Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 1 research, Part 1: Snare Drum’s Dance-like Character

I have always been fond of the snare drum’s sound. With its unique, secco quality of strokes, that peculiar rattling timbre would always sneak up stealthily, like a snake creeping through the sand. And it’s that strange feeling of something mysterious that captured me.

Although, I was, with no doubt, aware of the military customs of the snare drum, I chose to explore its other side -its dance-like character. Dance is nothing new to the snare drum, as can be traced back with its origins. Medieval tabor (Fig. 1a), its direct predecessor, was used in certain countries as a folk instrument.


Fig.1a. Medieval tabor

It was often joined by the pipe (Fig.1b). As Gauthreaux (19) points out, this was the practice as early as 1260. One of the examples he listed is a thirteenth century reference of the duo, in a poem by Colin Muset where it is mentioned that the flaihutel was played “avec le tabor.” Philip Heseltine, in the preface to the English translation of Jehan Tabourot’s Orchesography: A Treatise in the Form of a Dialogue in 1589, also tells us that in England, the pipe and tabor is a very ancient combination of instruments, under the name of whittle and dub. This combination of tabor and pipe survived into the 20th century and the tradition remains unbroken in today’s southern France (Provence region) and northern Spain (Basque and Catalonia). (KitePowell, 2007: 197)The chief function of the pipe and tabor was to provide music for dancing.



Fig. 1b. Illustration of a player playing tabor and pipe

Gauthreaux (23) mentions that according to Blades, already in the thirteenth century, the tabor began to appear in larger forms. This was partly since the armies of western Europe were influenced by the customs of their oriental foes. Over time, tabor has changed and increased in size into larger field drums, but “how or why the tabor, which was played with one stick, evolved into the side drum, played with two sticks, is a difficult question to answer.” (26) A version found in Swiss called the Basel drum, was one of the first that was used for military functions in combination with another wind instrument – fife. (Fig. 3) “The association of the fife and drum is recorded as early as 1332 in the Chronicles of Basel.” (23) However, Grieder writes that “The first use of fifes and drums by Swiss army units is confirmed in a chronicle of the battle of Sempach in 1386.” (Grieder, 2007: 147) By the late 15th century it’s evident that Swiss mercenary foot soldiers introduced the instrument to much of western Europe.


Fig. 3. Drum and fife

It’s interesting to note that even this combination, the “fife and drum”, like its predecessor the “pipe and tabor,” occasionally accompanied dancing, like basse danse. “The use of the snare drum in accompanying stylized dances of the fifteenth and sixteenth century appears to have had a direct influence on the use of the snare drum at social functions in accompanying dance music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” (Gauthreaux, 25)

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, military bands flourished throughout Europe and America. In addition to their military duties, these bands were often called to  entertain the troops, usually in the form of dances or concerts. This use of military bands eventually extended to concerts held in town squares and halls. Composers of this time had heard the snare drum military bands playing music designed for entertainment. Several examples of music from the eighteenth century written in triple meter (3/8 and 3/4) and intended for military bands are included in George Kastner’s Manuel général de musique militaire à l’usage des armées français of 1848. Pieces in triple meter were rarely used in military maneuvers requiring marching and were often used as short concert pieces, much as they are today.

“The main difference between military and nonmilitary use of the snare drum in social or functional music, lies in the rhythmic treatment of the snare drum. As expected, the role of the snare drum in military works involve intricate parts and constant rhythms usually with little or no resting.”

But, in nonmilitary treatment, as in the waltzes by Lanner and Strauss, the function and use of the snare drum has been significantly altered, and especially in this particular genre, it’s apparent that most signs associated with military drumming have begun to disappear. The snare drum is now used only occasionally and then only as an instrument of color or dynamic reinforcement.”

In Die Badner Ring’ln, Opus 64, Lanner utilizes the snare drum, not as a military instrument, but as an instrument of reinforcement, during important accented passages and phrases of the waltz, involving crescendos as well as decrescendos. The snare drum is used both as a solo and supportive instrument. In another waltz, entitled Die Romantiker, Opus 167, Lanner’s use of the snare drum entails supporting a sustained crescendo and emphasizing accented passages. This is also an early example of using the snare drum for “coloristic purposes” rather than its original role, that is, of rhythmic support. The snare drum is found in numerous waltzes by other composers of this genre, such as Johann Strauss, Jr., in his Emperor Waltz, Op 437 (“Kaiser-Walzer”).

Ultimately, although these two attributes of the snare drum – the one of military and the other of dance, are different, they are still the two sides of the same coin. A visual example is portrayed as early as in the 1589 treatise that, even though devoted to the art of dance, the drum is here depicted strapped to a soldier. There are also musical examples that contain some evidence of military associations, but also contain passages with not so military-like rhythms. An excellent one is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade where snare drum sounds both military and folk-like. There are even some sections of the snare drum that do not fall into either the military or folk categories, so is the case with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The second movement, entitled “The Joke of the Couples,” begins with a snare drum solo that represents the culmination of many years of evolution for orchestral snare drum performance. This passage, is completely void of the characteristics originally present in early music for the snare drum. There are no flams, ruffs, rolls or steady march-like rhythm, nor does it clearly revoke dance-like rhythms.

But perhaps the most peculiar is Ravel’s Bolero. Although Ravel chose to primarily explore the folk and dance-like feature of the snare drum, it is with the help of its military sound trails, that he achieved a very interesting, mechanical effect. In fact, the whole bolero is very machine-like. Ravel himself perceived the analogy between the alteration of the two themes riveted one to the other and the links of a chain or a factory assembly-line. In a 1932 interview, he remarked that Bolero was influenced by the idea of a factory:

“I love going over factories and seeing vast machinery at work. It is awe-inspiring and great. It was a factory which inspired my Bolero. I would like it always to be played with a vast factory in the background.” (Orenstein, 2003: 490)

Personally, Bolero reminds me of a mechanical clock, because everything repeats so obsessively in a circular motion. The snare drum’s steady, relatively monotonous and fixed ostinatos in the background represent the ticking of the seconds. Above is the contrasting floaty and meandering melody breaking free from it, similar to the minute hand walking gradually through the hour, and although the melody is essentially the same, but each hour, each of the melodic repetition is unique, some being bitonal and even tritonal: C major played by the celesta and a horn, E major by piccolo and G major by the other piccolo.

While reading about it, I saw that Ravel’s Bolero was originally titled ‘Fandango’. I already came across this dance in the early stages, when planning my first example. I had a rhythmic idea in my mind in ¾ time signature, and I was searching for a dance which would help me shape it. Seeing fandango appear again, I was curious to read more about it and see if there were any musical reasons as to why Ravel’s piece changed its name. More on this, read my next blog post.

List of illustrations:

Fig.1a. Medieval tabor

Fig. 1b. Illustration of a player playing tabor and pipe

Fig. 3. Drum and fife (Senator John Heinz History Center)


Gauthreaux, Guy Gregoire II (1989) ‘Orchestral Snare Drum Performance: An Historical Study’ Historical Dissertations and Theses. LSU 4715. At: (Accessed on)

Jeffery Kite-Powell (ed.) (2007) A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music Publications of the Early Music Institute. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Grieder, A. (2007) ‘The Basel Drum’ In: Beck, J. H. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Percussion. New York: Routledge Taylor&Francis Group, LLC pp. 147

Orenstein, A. (2003) A Ravel Reader: Correspondence, Articles, Interviews. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

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