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I am writing about a race that uses almost no animal products (nothing that kills the animal; dairy products, eggs, cast-off deer antlers, wool, and honey are fine, and the verdict is still out on fish products). I was wondering if there was anything they could use for drum heads besides animal skins? This is set in the late 13th century, so there's no chance of them using any of the synthetic materials we use nowadays. Also, it's in the Netherlands, if that helps with the materials (albeit in something of a different "part" of the Netherlands - imagine a gated community where the gates are magic instead of anything physical - so they have a few different flora and fauna to work with).

EDIT: I forgot to mention, metal is also entirely out of the question.

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    $\begingroup$ … human skin? :) $\endgroup$ – Jan Ivan Mar 29 '17 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ But why no leather and metal? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Mar 29 '17 at 6:08
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    $\begingroup$ maybe paper, linen, rubber, fabric - something like that. And why they can't trade/steal time to time? $\endgroup$ – Jan Ivan Mar 29 '17 at 6:11
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    $\begingroup$ I'm in work, so don't have time to write a proper answer, but check out the British Museum's YouTube channel for a beautiful example of a rock drum. In our world, they were historically common in parts of Africa, but I see no reason why they wouldn't also work in Europe. I may convert this comment into an answer when I get home, but if anyone else wants to steal the idea and go with it, I won't complain. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Mar 29 '17 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan Ivan: Humans are animals, you know. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 29 '17 at 17:21

10 Answers 10

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Why not use the wood itself?

wooden drum

Or Cajons

Box Cajon

There's any number of drum variations that don't use a skin as such - primitive ones are simply hollowed out logs.

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    $\begingroup$ Some pretty sophisticated all wood drums as well, polynesian ones spring to mind, you can have several people playing on one drum at the same time. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Mar 29 '17 at 10:34
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of wood drums! It sounded pretty good to me when I was just slapping rhythms on the table, so I figured wood would work, but I wondered if there was another material they could use for drum heads. @Kilisi: Those Polynesian ones sound awesome, do you have any links? :) $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ Use a search engine on Polynesian slit drums... they're loud and can be any size or length. When they play them here you can hear them across the whole village sometimes. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Mar 30 '17 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Kilisi: That sounds both incredible and perfect for the story! Thank you :) $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 21:52
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Canvas covered with boiled linseed oil. Basically you will have oilcloth, or (if slightly different process is used) thin sheet of linoleum, sans fillers. It has elasticity and thickness similar to leather, and is similarly airtight. Should work all right.

Still, ability to wet form leather or rawhide makes it superior material, so you need really solid reasons. On the other hand, you can apply oil to canvas already stretched on your drum, so this difference shouldn't be crucial.

Your people could even experiment with different canvas types (cotton, linen), different thickness, different ways to boil oil, giving them much more flexibility in drum creation than leather and rawhide does.

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  • $\begingroup$ ability to wet form leather or rawhide makes it superior material, so you need really solid reasons - can you elaborate what you mean? $\endgroup$ – user1993 Mar 30 '17 at 6:18
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    $\begingroup$ @user1993 wet leather and rawhide is almost as elastic, as skin. Dry keeps shape well. Simple as that. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Mar 30 '17 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also, leather shrinks as it dries, so you can stretch your drum skin out with wet leather, and it will be extremely taut when dry, leading to a better sound. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Mar 30 '17 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, that's definitely an option, and (even if I don't use it for drumheads) should be a handy material to keep in mind. :) $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:24
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Several come to mind:

Paper

No, not the modern, short-fiber crap you get from the dollar store. You want the good stuff made of long fibers like flax or cotton. (basically what they use for making paper currency). It's really quite strong, and air-tight, and a few layers of it would make a decent drumhead.

Cloth

Similar idea to the paper, but you'll have to add a sealer to make it air-tight. Said sealer needs to be flexible enough not to crack when it vibrates, but there are many options. Boiled linseed oil has already been mentioned. Asphalt would work (I'm not sure what there are for oil deposits in the Netherlands, but just about everywhere has some amount, even if it's not enough for modern industry to bother with) So would latex (there aren't any rubber trees in the Netherlands, but you don't need full rubber elasticity, just something close. Pine tar gets too brittle, but there's probably some plant species that would work.)

