Copyright 1997 Robert G. Ferrell

Percussion in Medieval and Renaissance Dance Music

Theory and Performance

Percussion in the context of musical performance can be defined broadly as any instrument whose primary sound production is accomplished by striking a resonating surface with a beater or by shaking. The surface may be animal hide (real or synthetic), wood, metal, or really anything that will resonate. The beater may likewise be of any of a variety of materials, including the human hand. This definition encompasses many of the keyboard instruments as well, specifically the ones which are played by striking a wire or bar directly with a beater (hammered dulcimer, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, etc.), or by pressing a key which then causes a wire to be struck by a hammer (piano, etc.). For the purposes of this discourse, however, we will limit the scope of percussion to those instruments consisting of a shell of wood, metal, or fired clay, having one, both, or neither end covered with animal hide (either real or synthetic), or those containing beads or pieces of metal that produce sounds when shaken. Some of these have adjustable tension, some have snares or metal disks that provide additional layers of sound, but all are played by being struck or shaken directly by the performer. Since this is a discussion limited to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we will further narrow our definition to variations on the following instruments: bells, jingles, long drums, nakers, side drums, tabors, tambours, and timpani.

Bells were cast metal shapes constructed such that striking them with a beater produced a sustained resonant note, which might or might not correspond to any recognized pitch. Sometimes bells of different sizes and thicknesses were hung in sequence in an approximate harmonic succession and played like a melody instrument (e.g., glockenspiel or orchestra bells). More often, bells were played individually or in small groups as musical punctuation, with no regard for their pitch. The triangle and bell tree fall into this latter category.

Jingles are a generic designation for a broad range of instruments whose common feature was that they contained beads, metal disks, or other devices for producing sound when shaken or struck. Shakers, guiros, sleigh bells, and so on fall into this category, as do the forms of the modern tambourine. Timbrels were wooden frames with metal disks set into them that were played by shaking, by being struck with a beater or upon some part of the body, or a combination of these methods. Timbrels with hides stretched across one end were called tambourines by the late 15th century; the distinction finally blurred into any hoop set with small cymbals being called a tambourine. Tambourines could be played like a timbrel or like a drum. Modern crash and ride cymbals developed from this category.

Long Drums were so called because their height exceeded their diameter. They were double-headed, tensioned with rope or sinew, and played with sticks. The modern tenor drum and tom-tom evolved from the long drum, as did the military snare drum.

Nakers were copper bowls with goat or calfskin heads. They were tensioned by sinew that ran from the rim of the head to a ring at the bottom of the drum. They began as relatively small drums carried on a belt at the waist and struck with thick wooden or cotton-covered wooden beaters. Nakers were used primarily for military and ceremonial purposes, or as mobile accompaniment for "loud" ensembles (those consisting of loud instruments such as the shawm, cornetto, sackbut, and bagpipe). The naker was the direct ancestor of the kettledrum or timpani (C.F.).

Side drums were drums that were larger in diameter than in height. They were, like the long drum, double headed and tensioned. Some of them grew to respectable proportions, and these are the ancestors of the bass drum. Because of their dimensions, side drums were often played with the heads perpendicular to the floor, rather than parallel, and so the name 'side drum.' These were some of the loudest of all percussion instruments.

Tabors were specific forms of long drum played with one hand using a specially-shaped beater and often had a single snare of sheep or goat intestine stretched across the upper head. They accompanied a flute or fife, played with the other hand, and were thus part of an early manifestation of the 'one-person band.' The tabor was carried by a strap slung over one shoulder and couched under the arm or resting on the hip.

Tambours were side drums with only one head. They encompassed many different drums, including the Bodhran, tabrin, and tabret, and came in a great range of sizes. The modern so-called 'finger drums' and 'hand drums,' as well as the timbale, came from the tambour. As the name suggests, the tambourine developed from a marriage between the tambour and the timbrel.

Timpani or kettledrums are larger, usually stationary, versions of the naker (C.F.). Timpani began to appear as a distinct category of percussion around the end of the 14th century, and by 1650 had completely replaced their smaller ancestors. Timpani are perhaps the most familiar of modern orchestral percussion instruments (along with crash cymbals). The distinctive feature of the timpani were that they were tuned to specific notes, rather than being purely timbre-based. In later years the timpani came to be tunable 'on the fly,' as they are today. This allowed the percussionist to adapt to key changes without changing drums, and it is this feature in combination with the timpani's deep resonance and booming note that makes them such a favorite of modern orchestral composers.

