objects

Entry Author

Roger Vetter