THE FIRST SOUND (???)
Starting with hide (or leather), one can see that the Chinese instruments may not have been as different from the Western world as one may have thought. When animal hide is wet and dries, the skin contracts and tightens greatly, making it perfect for the head of a drum instrument.
The generic word ?/g? when used as an adjective means convex. As a verb it can mean to beat, but it’s most common usage is the noun form, a drum. With this first sound, almost every single instrument in this category ends with this term. That, or the character is included in the character itself, such as with ?/táo (although ??/táog? is possible, just less common), a type of pellet-drum used for specific rituals (the character has ?/zhào on the top, meaning omen or to portend). (Later, this became very popular as a children’s toy.) The only one that does not is the ?? (bóf?), a drum that requires the use of both hands and is thus strung around the neck. Its purpose was more of a beat-holder, to keep the tempo steady.
Out of the numerous types of drums in Chinese music, three specific forms are perhaps the most characteristic of traditional and folk music. These are the ??/b?ng? (literally, the stiff drum), the ??/dàg? (the great drum), and the ??/zhàng? (the war drum). Finally, there is a set of drums known as the ??/páig? (the drum set) that will be discussed at the end.
The Chinese stiff drum has only one function, but its purpose is extremely important. In fact, it’s role in Chinese music is so great that many people even take off the b?n and just call it g?, the drum.
The drum is placed normally on a type of tall stand with three or four legs. The actual instrument itself is actually fairly small. The depth is a tenth of a meter while the diameter is, at most, a quarter meter. The sound is created after being struck by bamboo mallets in different areas of the drum, and given the size of the instrument and the tightness of the hide, the sound is short and high-pitched. Some may not even think that the sound is that of a drum at all, but rather more like two wooden sticks hitting each other.
The use of the b?ng? is simple but prominent in Chinese Opera, especially in Beijing Opera (??/j?ngjù). It is used to keep time and is very popular to illustrate war scenes. Most importantly, however, the drummer is always the conductor of the orchestra. The reason is because the mood is set by the beating of the drum, particularly in different areas of the hide. The rest of the ensemble follows the lead, and there really is no further need for direction.
It is also notable that whenever there is a performance of Chinese operatic orchestra instruments, whether it be in an opera or a small chamber ensemble, instead of listing the conductor as Conductor: [Name], it is instead listed (equivalently) on the program as Stiff Drum: [Name]. This shows even more the importance of the small, high-pitched instrument.
Also placed on a wooden frame of four legs with a wooden body, the dàg? is fairly similar to the b?ng? in appearance. However, the sound and use are quite different. Although it can have high-pitched, sharp, snappy sounds when the drum sticks are struck against the wooden casing, even that is used in small percussion ensembles and sometimes as wind ensemble support.
The sound of the cow-hide is much lower than the hide used in the previous instrument. This is mostly because of the area that the drum head covers. The instrument itself is about four times the size, and the hide is not as tightly anchored, allowing more vibration and resonance. Unlike the use of the snapping of its side, the striking of the hide is used to lead and even be the centerpiece of wind and percussion groups.
There is also another form of dàg? instrument that must not be confused. This is a type of drum that looks like a bowl with a cover rather than a drum. Its alternative name is ??? /hu?péng? (the flower-pot Drum). It’s also wooden-cased yet has a sound that bridges the high-pitched b?ng? and other dàg?, but the difference of the two instruments is often forgotten, even by those who write for it, often leading to questions as to which instrument to play, since both large drums are used for almost the same purposes.
(There is also a third possibility, but it is rarely called so. For reference, educational, and trivial purposes, Mongolian war drums could also be called ??/dàg?.)
As an important note, while the title b?ng? is used to denote the conductor of certain performances, a dàg? can be a performance in an of itself, and no dàg? instrument has to be present. This is due to another use of ?/g? (to rouse). Thus, ??/dàg? here is a big awakening. The formal name of this performance is ??/shu?chàng (Speak-Singing or Story Singing), sometimes called a narrative (song).
Still, the soloist may accompany him- or herself with small percussion instruments, or others would do it for them. (In some areas, larger percussion and even string instruments were possible.) Thus, on top of the use of dàg? to indicate an uprising narrative, it is also used to denote the form of story singing. Most people today consider the dàg? performance as such (the dàg? with dàg? accompaniment) but just call it the dàg?, some not knowing the origins of the different terms and some just using it to simplify the repetition of the two syllables (as it is a polyseme, much like ‘The Secretary will give his secretary a secretary for her to secretary’). So, while it is today paired with the instrument, the singing style was originally a different dàg?.
Even though they are all called the ??/zhàng?, the war drum (sometimes the ??/bi?ng?, the flat drum); this is a very inconsistently sized and shaped group of low percussion instruments. The height alone varies from about a sixth to a third of a meter, but the most varying size is in the drum head, where the hide is. It can be either a twentieth of a meter to a half meter in diameter! The decoration could be almost non-existent or even be brightly painted and used for display.
The sound, however, was always dark and thick, with weak hide-tightness for sometimes visible vibration after being struck with two large wooden sticks.
In performance, the zhàng? was used for three main purposes. Obviously, it was used to keep time in marching into battle, to keep up the moral of soldiers, and to scare the enemy. Otherwise, it was used in ritualistic settings, usually in plays or operas for historical retellings much like drummer boys are used in Civil War Reenactments in the United States. The third use, somewhat surprisingly, is for use in wedding processions and ceremonies.
The drum set (páig?) is perhaps the most stereotypically Oriental percussive sound. The ??/tángg? (the hall drum) is normally played for orchestral and other ensemble accompaniments. However, with the páig?, up to seven of these drums can be set up with different tunings on each side of each drum, making a maximum of fourteen different tunings possible at one time, due to the use of a circular pivot that allows the drums to be turned in a performance.
Very commonly used to lead a chant or a sudden outcry (either by the páig? performers or another group), this device, due to the physical and mental work needed to operate it, requires two people to play. However, the sounds are very tribal, especially when chants are included. A mix between bright and thick sound, especially with fourteen tunings, the players may also decide to strike the barrels, as well, to create a wooden clash, with a major burst of this sound usually marking the end of a piece, and sometimes the end of a performance.