Remember that no percussion music survives from the Middle Ages, so all performance guidelines are based on conjecture. The prevailing school of thought at the present seems to be that percussionists were simply living metronomes who kept a beat for the dancers with only the occasional flourish and practically no syncopation. I happen to disagree rather strongly with this viewpoint, and argue instead that percussionists were as likely to develop virtuosity on their instruments as any other professional musician. Granted, there were probably relatively few musicians who devoted themselves solely to percussion, but those who did, I maintain, advanced far beyond the 'metronome' or 'simply echo the melody line' level of musical accomplishment. These are both techniques upon which more elaborate figures may be built; although they are essential as a metric foundation, they do not represent ends in themselves any more than scales represent the ultimate expression of melodic instrumental technique. Percussion should do more than simply provide a beat and a steady tempo: it should add to the character and complexity of the piece as each spice adds to a good recipe.

The key to being a competent musical percussionist is to stay alert. Watch the other musicians, listen to the music and follow its path in your mind. With a little practice it is not difficult to predict where a phrase will go next or in fact when and how the piece will end, even if you have never played it before. Every group will have a leader, either announced or de facto, and this person will be the one you should observe most closely. Good musicians telegraph their intentions rather well; you can tell a great deal about what is going on and coming up in a piece simply by watching the movements and facial expressions of the melody instrumentalists. When a percussionist and the rest of the musicians are truly 'in synch,' there is a comfortable, flowing rhythm that once experienced is never forgotten. The achievement of this rhythmic oneness' should be the goal of every percussionist during every performance. Percussion is an accompaniment instrument, which means that it serves almost exclusively as a addition to other instruments. As such, it must always be subservient to the melodic parts. With the exception of drum solos, percussionists must constantly seek feedback about their volume and never let it overpower or in any way interfere with melodic lines. This does not decrease the importance of percussion as a component of the ensemble, it merely defines its role and sets the boundaries of acceptable performance.

Dance music, and particularly SCA dance music, is a relatively minor subset of the class of instrumental music during the middle ages, gaining somewhat in importance in the renaissance. A fair proportion of SCA dance music is not strictly period; we will not concern ourselves with this problem herein. Our concern here is to differentiate the various forms of music likely to be encountered in our chosen context and to establish some guidelines for percussion accompaniment of each. We will therefore address the following types of music, with emphasis on (but not limited to) music useful in the dance: Basse Dance, Branle (Ronde), Cantiga, Courante, Estampie, Galliard, and Pavan. This list should not be construed to encompass the whole of pre-1600 European secular music, by any means, but for our purposes it is sufficient. The techniques for percussion performance used for these musical forms can be applied, with minor modifications, to virtually any dance music one is likely to encounter in this period and geographical setting.

The performance suggestions that follow will give a little of the history and background of each dance (but only a sprinkling; a number of excellent treatises on this subject already exist and the reader is referred to them for more details) and then written suggestions for percussive treatment of the musical form under discussion. [One glossary note: I use the term metric frequently in the following text. By this term, I mean keeping in the meter, or beat, of the music, as opposed to on the offbeat: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, rather than 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, for example).

Basse Dance
Notes: The 15th century basse dance existed only as a series of long notes which were played as a bass line by one performer while one or more others improvised counterpoint around them. It was standard practice to perform in this manner, without written music, and every decent musician had a repertoire of improvisational figures to use on such occasions. The basse dance is a slow, graceful processional dance, distinguished from the pavan by freer, less formal movements.
Performance: Slow dances require slow, measured beats. Start with quarter or half note beats, then gradually add brief eighth or sixteenth note flourishes. Avoid extended eighth note figures, as they tend to give a piece a 'double time' feel that does not complement the basse dance well in most instances.

Notes: The branle (pronounced brawl') probably evolved from the ronde or country dance. It is basically a circle or chain of dancers linked by holding hands or fingers. Most branles are in 2/2 or 3/4 time. A collection of several branle double saute steps in 2/2 is called a gavotte.
Performance: This is perhaps the most common form of dance found in the SCA. It is fast, lively, and offers great flexibility for the percussionist. Branles are predominantly in 2/2 time (a few in 4/4), and repeat often. As with any piece, take your cue from the rhythmic construction of the melody line. Frequent doubling of the rhythmic cadence is acceptable, as is some syncopation, so long as this departure from the metric does not interfere with the primary duty of the percussionist to keep a steady and obvious beat. Often you will find that your freedom to embellish varies proportionately with the skill of the other musicians, and with their skills as an ensemble. Again, a strong leader will facilitate this freedom.

