Some say it produces the most relaxing music in the world.
Round steel tongue drums fit on your lap and can be played with the hand or a rubber-tipped wand. The sounds they produce are haunting, with a resonant bell-like tone. Shaped like an oval and weighing about the same as an iron skillet, the tongue drums produce sound inside the instrument through slits cut in the top.
The drums, which commonly range in size from six to 18 inches, don’t have to be played so loudly that they disturb the neighbors and they still produce a satisfying, mystical sound.
This is a modern instrument, appearing in its current configuration about 30 years ago. You don’t have to know anything about music or drums to play the instrument. Although some music is available, its distinctive sounds are so soothing that simply noodling around with the instrument seems to be satisfying.
Each tongue is numbered. The music available online tells you what number to strike in what order. After that, you work on rhythm.
According to YouTube reviewers, the larger tongue drums (18 inches) have deeper and richer tones. But the smaller drums also produce a satisfying, if somewhat limited, musical scale.
If you are a musician, you might want to spend more on an instrument that has a greater range of notes with more accurate tuning.
History of the tongue drum
The tongue drum is a modern invention, and yet it isn’t.
According to J. Kevin Wolfe (blog: wolfewithane.com), the ancestors of these drums were the wooden slit drums found in African, Aztec, and Indonesian cultures. This type of drum developed independently within these cultures.
The archaic versions had just one or two tones formed by slits cut into a log or a crafted piece of wood. Wooden tongue drums did evolve but they were still simple. The real evolution of the drum didn’t occur until 1990.
In that year, a fan of the wooden tongue drum, Jim Doble, thought he might make a tongue drum out of an old water tank. He cut tongues into the end of the tank and the Whale Drum was born.
But it was essentially a tongue drum, but made of metal.
Around 2007 a fellow named Dennis Havelina decided to take part of a propane tank from his grill and cut eight slits to make eight distinct tones. He called it the Hank Drum. It so happens that his 12-inch, eight-note tongue drum became the standard for future drums.
The idea was refined by others until 2016 when factories in China began mass-producing the drums from steel or alloys and managed to bring the price down below $100.
Today there are companies that specialize in the tongue drum. Among those companies is drumemusic.com, specializing in ancient instruments and sounds. You can hear the mystical music of their tongue drums on YouTube.