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Of all the instruments I play, the drums are by far my favorite. That is not to say that I do not enjoy all the other instruments, but there is something special about the drums that set them apart for me.
The drums, as I am referring to them in this article, is the modern drum kit, which typically consists of a bass drum, snare drum, a hi-hat, ride cymbal, and various other mounted and floor toms as well as a wide range of cymbals. The amount of these that are used is a personal preference.
The modern drum set is part of a much larger percussion family, including various amazing instruments such as marimbas, bells, xylophones, and many more.
An important question for aspiring drummers is whether drums are pitched or unpitched.
So, which is it?
Drums are considered unpitched because they have frequencies that are not related to the sounds of other accompanying instruments and often produce sounds within a range of frequencies, which produce what are known as inharmonic frequencies. Drums create sounds that are separate from the melody and harmony of the rest of the music.
That was a lot of information. Below I will summarize what I am talking about, put these concepts into context, and explain further why drums are considered unpitched while other percussion instruments are pitched.
Pitched Vs Unpitched, What’s The Difference?
Before we get too deep into our discussion about drums not being pitched, it is important to understand what this exactly means. To put it simply, a pitched instrument would be one that will play a specific pitch (or note) when played. Unpitched instruments, then, will produce a sound without a specific pitch.
Another way to look at this would be harmonic versus inharmonic frequencies. In the simplest terms, pitched instruments will be harmonic, while unpitched instruments will be considered to produce inharmonic frequencies, which many percussion instruments are, according to Simon Fraser University.
In other words, they won’t match up with the harmonies and melodies the other instruments are playing. If the guitar plays a G chord, the kick drum wouldn’t also be playing a G, as it is an unpitched instrument.
Of course, it does get quite a bit more complicated than all of this, but it would require multiple articles to dissect all of these nuances fully.
Have you ever heard the terms “perfect pitch” or “relative pitch?” This refers to the ability of someone to recognize a note (or pitch) being played, according to the University of Chicago. If you played a B note on the piano, someone with perfect pitch could tell you exactly what that note was without hearing anything else. Whereas someone with relative pitch could identify the note if it were played along with other notes.
Perfect pitch is extremely rare. Some people are born with it, but there is evidence that it can be trained. Relative pitch on the overhand can absolutely be trained through ear training.
What I am getting at with this example is that when someone plays a note, such as the B, on the piano, the keystroke vibrates a string in that specific pitch. This concept is similar to pitched percussion instruments like xylophones, vibraphones, and timpani, among others.
Are Drums Pitched Or Unpitched?
The short answer to this question is no. Drums are not pitched. None of the drums that make up the modern drum kit, including the kick, snare, and rack and floor toms, are pitched. There are pitched percussion instruments, and if you are interested in learning more about those, follow the link in the paragraph above.
So if drums are unpitched, we can start playing without worrying about anything, right? Not so fast.
Just because drums are considered unpitched doesn’t mean they don’t produce frequencies when hit. Drums still need to be tuned to be pitched with one another. In other words, your drums need to be in tune with one another. Otherwise, they won’t sound as good as they could.
When I first started drumming, I had no idea that tuning the drums was even a thing. I never had any lessons or instructions on what to do, so I just started playing, never paying attention to the tuning. In fact, I spent years playing this way.
Tuning your drums is not only a thing; it is a pretty important thing. Even though your drums are not pitched, they should still be tuned so that they are all in sync.
Of course, you don’t have to do this. As I said, I spent years playing without paying attention to the tuning, and my drums sounded okay, but they sounded much better once I started paying attention to the tuning aspect.
Rather than having a specified pitch or frequency, drums have a range of frequencies you can select. This allows you to adjust the frequency of your drums to dial in the exact sounds you are looking for.
For example, rock and metal drummers tend to have a lower tuning across their toms, whereas many jazz drummers might opt for a slightly higher tuning configuration.
How To Tune Your Drums
In general, Fotios Koulakos at Musical U states that each drum will have a distinct range that you would typically tune them within. This is an important concept during the mixing process as instrument frequencies compete for the limited sound real estate.
Depending on the source you look up, you might find different numbers for the ranges of each drum. Still, on average, kick drums will range between 80 and 150Hz, floor toms between 60 and 100 Hz, other toms in the low 80s up to 500 Hz (depending on how many toms you might have), and snares typically fall between 120 to 250 Hz or above.
If you don’t know where to begin, check out the tune-bot drum tuning guide page. I reference this page all the time, and it has helped me dial in the exact tones I am looking for from my drum kit.
What is great about this page is that it provides several different tuning options based on the number of toms you have on your kit.
You can also check this video introducing the tune-bot drum tuner!
I also have the iDrumTunePro app on my phone, which you can purchase on the app store on a smartphone. The app listens to the frequencies of the drums when you hit them so that you can easily adjust the tuning to your desired frequencies. You can also build kits within the app and save which frequencies you use for each drum so you do not have to try to remember them all.
It should be noted that many things will influence how good your drums sound, including the quality of the drums, the quality of the drum heads, and the materials the drums are made of.
For example, an acrylic snare might sound much different than a maple snare tuned at the exact same frequency. One might sound good, while the other doesn’t, so experiment with different tunings to find what works best for you.
You should now better understand why drums are considered unpitched instruments, but despite this, they still need to be tuned.
I hope you have found this article helpful, and until next time, keep playing!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.