snare drum

Also:       side drum      tambour militaire      caisse Claire      kleine Trommel      Militärtrommel      Schnarrtrommel      tamburo militare      tamburo piccolo      

Title: demo: snare drum; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Contextual Associations

The snare drum, also commonly called the ‘side drum,’ is a double-headed membranophone with a cylindrical body developed in Europe but that is now found throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females. The snare drum is a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra, marching and concert bands, military bugle, fife and bagpipe field units, modern competitive drum and bugle corps, and percussion ensembles; it is also a basic component of the drum set and therefore utilized in jazz, rock and popular idioms of all sorts. It is one of several membranophone and idiophone instruments on which a band or orchestral percussionist it expected to be proficient; percussionists do not specialize on the snare drum per se. The snare drum has no solo literature to speak of, although for school solo competitions there are arrangements of various rolls and rudiments (distinct beating patterns and embellishments) that can be performed unaccompanied. It is often included in the instrumentation for solo mixed-percussion works and for percussion ensemble works (see ensemble entry for ’Mixed Percussion Ensembles’). Outside of European cosmopolitan music making, the snare drum has come to be utilized in myriad local offshoots of European military band music that colonialists and missionaries used in their efforts to control and convert the world’s diverse populations.


The cylindrical tubular shells of the snare drums pictured in gallery #1 are made of laminate birchwood (left) and metal (a brass alloy; aluminum is also often used). 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 and centered between its rims are ten rectangular metal lug assemblies that accept a threaded rod at each end. 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 metal collar (or counterhoop) of the same diameter as the flesh hoop. These collars each have ten equidistantly-spaced holes drilled around their bottom rim at points where it has been bent outwards. The ten collar holes are aligned with the ten lug assemblies, and one of each is connected to the other by a 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 screwed into a lug bolt located at the end of 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 of the membranes can be independently controlled. The bottom-facing ‘snare’ head has several parallel strands of wire (called ‘snares,’ detail #1) running across its center (detail #2); when the upward-facing (or ‘batter’) head is struck, it sets the bottom head into sympathetic vibration and into contact with the snares, creating the characteristic buzz quality associated with this drum. (A lever on the side of the drum shell allows the performer to bring the snares in and out of action.) A pair of wooden stick beaters with acorn-shaped heads (detail #3) is typically used to strike the batter head. The snare/side drum pictured in gallery #2 is in principle the same as the drums pictured in gallery #1 with these differences: its brass shell is considerably deeper; its heads are made from mammal hide; its counterhoops are made from wood; the tension of its heads are controlled with a rope running through the counterhoops and that zig-zags across the length of the shell with consecutive passes of the rope bundled together with sliding leather rings; and its snares are made from gut (detail #4).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The drum can either be set on a stand (as pictured in gallery #1) or, with the aid of a shoulder strap, hung to the left side of the player (thus the name ‘side drum’) for mobile performance. The batter head is struck with two sticks, one in each of the player's hands. Snare drum parts consist of various types of rolls, sticking patterns, and embellishments for which special notational symbols have been established. Sometimes ‘brush’ sticks are called for, which consist of numerous strands of fine wire bundled together at the handle-end and produce a markedly different sound from the regular sticks. The drum can also be played with the snare off, i.e., not in contact with the snare head. One further sound quality, called a rim shot, is produced by forcefully striking the batter head’s metal collar with the stick, but not the head itself (the drum momentarily becomes an idiophone rather than a membranophone). The snare drum has a wide dynamic range (listen to audio example). For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [skip to 8:56 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the snare drum].


The most likely European antecedent to the snare drum was the tabor. By the late 16th century, side drums were being played with two sticks, had their snares situated on the bottom head (in counter distinction to the tabor), and made use of a tension counterhoops. Such drums were used for military music, an association that remains to the present day. A few 18th century orchestral and operatic works called for the snare drum, usually to index the military. Up until the 1830s snare drums were rope tensioned (like the gallery #2 instrument), but in 1837 a British instrument maker came up with a screw-tensioning mechanism (like the gallery #1 instruments). This coincided with a greater interest on the part of composers of that time to more regularly include the snare drum in their works. By the turn of the 20th century the snare drum could be considered a standard member of the orchestral percussion section. In the U.S.A., some of the late 19th century and early 20th century musical idioms such as circus music and various military-band derived secular entertainments coalesced into jazz, and the snare drum was one of the instruments typically used by early jazz band percussionists. The greatest innovations in recent decades have been in the materials used for drumheads. While mammal hides are still available, most drums today come equipped with heads made from a wide variety of plastic/synthetic compounds.

Bibliographic Citations

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.

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

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

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: 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: snare/s across membrane


14 in. diameter 6.5 in. depth of shell

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
membrane - synthetic
wire - snare





Entry Author

Roger Vetter