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This unit focuses on idiophones, a group of instrumental media.

Idiophones have the quality of producing sound by themselves (self sounding wares). The objects could be struck, pricked, pulled or pressed with the foot. E.g. gongs of all sizes and shapes.

According to Ibagere (1994:91) idiophone is a “…group of self sounding instruments which produce sound when they are struck, scratched, or shaken. The sound they produce is of a different kind from those of other instruments. In this group are all the different sizes and shapes of gongs, woodblock, wooden drum, bell rattle, earthen ware drum, and other related instruments.”


At the end of this unit of study, students should be able to:

  1. list the types of idiophones drawing from their cultures 
  2. discuss the types of idiophones listed 
  3. discuss the communication functions of the various idiophones.


3.1 Wooden Drums

Drum is the oldest musical instrument. Bunhart (1995) described it is as a member of the percussion family which consists of instruments that are played by striking them with the hand, sticks, or other objects. Such other objects may include a pair of enters or brushes. Describing the wooden drum Akpabio (2003:14) stated that:

…the wooden drum is made from tree-trunk. To enable it produce mellifluous sounds, the bark is removed and an opening is made at the top. This way when struck with a stick it produces sounds. The drums come in various sizes and shapes and it has various designations.

The Annangs of Akwa-Ibom State refer to the wooden drum with the brass sound as Aworum; the smaller one with the tenor/treble sound as Akporo (Akpabio 2003). Furthermore, Akpabio (2003) citing Akpabot (1975:15) stated that among the Ibibios, there are three main types of wooden drums – Obodom Ubong (royal drum), Obodom Mbre(common drum used by masquerade group),Obodum Usuan Etop or Obodom Ikot (drum for message dissemination). He however, did not specify the functions of the royal drum.

Nwuneli (1983) in his study of traditional channels of communication in Nigeria found that the Tivs in the North Central geo-political Zone of the country use drums of various sizes and shapes to communicate different kinds of messages to its people. The Indyner drum is the largest single drum carved entirely out of wood that is used for the transmission of messages associated with stately affairs, wars, disasters, death of important personalities in the community and other related issues among the TIVs. However, Mede (1998) said that the drum is known as Gbande and that drums are generally used to arouse emotions since it is musical instrument. It is used for dance rehearsal and outings, burial ceremonies as well as social and political gathering. He further stated that the talking drum called Ajo is a type of Gbande used to call the attention of people either for an announcement or a meeting.

In the same study Nwuneli (1983) also found that the Igbos of South Eastern geo-political Zone of the country have a similar drum called Ikolo (Ikoro) a variety of “talking drum” which performs identical functions as the Indyner found among the Tivs. Again, among the Igbos, Ekwe carved out of a cylindrical block of wood, is a diminutive variant of the much bigger Ikolo which is set up permanently in market places, village squares or in shrines. The Ikolo functions similarly to the

traditional state drums like the Yoruba, Gbedu; Itsekiri (an ethnic group in South-South geo-political Zone of Nigeria), Orji; Edo (an ethnic group in South-South geo-political Zone of Nigeria), okha; Urhobo (an ethnic group in South-South geo-political Zone of Nigeria), Ogri; and Hausa (a linguistic group in Northern Nigeria) Tambari; were used to summon special meetings, proclaim arrival and departure of important visitors to the palace, arrival of traditional rulers to public functions, announce serious acts of sacrilege and disasters, alert the community against invasion and in war advertise the presence of war chiefs.

3.1.1 The Communication Functions of Wooden Drums

Drums generally function to summon villagers to village square meetings and other meetings of village importance; summon the villagers for communal labour; remind the people of planned work; communal celebrations; public launching; farm harvest; and for entertainment. When people do not understand the specific messages of the drums, they seek clarification. In his study of Erian village, Akpan (1977) found that canon shots and drums are used either separately or combined to announce the death of non-members of the church in the village. Wilson (1998:30) drawing from Akwa-Ibom and Cross Rivers States of Nigeria succinctly stated that wooden drums perform four function – installation of kings and royal celebrations; announcement of the passing away of kings; alerting citizens of grave danger; and ushering in various masquerade groups such as Ukwa, Ekombi, Ekong, Ekpo Nyoho and Ekpe

3.2 Bells

In his study of Erian village, Akpan (1977) found that elephant tusk, bells, canon shots and drums are common African channels of communication. According to Akpabio (2003) the bell is referred to in Yoruba as Agogo; Igbo, Ngbirigba; Ibibio, Nkanika; and Hausa, Kararraw. He stated that the bell has wooden handle from which a conical shape metal is suspended. “It produces sound when the ball-shaped metal suspended on the inside of the cone-shaped structure hits the side of the structure in the process of jiggling” (Akpabio, 2003:16)”.

