Contextual Associations

The three individual drums that comprise this set of toms (or ‘tom-toms’) are double-headed membranophones with cylindrical bodies. Probably first developed in the United States or Europe, they can now be found wherever Western jazz and popular musical idioms are found. They are components in a composite instrument called a drum set (see detail photo) that includes other membranophones (see  entries for kick bass and snare drum) as well as idiophones (see suspended cymbal and hi-hat cymbals) all of which are played by a single percussionist.


The cylindrical tubular shells of the pictured toms are made of laminate beech wood. A single metal-rimmed pressure/vent hole is situated in the middle of the shell, a simple but necessary design feature. Equally spaced around the circumference of and securely fashioned to the shell are two rows of six metal lug assemblies (eight on the largest tom). Each lug assembly accepts a threaded tension rod. Each of the drum’s two synthetic membranes is stretched over a metal flesh hoop with a diameter slightly greater than that of the shell. Each head is placed over its respective rim opening, followed by a heavy, flanged, metal collar (or counterhoop) of the same diameter as the flesh hoop. These collars each have six (or eight) equidistantly-spaced holes drilled around their bottom rim at points where it has been bent outwards. These holes are aligned with the lug assemblies and connected by short metal tension-rods. Except for its wider bolt-like head, each tension-rod passes through the eyelet in the collar. The other end of each rod is threaded and screwed into a lug assembly. It is with this above-described mechanism, and with the use of a tuning key, that the amount and evenness of tension on each of the membranes can be independently controlled. Various types of beaters can be used to strike the heads (see next paragraph).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The toms are side-mounted onto metal posts or stands that are parts of other components in the drum set, their playing heads facing upwards and roughly horizontal. They are arranged in a semi-circle with the largest to the seated drum set player’s right and the smallest to the left (the player would be on the far side of the pictured drum set facing the camera). Toms, especially double-headed ones (see separate entry for concert tom-toms, which are single-headed), are tuned relatively to one another. They are most often struck with wooden snare drum sticks, but other sticks (brushes and ones with padded heads) can be used at the player’s discretion. Any standard snare drum rolls, sticking patterns, and embellishments can be used on tom-toms, but they are most frequently struck in succession from high to low, a few strokes on each. Tom-toms have a wide dynamics potential.


Toms involve no design features that were not already being used in the manufacture of other Western membranophones of the early 20th century, especially snare-less field drums. Modified Chinese double-headed drums, often called tom-toms (see second gallery image), had been incorporated into the evolving drum set used for dance bands in the 1920s, and by the 1930s these were being replaced by mounted double-headed toms.

Bibliographic Citations

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

________. 1984. “Tom-tom.” NGDMI v.3: 605.

Brindle, Reginald Smith. 1991. Contemporary Percussion. London: Oxford University Press.

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

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

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

Robinson, J. Bradford. 1984. “Drum set [drum kit, trap set].” NGDMI v.1: 612-613.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.212.21 membranophone--set of double-skin cylindrical drums with single playing heads

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: variable number of drums

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: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to brackets attached to shell

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking with two handheld beaters

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


8 in. diameter (left instrument) 10 in. depth (left instrument) 9 in. diameter (center instrument) 12 in. depth (center instrument) 12 in. diameter (right instrument) 14 in. depth (right instrument)

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
membrane - synthetic




TT612, TT610, TT614

Entry Author

Roger Vetter