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
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
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).
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:
See my percussion collection