concert tom-tom

Also:       toms      

Title: demo: concert tom-toms; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The four individual drums that comprise this set of concert tom-toms (or ‘toms’) are single-headed membranophones with cylindrical bodies. Probably first developed in Europe, they can now be found wherever the Western orchestra is found. It is an auxiliary percussion instrument called for rarely in orchestral and concert band works but more frequently in contemporary solo mixed-percussion and percussion ensemble works. It is one of several membranophone and idiophone instruments on which a band or orchestral percussionist is expected to be proficient; percussionists do not specialize on the tom-tom per se. In recent decades sets of toms with carrier harnesses have been designed for marching band and drum-and-bugle corps use, and in the 1960s the American manufacturer Remo started producing shell-less toms under the name ‘Rototoms™.’


The cylindrical tubular shells of the pictured tom-toms are made of laminate poplar wood with a hard enamel-like exterior coating. While they vary in size (in both their diameter and depth), they are otherwise identical in design. Equally spaced around the circumference of and securely fashioned to the shell are six metal lug assemblies that accept a threaded rod. Each drum’s synthetic membrane is stretched over a metal flesh hoop with a diameter slightly greater than that of the shell it will cover. 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 equidistantly-spaced holes drilled around their bottom rim at points where it has been bent outwards. The six collar holes are aligned with the six lug assemblies, and one of each is connected to the other by a short metal tension-rod. 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 is screwed into the 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 drum’s membrane can be controlled. Various types of beaters can be used to strike the heads (see next paragraph).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drums are side-mounted onto metal stands, each holding two toms stationary with their heads facing upwards and roughly horizontal. Typically, in a set of four concert toms such as the one pictured here, one stand carries the two larger toms, the other the two smaller ones, and they are arranged in a semi-circle with the largest to the standing player’s left and the smallest to the right (the player would be on the far side of the pictured drums facing the camera). Toms, especially single headed ones (see separate entry for tom - double-headed), can be, and are often asked to be by composers, tuned to specific pitches. Each tom in a set can be tuned within a narrow range of pitches, but collectively the drums in a large tom-tom set (manufacturers often offer sets of up to 8-drums), can cover a range of E2 - B-flat3. Depending on the instructions of a work’s composer or the discretion of a conductor, wood, felt-padded, or the player’s fingers can be used to strike the heads. Any standard snare drum rolls, sticking patterns, and embellishments can be used on tom-toms. Tom-toms have a wide dynamics potential (listen to audio example).


Modified Chinese double-headed drums often called tom-toms were incorporated into the evolving trap set used for dance bands in the 1920s and 1930s, and these, eventually, were replaced by double-headed toms. Definitive information on the origin of the concert tom-tom was not found, but since the first works specifying their use date from no earlier than the 1940s this seems like as good a date as any. They involve no new technologies that were not already being used in the design and manufacture of other membranophones of that time. 

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.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.211.2 membranophone--set of single-skin cylindrical drums with single membranes and open ends

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: variable number of drums

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

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


13.4, 14.6, 15.6, 16.5 in. diameters (l. to r.)

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
membrane - synthetic




PTE Series

Entry Author

Roger Vetter