Title: The Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; Musica Reservata of London. Label: Vanguard Classics. Format: CD. Catalogue#: OVC 8093/8094. Track: I-59.

Contextual Associations

The tabor is a double-headed membranophone with a shallow cylindrical body and a single snare developed in Europe during the Medieval Period. The tabor, at different times and in different parts of Europe, took on different designs; the modern replica tabor pictured and described here is inspired by iconographic sources dating from the 13th century. Historically, the tabor was struck with a single stick beater by a musician who also played a cylindrical end-blown flute with three fingerholes (a ‘pipe’). Pipe-and-tabor players provided dance music. Eventually eclipsed by the snare/side drum, the tabor was resurrected as a general-purpose drum during the early music movement starting in the mid-20th century. For such early music ensembles, performers often arrange or improvise light percussion parts for performances of dance music.


The cylindrical tubular shell of the tabor is made of laminate wood. A single pressure/vent hole is situated in the middle of the shell, a simple but necessary design feature. Each of the drum’s two mammal skin membranes (possibly goatskin) is stretched over a wood hoop with a diameter slightly greater than that of the shell. Each head is placed over its respective rim opening. The heads are held in place by a long rope lace that is threaded over the head hoop and through a small hole in the membrane of one head before running the length of the drum to be threaded around the hoop of and hole in the other head; this is repeated twelve times resulting in a V-shape lacing pattern. By pulling the lacing as taught as possible, tension is added to the drumheads. A single length of rope is tied across the diameter of one head, anchored at each end to that head’s tension hoop. A single wooden stick with a bulbous head is typically used to strike the snare head.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drum is held by a braided rope handle so the heads are situated vertically and the snare head is closest to the performer. Holding the beater in their free hand, a player strikes the snare head.  The snare produces a characteristic buzz in response to the vibrational pattern of the drumhead (listen to audio example).


The inspiration for the tabor might have come from drums brought back to Europe by returning crusaders in the 13th century. The earliest history of the instrument is known only through representations of it in carvings and manuscripts where it invariably was being performed in tandem with a pipe played by one and the same performer. Tabors appear to have been used primarily for outdoor performance either in courts or for civic events. By the 15th century larger versions of the drum had been developed that were played with two sticks and used in military fife-and drum music. By the middle of the 17th century the tabor fell out of use.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony C. 1984. “Pipe and tabor.” NGDMI v.3: 117-119.

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “3. Side drum [snare drum].” NGDMI v.1: 605-609.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.212.11 membranophone--individual double-skin cylindrical drum, one skin used for playing

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

Number and function of membranes: two, one for sounding and one for resonance

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop connected by lacing to framed membrane hoop

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking with one handheld beater

Sound modifiers for membranophone: snare/s across membrane


11.2 in. diameter of head 4.7 in. depth of shell

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin


Paul Williamson

Entry Author

Roger Vetter