Brake drums are percussion vessel idiophones of the resting bell type, probably originating in North America in the 20th century. They are repurposed motor vehicle parts used primarily in contemporary American and European percussion ensemble compositions. However, they are also used as part of the ‘engine room’ percussion battery in the steel band music tradition of Trinidad and Tobago. Brake drums are a classic example of an ad hoc or found instrument--an object made for a non-musical purpose being utilized in music making. Professional percussionists active in the performance of contemporary music will often assemble a collection of variously-pitched brake drums from scrapyards.
The individual brake drums are bowl shaped with a hole at their apex and made of metal. They are molded and come in a variety of diameters and thicknesses, two variables that when taken together determine what relative pitch a brake drum will produce when struck. Metal-headed hammers are used to strike the brake drums.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
Typically, brake drums are placed on a padded flat surface with their rims facing upward, the rims being struck with hammering-like blows with handheld, metal-headed hammers used as beaters. Sets of relatively-pitched brake drums are assembled by a percussionist as dictated by the directions of the individual composer. The metal-on-metal striking of brake drums produces clear and penetrating sounds.
Origins/History/EvolutionThe incorporation of brake drums into contemporary Western percussion ensemble music can probably be dated to the late 1930s and credited to John Cage (he calls for four brake drums in his 1939 composition First Construction in Metal) and other like-spirited composers of that time including Lou Harrison. Trinidadians have a long history of using found and repurposed objects as musical instruments (the pans in steel bands are themselves constructed from discarded 55-gallon oil barrels), but we could not find a date for the incorporation of brake drums into the steel band tradition.
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Holland, James. 2005. Practical Percussion. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.
________, and Janet K. Page. “Percussion,” in Grove Music Online, accessed June 27, 2015: