How Does the West African Talking Drum Accurately Mimic Human Speech?

A new study explores how the dùndún replicates tones and patterns of the Yorùbá language

Ifesowapo dùndún ensemble
The Ifesowapo dùndún ensemble performing in Igbo Ora, southwest Nigeria Cecilia Durojaye

West African “talking drums” known as dùndún can accurately replicate speech with a remarkable level of detail, new research finds.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Communication, compares 30 verbal recordings—both spoken and sung—in the Yorùbá language with excerpts of drumming performed by professional dùndún drummers in Nigeria. Researchers found parallel patterns of intensity and timing between the language and the drums, reports Amalyah Hart for Cosmos magazine.

An hourglass-shaped, double-membrane instrument, the dùndún can be used for making music or “talking.” Per Encyclopedia Britannica, players typically use one hand to adjust the leather tensioning thongs between the two membranes, thereby raising or lowering the drum’s pitch, and the other to strike the instrument’s surface with a curved stick.

The new research found that the drums mimic the spoken word closely when theyre played in a “talking” mode, but not when they are used for purely musical purposes.

“The talking drum is unique in that it has a foot in both language and music camps, and because its existence reminds us of the thin boundary between speech and music,” says the paper’s lead author, Cecilia Durojaye, a musicologist affiliated with Arizona State University’s psychology department, in a statement.

Yorùbá is a tonal language that uses three distinct tones at different frequencies. Similarly, the drums have three main tones, using rising and falling pitch to reproduce speech sounds. This allows the instruments to imitate Yorùbá oral literature, including the emotions of spoken words.

Yorùbá Dùndún Ensemble Drums for the Òrìsà

Bàtá drums, a very close relative of the dùndún, use drum strokes as a code that translate into Yorùbá language,” write the researchers in the study. “Dùndún drummers, however, draw elements from music and speech to communicate emotions on the drum.”

In a previous paper published in the same journal in May, Durojaye and her colleagues noted that Yorùbá drummers use the dùndún as a “speech surrogate” to communicate announcements, warnings, prayers, jokes, proverbs and poetry. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, skilled dùndún players use the instrument to offer up “ritual praise poetry to a deity or king.”

Durojaye’s doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Cape Town in 2019, won the African Studies Review’s 2020 annual prize for the best Africa-based doctoral dissertation. Her graduate work focused on the dùndún’s role in conveying emotion and information.

“[T]his speech surrogacy functions in the dissemination of Yorùbá oral history, recitation of various forms of Yorùbá poetry, saying proverbs and even informing a king about the arrival of guests,” Durojaye told Helen Swingler, a member of the university news team, earlier this year. “The drum texts can also be philosophical, humorous or they can be a form of advice, prayer or vilification.”

She added that when the drums are used as speech surrogates, they’re performed without accompanying songs or vocals. When played alongside vocal music or poetry, however, the instruments are performed in a purely rhythmic fashion.

In the statement, Durojaye says that studying non-Western cultures can help scientists understand how humans process music and speech.

“These kinds of multicultural findings are useful for considering deeper relationships and understanding of types of auditory communication and the evolution of language and music,” she says.

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