The cantiga is more properly called one of the 400 Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alphonso X (el Sabio, the Wise), King of Castile from 1252-84 (whether he wrote them all or just collected them is a point of scholarly disagreement; my feeling is that without him they probably wouldn't exist today, so I give him full credit either way). Cantigas are not, strictly speaking, dance music, inasmuch as they were not specifically written for this purpose. However, they are vital, strongly punctuated and highly rhythmic pieces who lend themselves well to certain types of dance. They also represent, in my opinion, the absolute zenith of opportunity for the percussionist in all of the medieval repertoire. So many variations and rhythmic devices may be employed in accompanying cantigas that general rules simply are not practical. For some truly magnificent performances, listen to Peter Maund (the preeminent early music percussionist of today) performing with Ensemble Alcatraz on the album Visions and Miracles (Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch 9 79180-4), especially on the tracks Quen A Virgen Ben Servir (Cantiga No. 103), Toda Cousa Que Aa Virgen (No. 117), Gran Dereit' (No.34), and A Virgen Mui Groriosa (No. 42). The language is Gallician, and the performances are positively superb.

Courante is taken from the Latin verb currere (to run), and this engenders a bit of a false impression as to the nature of these dances. Courantes are characterized more by hopping and sliding than running, although to some extent this is determined by the musicians and the tempo they set. I would suggest keeping largely to the metric rhythm (usually in 6/8) as a service to the dancers. Courantes can be tricky and it is not difficult to lose the beat as one slides or hops along, trying not to slide into or hop onto the other dancers. In fact, a little extra emphasis on beat 1 can be a great help here.

The estampie is one of the earliest surviving documented forms of (European) dance music. It was written in several sections (puncta), each of which was repeated, with or without an intervening refrain section. I suggest a steady beat, with metric embellishment, and perhaps lead-in metric doubling measures before obvious transitions. The other instruments will most likely be trading off droning and melody (at least in a small ensemble) and probably increasing in complexity as the repetitions progress, so rhythmic continuity falls squarely on the shoulders of the percussionist. As a general rule, the more complex the melodic and contrapuntal lines, the simpler the percussion should be.

The galliard is found most often in concert with the pavan. More specifically, a pavan will be presented in duple meter (4/4 or 2/2), followed after a short pause by a galliard in triple meter (6/8, 3/2, or 6/4). Pavans were slow, galliards were fast. Percussion may reflect this by creating a double time' feeling with prolonged eighth note figures in the galliard. Brief syncopation is not inappropriate, so long as it comes in the second half of the measure and does not obscure the downbeat.

The pavan or peacock dance' (pavo = peacock) is a slow, stately, formal, often highly stylized processional dance characterized by legato tones and almost rigidly rhythmic cadence. While some melodic or contrapuntal lines get quite elaborate within this framework, my feeling is that overly technical percussion does not suit the musical style and should be avoided. Simple, rock-steady metric cadence with occasional embellishments drawn from rhythms in the melodic line are the most pleasing for the pavan. Try to watch the dancers, if you can: Pavans are quite beautiful.

In closing, I would like to reiterate that the essence of percussion in the context of dance music is to keep the beat. The percussionist as a musician has an additional responsibility, however, to contribute to the overall musical performance of the ensemble. In the words of Timothy McGee:

...the drummer can abstract from the rhythms of any dance a simple yet steady rhythm pattern that would assist the beat and blend with the melody.

Ensemble music is teamwork, and the percussionist must be a full-fledged, actively participating member of the team for music to reach its full potential.


Blades, James & Jeremy Montagu, 1976. Early Percussion Instruments from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. London, Oxford University Press.

Grout, Donald J., 1960. A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc.

Logemann, Sally, 1989. Renaissance Dance Music, parts I-III. New York: The New York Renaissance Band and The Musical Heritage Society.

McGee, Timothy J., 1985. Medieval and Renaissance Music, A Performer's Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Pincherle, Marc., 1959. An Illustrated History of Music. New York: Reynal & Company.

Seay, Albert, 1965. Music in the Medieval World. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

See my percussion collection