Wood

The key to a good drum is for the strike surface to transfer energy efficiently to the air. As such, you want something large and light and resilient enough not to break as it vibrates or when struck. Wood tends to get you two of the three, which is better than nothing. If you want to get all three properties, you'll need to find a tree species that is straight-grained enough that it can be carefully shaved down to almost paper thin and still have continuous fibers from one side of the drum to the other. I'm not sure what there is in the Netherlands, but trade in exotic woods has been around a very long time.

Glass

Cast glass is easy to break, but blown or spun glass aligns its structure in a way that makes it far more resilient, especially if a tempering step is added. The hard part about glass is that it's usually only resistant to being struck from particular directions, with strikes from other directions causing it to shatter. The fun part about glass is that you don't necessarily have to sound it by striking it; rubbing it with a wet hand will usually do. Imagine something big enough to have the frequency of a drum, sounded like you would a wine glass...

Plastic

I know, you said, "no synthetics," and modern plastic is definitely out of the question. But humans have been making polymers of various types for a very long time. The reason leather gets hard enough to be armor when you boil it is because the natural oils in it turn into a form of plastic. The "seasoning" layer you create on a cast iron cooking pot or pan is (if you do it right anyway) a form of plastic. Linseed oil is famous for curing simply by sunlight exposure into a (very soft) plastic. All you really need is an oil (lighter is better but almost anything will do) a controllable heat source, and maybe a bit of acid. A naptha seep would do, as would a number of plant-based oils. Creating a drumhead would likely be a painstaking process of slowly layering and cooking the oil as precisely as possible. Undercook it and it'll stretch, overcook it and it'll crack or shatter, but I've made several interesting polymer compounds just playing with melting various types of tree sap over a camp fire. A culture that was dedicated to not using animal products would have an incentive to refine that process since lots of primitive waterproof containers depend at least partially on animal products and they need a substitute. The big question is whether their society is wealthy enough for anyone to have the time to make a drumhead this way. If they have no metal, then probably not unless their area is so lush they have no need to cultivate food crops or so temperate they have no need to make clothing or shelter.

Stone

This is almost the same as glass, but you're relying on finding a drumhead and maybe shaping it a little rather than creating it from scratch. Certain types of stone, especially crystals like quartz, do have reasonable resonant characteristics. The hard part is finding a piece big enough to make a decent drum. It might be something they'd have to trade for with a more volcanically active area.

Just about everything else I can think of involves and animal product or metal in some way, or is an alternate method of construction for the materials I've already mentioned.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't need an airtight material to make a drum. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 29 '17 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Technically no, but since drums make sound by pushing on air, the air not being able to just "whoosh" through your membrane does add significantly to the efficiency. Compare the volume you get from slapping your hanging laundry when it's still wet (mostly airtight) vs when it's dry. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Mar 29 '17 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ That glass concept blew my mind, +1 $\endgroup$ – r41n Mar 30 '17 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ @r41n I know, right? I'm trying to figure out how I can actually afford to build one just to see what it does... $\endgroup$ – Perkins Mar 30 '17 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas The entirety of the drum doesn't have to be air tight, but if the drumhead allows air to pass through as it's vibrating it will waste a lot of the energy you're putting into it and you won't get nearly as much volume per unit effort. Also, wood pulp paper is pretty poor stuff. Get some flax or hemp paper with nice, long fibers and it'll make a much better drum. You can find it for use in scientific field notebooks because it doesn't tear or melt when it gets wet like the cheap stuff. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Jun 13 at 17:34
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How about glass? From https://www.pinterest.com/afshepherd/musical-glass/

enter image description here

Glass would, of course not be a stretched drumhead because it is not stretchy. Glass can be strong and you might be able to get up to some Kobe-style taiko drum action with big pieces. But even 11th century medieval tech could make small pieces. And: you can tune it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ooh, yes, glass! I had considered possible glass instruments - actually, I was going to ask about glass instrument in a separate question. It does have a wonderfully magical sound... $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:38
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Natural latex rubber.

It's a bit hard to source in 13th century Holland. If your magical enclave has access to non-native plants then rubber trees are within the realm of possibility.

