World Rhythms: Tabla

Tabla. Illustration: Jayesh/

The classic arrangement of a small double-drum is an instrument design that is so good that they are found everywhere throughout the world. The tabla is a well-known double-drum from India.

The double-drums along the Silk Route reflected great diversity of materials and technologies as well. Here you will find instruments made from bamboo, clay, ceramic, metal and wood, and with a variety of kinds of animal hide for the drum heads.

Students and teacher will learn how to build and play the Tube-la.

Grade Level:

Kindergarten and up.

Time Required:  
To build an entire Tube-la (depending on the materials) – 5-15 minutes
To prep materials for classroom building – 2-5 minutes each instrument
For the entire class to build instruments (not including material prep-time) in a classroom setting – 30 minutes.  Note:  For students K-3 several parent volunteers are highly recommended

•    A set of drum bodies –these may  be made from a wide variety of objects, such as

Carpet tubes If you use this material you will have to cut the cardboard tubes.  For safety, I would advise using a small saw called a coping saw, as well as wearing safety goggles.
Tin cans Always check the cans for sharp edges or metal spurs left over after removing the tops.
Small plastic food storage containers
Stiff plastic drinking cups

•    Two 12” balloons for each pair of drum heads
•    Scissors
•    Rubber bands (the standard thick brown rubber band is fine)


1.    Students will make a musical instrument and play it according to a pattern
2.    Student writing


1.    Learning about the Tabla
•    Teachers will familiarize their students with the tabla by either reading or assigning students reading about the instrument which is located in the Source Book.
•    Teachers and students may also search the internet for web sites related to music using the tabla.

2.    Making the Tub-la 
•    Prepare your drum bodies. Depending on the material you choose for the body, the drum may be open or closed at the bottom. Carpet tubes, for example, will be open at both ends. Cans may be open or closed at one end.  The diameter of the openings of the above drum bodies should range from 2 to 4 inches if you are using a 12-inch balloon for a drum head.  Any wider may be difficult to stretch the balloon with it.  The lengths of the drum bodies can be as short as 3-4 inches and as long as 8-10 inches.
•    It is best to have drum bodies of somewhat different size.  So, for example, if you are using carpet tubes, cut one to be several inches longer than the other.  If you are using tin cans, use one that is larger than the other, etc.
•    Use the scissors to cut the balloons in half.  Discard the valve side (the one that you blow into).
•    Stretch what is left of the balloon over the open end of your chosen drum body.  Pull it down tight over the body.  If it has a tendency to slide upwards, wrap one of the rubber bands around it to hold it tight – consider double wrapping the rubber band if necessary.
•    Repeat steps 1-2 for the second tube
•    Connect the two drums together using the final two rubber bands

3.. Playing the Tube-la:
These drums are best used with hands and fingers, although you can also use things like pencils as drumsticks.  However, you may find that the pencils just break the rubber of the balloon head.

If your drums are open at the bottom, make sure that they are not placed on a table or floor – the drum will sound muffled.  While sitting down, hold the drums between your legs and play them that way.
The tube-la will make different sounds if played in different ways.  Here are some possibilities:

•    Lightly tap the balloon with one finger, letting the finger bounce back up in the air after the hit.  Try this at the center of the balloon and off at the edges.
•    Hit the balloon with all the fingers of one hand, not lifting the hand up after the hit.  This will make a more damped sound.
•    Try hitting the balloon rapidly with the index and middle finger at slightly different times, producing a “da-dump” sound.
•    Try pushing lightly on the balloon with a finger from one hand while hitting it with a finger from another.  The pitch should rise as you apply pressure.

4. Each student will write step by step instructions on how to build a play a Tube-la.


1.    Students are asked to gather information about percussion instruments. Have them find pictures of different percussion instruments used in different parts of the world. Divide the class into groups, each group will compare and contrast the different instruments they have found and report to the entire class.

2. Create variations on the tube-la.
While the classic tabla is only two drums, it is certainly possible to expand the number of drums on your tube-la.  Add other tubes with balloons stretched over the top.  Try some of these possibilities:
•    Add tubes of incrementally different lengths
•    Try stretching the balloon with different tightnesses – from very tight to not-so-tight
•    Experiment with lengths of tubes vs. tightness of balloons
•    Use completely different tube materials.  What is the difference in sound between  open-ended tin cans vs. closed-ended tin cans?  What is the difference between tin
cans and cardboard tubes?

3. Teacher may use the Tube-la as a Demonstration Tool [20 minutes]
If you decide to use the Tube-la as a demonstration tool, rather than have the entire class build them, here is a demonstration that you can use to help your students understand this instrument:

Using the concepts of the Variations listed above, it is possible to make a simple science lesson using the Tube-las.  Create a wide range of tube-las, using different tube lengths and tube materials.  Consider getting different size balloons to see if that has an effect on the pitch/sound.  Using different lengths of tube made from the same material (for example, cardboard tube) stretch the balloon to different tightnesses –
•    loose; medium; tight.  Keep a record of the observations.  Your students will soon find that the tighter the balloon, the higher the pitch; but also, the longer the tube, the lower the pitch.  These two variables are very important in building and understanding drums.

4. Using Descriptors and Metaphors [40 minutes]
Timbre is a word used to describe the unique sound that a certain musical instrument makes.  For example, a clarinet and saxophone work in very similar ways, but, for various reasons having to do with instrument construction, sound very different.  While the clarinet is often described as “warm” or “breathy”, a saxophone is more described as “strident” or “metallic”.

The timbres of the Tube-la vary greatly depending on what material you created the drum body out of.  The sound of a cardboard tube drum body is very different from a tin-can drum body which is very different from a closed-end tin-can drum body.

1.    Create a variety of different sounding tube drums using drum bodies of different materials
2.    Play each drum for the students, giving them an opportunity to really hear the timbre of the instrument
3.    Begin to make a list of descriptors that the students assign to the different drum bodies
4.    After creating lists of descriptors for each drum body, ask your students to begin creating metaphors for each instrument.  For example, a drum with a cardboard tube body may sound “like a hollow log” or like a “dog barking in the distance”, while a drum made from a closed-end tin can may sound like “a car accident” or “screeching fingernails on a blackboard”.
5.    Using these descriptors and metaphors as a “sound bank” ask your students to create a story using these sounds.  Depending on the age of your students you can do this verbally or in written form.
6.    After the students have created the stories you can perform them by having the student read a story aloud while you or your students add appropriate rhythms and sound effects from their musical instruments.