Can You Hear the Shape of a Drum?

What can you say about a piece of music with no melody, no words, and no harmony? Is it music at all? The music you are about to hear is from Iran. It is played on a drum which the Persians called a zarb, also known as tombak. The zarb  is a single-headed, bottle-shaped drum with a skin stretched over the wider end like so:

When you first start to listen, all you hear is a drum. Listen further, however, and you will discover a palette of different sounds, pulses that come and go with amazing speed. Some of these patterns are ancient and full of meaning.

The art of drum music is like drawing with a pencil – you have only one basic color. The art consists in finding a palette of different sound qualities using the tips of the fingers, the palm of the hand, the heel of the palm, and from time to time, the ring on the finger to strike the edge of the skin. Fast patterns use the individual fingers; sharper accents use the tips of the fingers all together; deeper pulses are made with the heel of the palm pressing into the skin to change the tone or produce a deep ringing tone. Within the drum tone, there are subtle variations in pitch depending on which part of the skin is struck. The power of the performance lies in a careful blend of tradition, which gives consistency, and artistic license, which gives room for invention. Here, have a listen.

Zarb solo, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi Green Hands Solo-Tour, 2009


Do not ask if it is music. If you feel like clapping at the end of the performance, it is music. Do not ask if it is art. If the skills involved are more than you could do it yourself, it is art. The musician who is able to perform to such a level of skill not only has great memory and a mission to preserve cultural traditions, he or she is also in great physical shape, with two good hands, excellent coordination, acute responses, stamina, charisma, rhetorical skills and other highly valued personal qualities.

Further study:
Robin Maconie, The Way of Music, Book 5, The Scarecrow Press. Maryland, US, 2007.

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