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Bodhran - Tuning

PaulMarshall ©2004

The bodhran is a member of the membranophone family of instruments, this simply means that it is categorised by the fact that it uses a vibrating membrane (skin) to create vibration in the air which we interperet as sound. This vibration follows a standard pattern for such instrument types and this means that it can be analysed as a mechanical process and adjusted with confidence in the result.

Tuning Fixed skin drums .........Tuning a tunable drum

'In tune'

Tuning a drum differs from tuning other instruments insofar as you have three elements to consider; viz mechanics, overall tonality and pitch.

  • Mechanics refers to the creation of conditions of efficient desired vibration
  • Overall tonality in this instance refers to the quality of the sound and is the result of a mechanical process,
  • Pitch refers to the note and octave of the tone produced and is the result of subjective choice.

Mechanics A drum is 'in tune' when the tensions across the head are even. This is known as being in tune with itself. When this occurs, the drum will emit a pure tone with a single dominant frequency. A drum may be in tune at any pitch within its tension range, it simply requires that the tensions are even across the head. Read here about the process of doing this on a tunable drum.

The overall tonality of a drum will depend on what the player desires and on the playing requirements required by the music. A high tensioned drum may sound thin and sharp, a low tensioned drum will sound fat and boomy. Your desired sound will be somewhere within that range. This is where you will be looking to place emphasis for a fixed skin (non-tunable) drum

This overall tonality can be affected by the design of the entire drum (not just the head) and we will increasingly find that bodhran innovators are looking toward shell and air resonance as contributors to the sound, some at the cutting edge are even looking at secondary resonant heads

Pitch: The pitching of a drum is a subject of many debates. Some players tune to specific notes in order that they may compliment other melodic instruments or that they may work with other bodhran players who have sympathetic tunings. It is common for us in Different Drums to tune bodhrans to intervals of 3rds or fifths for recording. Normally for live work we just tune them so that the fundamental tones are sufficiently apart to be discriminated from each other.

Unless you have a specific requirement to match a particular note I would advise you not to spend too much time on being note specific. The note will change...

  • as the drum warms up and stabilises
  • when you place your hand on it
  • with the pressures you use when playing

A note on 'Playing in' a drum

All bodhrans require their skin to be 'played in' more.... A new bodhran skin almost always will be too hard, a hard skin sounds 'scratchy' and thin in tone. The skin will loosen and soften over time because the impact of the stick on a tensioned drum will break up the fibrous structure that binds it tightly together. With a traditional heavy-skinned bodhran this process may take years. With a thin or lambeg-skinned instrument the process is shorter because there is so much less fibrous material to contend with, In both cases there may be natural or chemical treatments applied to assist with softening the skin.

A way of a player themself speeding up this process of softening up the skin is the application of some form of treatment such as lanolin or lexol, saddle soap, dubbin, oils etc; many products have been tried with varying degrees of success. Any application of this nature should be applied to the playing surface only.

You should consult someone who has previously used whatever product you are considering for skin treatment. Drumdojo takes no responsibility for your experimentation.

Tuning types

Bodhrans come in two main types as far as tuning is concerned. All instruments are tunable insofar that the pitch and tension may be adjusted, however it is the methods employed and the provision of tuning-specific mechanisms that provide the dividing line for definition.

  • A 'non tunable' instrument will have a skin stretched over a frame in a fixed manner. There is no mechanical method of adjustment. Tuning a non-tunable page
    • This tuning method involves using moisture to loosen an over-tight drum and using heat to evaporate moisture on a too-loose drum. It lacks subtlety but is effective.
    • A plastic non-tunable head is non-tunable
    • A plastic non-tunable head will eventuality drop in tone and become unplayable
    • There are many theories about restoring these heads, I'm as yet unconvinced

  • A 'tunable' instrument will have some form of integral mechanical device which can be used to adjust the tension on the skin. Tuning a tunable page
    • This tuning method involves adjusting the tension on the skin at a number of points around its circumference.
    • It permits a drum to be adjusted for use in different environments
    • It offers great accuracy and control
    • Provides melodic potential
    • It is the obvious choice of professional players