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Music as Communication: Talking Drums

There are all kinds of musical things happening this month. International Music Day, Universal Music Day, Kids’ Music Day… it’s all happening! So I thought we’d celebrate all things music and look at communication. Not to be confused with music as a language.

I’ve talked about music as its own language in the past – the idea that the musical notes and the way we write it is just like you would write any other language. But this time, we’re looking at music as communication and by that I’m meaning using it to actually send signals.

Talking Drums

We are thinking about things like the talking drums of West Africa and some of the Americas. Essentially the talking drums are usually like an hourglass shaped drum with membrane on either side. And they’re used literally to replicate the language. It’s a bit like shorthand, which takes some of the phonemes of the language and creates those in shorthand symbols on the page. But with the drums, from what I understand it is doing the same thing but the phonemes become a certain tap length or pitch to communicate. I get the impression as well that it’s all very contextual, so you need to know the context of what you’re talking about.

You wouldn’t be having great conversations with these things, but they are passing on greater messages and bigger meaning. And the idea of this communication is to communicate over great distances, between different tribes, to let them know big things. These messages can be communicated at over a hundred miles a minute, which is huge.

Drums as a language

These drums can actually be tuneable to a certain extent. You can get a different pitch and a different sound from hitting the middle from hitting the side – a change in pitch. And if you’ve got two membranes, one on either side, you can have them tuned slightly differently, which is giving you quite a range of pitches.

Between tapping quickly like Morse Code and really booming out a longer, louder sound you’ve got quite a range. The reason they use drums is because they’re natural but they have a big sound which will travel a long way, which is precisely what you need when you’re communicating over great distances.

But music as its own communication device, passing on messages throughout large areas is a little like the idea of signal towers that we had in Roman Britain. At the top of every hill they would light a fire which could be seen by the next one who would light a fire and that way they’d pass a message. However, with that, there’s only one message. But with the drums, what’s so wonderful is that they have the ability to create many different sounds and meanings through the pitch and through the length of them. And I’m sure there’s plenty other nuances of it that can be carried through as well.

I find it so fascinating that a language can be created using drums.