3.2.1 The Communication Functions of Bells

A bell “is mostly used to get attention, opening as well as to announce, closing and break-time” (Akpabio, 2003:16). Bells are used as communication instruments mostly by modern institutions especially the Christian churches and schools. They are used to summon the congregation to service. During the service too, bells are manipulated to provide melodious tunes to songs. Apart from this, bells are used to silence the congregation, and to signify the end of a particular prayer bit, thereby informing the congregation of the time to open their eyes.

Apart from these, the church also uses the bell to announce the death of their prominent members. When the bell is used for this purpose, it is usually manipulated in a very peculiar manner, which differs markedly from those of other times for which bells are used. For example, instead of being struck continuously for only about three minutes, it is usually struck once in an interval of one to two minutes; when it is struck this way, it is meant to announce the death of a person who is a member of the church. Also, bells are commonly used by schools to summon pupils to the schools. In addition, it is used to inform pupils and their teachers when to change teaching of subjects. The bell is also used to announce recess, lunch time, breaks and the closing of schools. When the bell is rung continuously, it is meant at such occasions to signify emergencies which require the pupils to assemble for special briefings from the school authorities.

In his study of Erian village, Akpan (1977) found that bells are used primarily by religious organisations to summon members to prayers and services. Besides, the church bell is also used to communicate the death of any member of the congregation.

Bells also announce the sacrificial rites being performed before the new yam are eaten in some communities. It equally indicates that the New Yam Festival is in progress.

From the above, it is evident that bells have communication functions in Africa. The various functions already discussed and the people to whom its messages are targeted respond to it. However, its effectiveness could be explained in terms of the low literacy level of the people that attend churches in the rural communities, while the relatively high cost of wrist watches and table clocks could be explained as being responsible for the effectiveness of the bell in schools. For the illiterates, however, even those who can afford wrist watches underutilise them, as they usually seek the help of others who are literate to regulate the wrist watches and read the time of day for them from their wrist watches.


The metal gong is made from metal and is V-shaped. It is known in Efik as Akangkang; Ibibio, Akpongkpong and Ibo, Ogene (Wilson, 1998:33). Some are carried by the younger persons and beaten by the older people. They are beaten to convey different messages. Gongs are appliances of

instrumental sound in traditional channels of communication. Some are made of woods and others of metals, but mainly of metals. Gongs have an opening called mouth each. They are of different sizes dependent on need and use. There are king size or giant size which is about four feet high and others between ten and eighteen inches long. Their mouths or openings depend also on size.

3.3.1 The Communication Functions of Gongs

The king size is really for the kings and aristocratic orders. They are seen at high places, and palaces. This type of gong serves as “phone call” for kings and men of importance. If a king is asleep and has an important and urgent visitor/message respectively, the king size gong is used to wake him in the first instance, whether asleep or awake. That is repeated at intervals to get the king prepared for appearance and to invite his aids if necessary.

Besides royal use of that type, it is also used at sophisticated dancing groups and at shrines adored with awful reverence. At shrines, when it is struck, sudden silence falls on the people and one can hear the fall of a pin. At social gatherings, gongs are struck to call for silence if the gathering is rowdy. The wooden and Indian bamboo types are mainly for social activities, particularly at festivals. During festivals, boys, girls and ladies in particular dance and sing along streets striking various gongs rhythmically along side with songs. They are also instruments for social entertainments. They help ginger people to dance by sharp and fast recording sound. Furthermore, Mede (1998) stated that the wooden gong known as Ilyu in Tiv is an instrument used in transmitting important messages (such as death of kings, chiefs or announcement of local meetings) across to neighbouring villages. It is also used in time of emergency or war, to alert neighbours. Its sounds generally depict the happenings of importance, horror and/or alarm.

3.4The Woodblock (Entertainment Instrumentals)

The woodblock which Ibagere (1994:91) refers to as chordophone “is any instrument which produces sound through the exertion of pressure on string…and it is released intermittently”. It includes all types of string instruments such as guitars, harp, lyre and other related instruments.

