To understand the origin of percussion we must go back to the dawn of humankind. The word percussion comes from the Latin percutere meaning to strike or hit.
Percussion combines rhythm, sound, pulse and vibration. It evokes the link between material things and the gestures of human life. Hitting, shaking, rubbing, scraping, pouring small seeds or stones – these are all gestures that produce sound which, when put into a musical context, are the principal actions of percussionists. We only have to watch children clapping their hands or shaking a rattle to notice that from a very young age, these gestures are engrained in human activity.
It is only natural that percussive gestures are combined with materials found around the individual. If we look at the components of percussion instruments we see that they are both natural materials – minerals, plants, animals – and the product of human craftsmanship. Humans fashion musical instruments from what is found around them. Who has not played as a child by banging together stones picked up from the ground? These so-called stones were already used in the Neolithic age to make phonolites or lithophones. One of these specimens was found in the Baconian massif Ndut Lien Krak in southern Vietnam dating from before the age of polished stone. Later, in the Bronze Age, the introduction of metal into daily life brought another dimension to sound – resonance. This sound, long or short, brilliant or dull, evoked the relationship between man and the space around him. The existence of resonant instruments is recorded in China in the first millennium. Later on, pottery inspired the invention of new instruments some of which are drums like the derbouka.
Over time, improvement in techniques of working with materials created a wide variety in the construction of musical instruments producing richer and richer sonorities. Different kinds of resonant drums evolve; methods of fixing skins improves; metal work changes and becomes more precise. Thus, little by little, instruments appear with defined pitches – producing what modern humans call notes.
A hollowed out tree trunk becomes a wooden drum, but can also eventually become a xylophone, a marimba or simply a wooden stick. Fruit and berry seeds as well as small stones and nuts, are at the origin of maracas, rain sticks, tabacas, and many different sizes of bells and rattling instruments. The action of enclosing small objects inside a container, then shaking it, produces highly original and unique sounds because the sound made by seeds or stones is related to the sound box itself and the material from which it is made. Also, the first bells were invented by choosing a pebble or a large seed, among a multitude of other possibilities, then suspending it so it can hit against metal, a block of wood, or the inside of a drum.
From the many gestures of everyday life, humans opened up the world of sound and music with percussion.
The fact that percussion is so close to human activity confers the distinction of having no geographical boundaries. Indeed, from one hemisphere to another, it has been found on all the continents through millennia. Of course, its function varies widely according to cultures and epochs. In antiquity, one attributes to metal instruments the power to chase off demons. Certain drums appeared during seed sowing ceremonies as a symbol of fertility. Others like the naker (ancestor of the kettle drum and tympani) were used in combat. During the Seige of Acre by the Muslims in 1291, more than 600 nakers were heard beating during the assault.