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  • $\begingroup$ That is a good idea, and entirely possible. I will definitely think that one over :) $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary It's definitely possible. I've build a drum out of a bucket and an innertube myself. It was a synthetic rubber because that's what was available but synthetic rubbers are called that because they were designed to have similar physical properties to latex rubber. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 30 '17 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Ha, I'd like to hear that drum! :) My only concern is growing conditions for the rubber trees - how would they handle the Netherlands? $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary Rubber trees are endemic to the Amazon rainforest. They wouldn't survive the winter unprotected. Perhaps the rubber is imported from plantations further south. Or the trees could be grown in a protected arboretum with sufficient magic to allow them to survive the northern climate. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Mar 30 '17 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking the magic option, if I use rubber trees. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:49
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I was thinking along the lines of springroll skins that have been modified to be more resilient when used in larger surfaces. When reading about it taking place in the Netherlands, though...

They're famous for their dairy.

When you boil milk, a skin forms on top. Dairy-experts like the Dutch can no doubt find a way to make that skin strong enough to be used for drum heads.

Alternatively they could have a specific kind of cheese rind, which could serve as drum head.

To give you an idea of the possibilities, you can read this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2026645/Bulletproof-human-skin-spider-silk-goat-milk-developed-scientists.html

The article talks about altering milk to contain silk spider protein. The milk can then be processed (like spinning it) into a skin that can potentially even be bulletproof. As an added bonus, it's a Dutch researcher who works on this.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting idea. Do you have any references that would indicate this skin might be tough enough to withstand when used as a drum? Or anything indicating how tough the skin is normally and what would be needed to make it tougher? $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Mar 29 '17 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ That looks perfectly valid to me. Could you please edit your answer and include the link together with maybe two to three sentences that summarize the article you link? (Links can go out-of-date, which is why they should always be summarized). +1 from me $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Mar 29 '17 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ Alright. Edited the answer as requested. $\endgroup$ – Raf Mar 29 '17 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ It is, however, a magical environment. Instead of calling it bio-tech, you can call it alchemy or wizardry. Kind of like how the druid from Asterix makes potions that enhanced the tribe's performance. Nowadays that would be called EPO or such. Back then, it was a magic potion. $\endgroup$ – Raf Mar 29 '17 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Maxim: Well, no animal products that kill the animal. Dairy's cool. Perhaps I should have been clearer about that? :S Anyway, this idea is pretty awesome, even if I don't use it for drumheads. I was actually intending to ask another question altogether about spiderweb's properties... $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:35
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Gourds, after drying, have been used to make drums and rattles.

On this pretty Spring morning, here's a link for seeds: https://shop.nativeseeds.org/collections/gourds

I can imagine all sorts of witchy, mana-enhancing growing styles. The links to Jack-o-lanterns alone are pretty evocative. Consider the magical consequences of the difference between a hollowed-out 100-year-old log and a 4-month-old gourd.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh yesss, gourds :D I'm getting lots of ideas for instruments now! And I need to think about the magic involved with different types of plants and trees... $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Oo! Just remembered: gourds are native to America and Africa. In 1270, they might be too exotic. $\endgroup$ – Neal Mar 31 '17 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ 1284, actually, but same thing really. They might be, which is too bad, but I'll still think about it. These are magical creatures who have access to a few extra plant species we've never heard of, so gourd-like plants aren't entirely out of the question. :) $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 31 '17 at 20:04
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Komboucha Leather. A symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (scoby) grows on a food of sweetened tea. The scoby forms a thickly layered film at the top that is stretchy and dries hard like rawhide. Side effects: your people will all have healthy guts from drinking komboucha

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Feb 27 '18 at 21:26
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It's a bit of a hype that they can make fungus-based “leather” now:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBXGFOk5_Rs

Allegedly, this stuff can be made with properties very like animal skin, so it should be feasible for drumheads. It's also said that it doesn't require any artificial chemicals (I'm a bit sceptical), so at least it's not completely absurd to see this in the 13th century.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, that's a pretty cool idea. And they could make it through some sort of magical process. $\endgroup$ – Mary Mar 30 '17 at 20:41
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Following from Perkins's excellent answer:

Clay

Many varieties of udu or chambre drum can be made from clay.

Bamboo

Bamboo can be made into windchimes, xylophones, slit drums and tubula.

Bones

Many kinds of instruments can be made from bone, and obviously your folk don't have to kill an animal in order to harvest them. Apart from whistles and flutes, they can make tuned osteophones or untuned windchimes or rhythm bones.

Stalactites

We'll let Nature speak for herself. Obviously your people would need a cavernous chambre with good acoustics and, well, stalactites galore!

Ice

If your folks like a bit of winter wonder music.

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protected by L.Dutch Jun 12 at 13:21

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