Describing the woodblock, Wilson (1998:13) stated that the woodblock is made from wood; hollowed inside but flat on its sides and it serves entertainment function. This description fits the Ekele or Akpata,Oponda and une used among the Ukwuani speaking people of Ndokwa West Local Government Area of Delta State, Nigeria.

Ekele or Akpata is an instrumental appliances built or mounted on half of gourd keg of the size of a medium football. A small flat piece of plank is firmly fixed to the gourd. On the plank, seven small flat umbrella veins/spokes are firmly strung to it. The fourth spoke, the central one, is always the longest with others shorter on both sides to the last which is the shortest. At both ends of the spokes, two tiny pieces of iron or wood are plugged across under them and struck close to the stringed centre to make them produce the vibration sound required. The two adjusters therefore help to raise or lower the volume of sound from it. Besides, on top of the flat plank, a round hole of about two inches is smoothly chizzled out. It helps also to control and raise sounds to the volume required.

Oponda is built on a small box of about one and half feet long and one foot wide. The structure on top over the hole like Ekele is the same. Both are operated like a piano.

Uneh is a harp. It is made of a flexible hard shrub cut to size, not longer than four feet. The head of the stick is torn to admit a string of cane which is wound round the tail several times. For a complete set, two strikers – Eka Nkwa are carved also of hard sticks.

3.4.1 The Communication Functions of Woodblock

Ekele or Akpata, Oponda and une (varieties of woodblock) are all traditional channels of communication used in entertainment during social occasions, festivals and funerals to comfort the bereaved. They speak the languages that suit occasions. They raise and/or lower people’s spirits for specific occasions (Ogwezzy, 1999). According to Wilson (1998:32), just like the metal gong, woodblock play prominent roles during installation of kings and at funerals; used to speak to ancestors and used by members of the Ekpo society in Akwa-Ibom and Cross Rivers States of Nigeria. It is also used for information dissemination as well as entertainment.


Local xylophones are made of wooden bars with varying lengths and a stand (Akpabio, 2003). In this case, wood, metal or any other hard material is used in place of membranes and the bottom of the hollow is usually covered. They are mostly made of many hollows (they could be as many as twenty), each having a different sound, depending on the size of the hollow. Most of the instruments are made of cow horns (Ibagere 1994). Ibagere (1994:92) further stated that:

Because of the hardness of the materials used, that is the wood, or metal which is struck or beaten, it becomes difficult (if not outrightly impossible) to use the hand. [So] well carved sticks (some of which the beating area is covered with synthetic material) are used to beat or strike the wood or metal to produce the sound. For the message produced through the sounds of the xylophone to be understood, one has to be familiar with and literate in code of the music from the xylophone being used to convey the message, otherwise, one could misinterpret the message and either fail to be substantially affected by it, or, at best, be wrongly affected.

3.5.1 The Communication Functions of Xylophones

It is mainly used for entertainment during occasions. It accompanies other musical instruments and song for melody, soothing and rhythm.

3.6 Pot Drum

Doob (1966:10) posited that the pot drum is “a drum which looks like a water pot and is made of baked clay. Explaining the shape and workings, Akpabio (2003:16-17) stated that the pot drum “has the shape of a pot and the beater is normally made from foam”.

3.6.1 The Communication Functions of Pot Drums

It is used to accompany chants and help set the rhythm for dancing. Just as one could use a highly symbolic kind of music to satisfy one’s entertainment proclivities when one understands the melody from the drums. Sounds from the pot drum could be combined with dance. According to Doob (1966:10), the pot drum, is played regularly by young girls who are passing through the preliminary stages of marriage, and is used to accompany chants; it may also set the rhythm for dancing”. It is used most commonly in churches in the eastern part of Nigeria.


This unit examined the wooden drums, bell, gong, woodblock, xylophone and pot drums, delving into their uses. It concludes that the use of and demand for idiophones are determined by the message that needs to be conveyed.


This unit discussed idiophones. It outlined and discussed six types of idiophones commonly used for communication in Africa. It also highlighted the communication functions of the various idiophones discussed.


List the types of idiophones discussed in this unit.


  1.  List four idiophones used in your community 
  2. Discuss the communication functions of two idiophones used in your community. 


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