Percussion Instruments

percussion instruments

Percussion instruments are more than just the drum, with various sounds that impact our culture and worldwide.

However, what categorizes an instrument as “percussion,” and which ones are they?

Read on to find out more about percussion instruments, a brief history, Orchestra percussion instruments, and Latin percussion instruments.

What Are Percussion Instruments?

Percussion instruments are musical instruments that emit sound by shaking, rubbing, plucking, striking, or scraping against other instruments or objects.

There are two types of percussion instruments: idiophones and membranophones.

Idiophones are tuned instruments that form sounds by being struck, such as a xylophone. They are mostly made of wood, metal, glass, or ceramics.

Membranophones are untuned instruments that produce a vibrating sound from a membrane, such as a drum. They are made from calfskin, wood, or plastic. They also come in various groups, such as kettledrums, rattle drums, bowl-shaped drums, and tubular drums.

Brief History of Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments have been a part of human culture for centuries. They have been used for celebration, in war, and during ceremonies.

Drums have been around since 5600 B.C. called the frame drum in Mesopotamia. By 3000 B.C., there were depictions of drums in their culture, mainly amongst women. In Mesopotamian history, they believed the goddess Inanna created the drum.

Ancient Egypt points to many predecessors of percussion instruments, such as the triangle. Their community would use sistrums made from suspended metal disks and a metal arch, resembling the triangle.

Religious drumming for both Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt involved drumming women, although military drumming was reserved for the men.

In China, the oldest cymbal was produced. Amongst their ritual music involved gongs or drums.

Ancient Rome and Greece involved melancholic percussion instruments, drums, and tambourines.

The xylophone has its earliest origins in Southeast Asia, where women would tap two or three wooden bars in their laps.

Africa has a deep history with percussion instruments, using instruments such as marimbas and drums.

Over time, percussion instruments have made it into the orchestra, a modern symphony for classical music. It is also used to keep military personnel in rhythm during marches today.  

In all, every culture and region has a form of percussion instruments they use, whether it’s for entertainment or religious purposes.

Orchestra Percussion Instruments

Let’s look at the most common percussion instruments that are part of today’s orchestra.

Xylophone

Despite coming from Asia and Africa, xylophone means “wood sound” in Greek.

Today’s xylophones have wooden keys or bars similar to a piano arrangement. Depending on the mallet you use, you can change the pitch and hitting the bars with different techniques.

Under the wooden bars are resonators. They are metal tubes that allow the sound to vibrate, giving xylophones a bell-like sound.

Cymbals

Cymbals are versatile, loud parts of the orchestra using two large metal discs made from bronze.

They are untuned instruments that come in various sizes, with the largest being the loudest.

Cymbals can be used for stirring up excitement and drama. You can play cymbals by hitting them against each other, using a mallet, stick, or brushes to hit cymbals.

Triangle

The triangle is made from carbonized steel, bent into a triangle shape with a small opening in one corner.

It is held in hand using a clasp or attached to a stand, struck metal beaters.

Overtones are the main objective of triangles. The size depends on the tone, as bright tones are created from small triangles four to six inches. Large triangles, about ten inches, are for darker tones. The most preferred size is between six to nine inches.  

The optimal playing area for triangles is the base opposite the opening corner. Usually, the best pitch overtones result from the metal beaters striking up and down the base.

Snare Drum

The snare drum is amongst the smallest drums in an orchestra, made from calfskin or plastic stretched across a hollow cylinder.

The snare drum is essentially a set of wire-wrapped strings across the bottom, giving the drum a rattling sound as it’s hit. A switch allowed the snare to be turned off or on.

Also, it’s untuned and a central part of marching bands. It’s used to keep a rhythm and is best known for drum rolls. You can play the snare drum by hitting the surface with brushes, drumsticks, or mallets.

Bass Drum

A bass drum is the largest drum amongst percussion instruments and an orchestra.

It’s big and bold, yet it can produce low-pitched sounds.  

It’s commonly played with felt-headed sticks or beaters. Most bass drums come with a single pedal that strikes the drum.

They’re mounted on floor stands, keeping the drum vertical. There is an adjustable cradle to switch between horizontal and vertical.

Tambourine

The tambourine is a shallow drum that is a mix between an idiophone and a membranophone.

They are between six to fifteen inches in diameter. Tambourines are best known for their jingles produced by metal or plastic.

For a softer, delicate sound, a tambourine around eight inches with a single jingle row will do the job. For louder sounds, two jingle rows are common. Latin or rock sounds also require two jingle rows with a headless frame.

You hold the tambourine in your non-dominant hand and strike or lightly tap with your other hand. You may also use a fist or your knee.

Maracas

Maracas have a hollow, round shape with a handle. In ancient times, maracas had dried gourds in their inner shell. Today, they are plastic balls, with the maracas frame made from wood or plastic.

For louder sounds, you must hold the maracas in a vertical position, combing the wrist and arm for a snapping gesture.  

Horizontal positions produce softer sounds as the maracas parallel to the floor. For more control, use your forefinger on the shell.

Gongs

Gongs are not as common in symphony orchestras as before but remain an option to produce unique sounds depending on the theme. Gongs are most associated with an Asian origin, particularly China.

The gong is best known for its unrelated overtones. It’s best for Oriental sounds and loud, booming, or climactic passages.

Because it’s large, you need heavy mallets to strike the gong, producing the maximum tone. Although if you want to create more unique sounds, you can use drumsticks, brushes, or triangle beaters for thin, shallow sounds.  

Chimes

Chimes are also known as tubular bells, producing sounds that are similar to church bells or a bell tower.

Chimes were created to mimic church bells, requiring a striking motion on the top edge of the tube, producing melancholic, angelic sounds.

They are made with tuned brass and struck with wooden hammers. They consist of 12 to 18 tubes connected to a metal frame. The longer the tube, the lower the pitch.

Celestra

A celesta, also called a bell-piano, resembles a miniature upright piano. The celesta produces a softer sound than its sister, the glockenspiel.

Celesta instruments enhance melody lines, acting as a support as it is not strong enough to withstand on its own.

The celesta rose to fame thanks to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who used it in “The Nutcracker” ballet.

Piano

Many don’t think of the piano as a percussion instrument, but it produces a sound by striking. All 88 keys produce a sound as the hammer strikes strings that vary in length to produce different pitches.

Long, thick strings produce low pitches, while shorter and thin strings produce high pitches.

Pianos support the harmony in orchestras. It’s also powerful enough to play solo, indulging in both melody and harmony.

Latin Percussion

There are a set of percussion instruments that fall under the Latin category. Most of these instruments are used in classical and today’s Latin music, which include:

  • Maracas: Also called rumba shakers to produce brittle sounds as the contents inside the shell move horizontally or vertically.
  • Congas: A, tall narrow drum with Afro-Cuban origins made from wood or fiberglass. Several techniques are used for congas, such as open tone, bass tone, slap tone, and muffled.
  • Claves: A pair of cylindrical hardwood that produces sharp sounds when struck together.
  • Bongos: An instrument typically played on the floor corralled by your hands and knees. However, many people mount them on a stand during concerts.
  • Cajon: A Cajon is a box-shaped instrument from Peru that creates sounds by slapping the surfaces with hands. Mostly made of thin plywood, sometimes struck with sticks, mallets, or brushes.

Final Thoughts

Percussion instruments have a long, embedded history amongst humans in various cultures. They produce different pitches, and all have a role in an orchestra, concert, or everyday music.

If you want a more in-depth look at percussion instruments, discussing their sounds and history, consider watching this video packed with 16 minutes of solid information.