Understanding Instrument Families: Percussion

The percussion family consists of musical instruments that produce sound by being struck, scraped, shaken or hit. Following the voice, percussion instruments are the oldest musical instruments in history and create some of the most exciting and vibrant sounds in the world of music. 

The percussion family makes up the largest family of instruments in the orchestra, and contains such instruments as timpani, xylophone, bass drum, snare drums, cymbals and tambourine. 

What are the key elements of percussion instruments?

Percussion instruments come in all shapes and sizes, some with multiple, complicated parts and pieces, and some simply constructed with few moving pieces. The key elements of percussion instruments are that in order to produce sound, they must be hit, struck, shaken, or scraped in a way that will generate sound through reverberation or vibration. 

What are percussion instruments mostly or typically made of? 

Percussion instruments can be made of a variety of materials. Both tuned and untuned percussion are built from wood, metal, and plastics. Those percussion instruments in the family of drums are most often made of wood shells with drum heads made from stretched animal skins or plastics. Vibraphones, marimbas, and xylophones are typically made from wood and metals. Cymbals are made from alloy metals that produce very ambient, shimmery sounds when struck. 

Drumsticks are typically made of wood, while mallets can be made from wood, cloth, and animal skin. Drum heads used to be made entirely from animal skins, but due to advancements in technology, there are excellent options made of plastics that can reproduce the sound of an animal skin drum head quite closely. 

What are the categories of percussion instruments? 

The family of percussion instruments can be divided into two categories, those that are pitched and those that are not pitched. Some examples of orchestral percussion instruments that are tuned with definite pitch include the xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and piano or keyboard. Tuned percussion instruments can produce an identifiable note when struck or hit and notated with traditional music notation. They may often be found performing melodic portions of a composition. 

Those in the percussion family that do not have a definite pitch include the drums, cymbals, triangle, tambourines, castanets, and more. The notation used for unpitched percussion will use similar rhythmic symbols as typical music notation, but the lines and spaces on the staff refer to different drums, instruments, or cymbals.

How many types of percussion instruments are there? 

The types of percussion instruments are generally separated by tuning capabilities, but there are often distinct differences in percussion instruments that are specific to regions around the globe. The most common tuned percussion instruments include xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. These are commonly referred to as idiophones, which refer to instruments, the whole of which vibrates to produce the sound.

What are the most common or well known percussion instruments?

Xylophone

Person playing a xylophoneThe xylophone has a similar arrangement to the keyboard of a piano. With wooden keys, the xylophone can be tuned to a variety of different musical scales. Either two or four mallets are used to strike the keys that vibrate to produce the sound. Xylophones are found in classrooms worldwide and are a great learning tool for kids and students to help understand simple concepts of music. 

Marimba

The marimba is also made of wooden keys, much like an xylophone. The marimba has aluminum tubes that hang below the wooden keys that act as resonators that amplify the sound and create the unique tone. 

Glockenspiel

One of the major differences between the glockenspiel and xylophone is that the glockenspiel is made from metal or metallic keys, not wooden. Similarly, mallets are used in performance to strike the keys and produce sound, and glockenspiels of various sizes can be found in orchestras and marching bands. 

Tubular Bells

Tubular bells are often referred to as orchestra bells. Like the marimba and glockenspiel,, tubular bells are piano based and can play over two octaves. And mallets are used to strike the bells that resonate to produce sound as well. 

Timpani

Timpanis are often called kettle drums and consist of a large copper bowl with a skin, also called a drum “head”, stretched over the top. The tension of these drum heads can be tightened or loosened to raise and lower the pitch. Specialized mallets called timpani mallets are used to strike the head of the drum to produce the sound. 

Timpanis come in a variety of sizes and each drum typically has an interval range of a perfect fifth. You can find timpais in many types of ensembles from orchestras to marching bands. 

Bass Drum

The bass drum comes in a variety of sizes and is used in several different musica settings. Bass drums are often found in orchestral or concert bands, and will be the largest drum in the orchestra. Drum kits found in rock, jazz, and contemporary music will also feature a bass drum, placed on the floor and struck with a foot pedal or beater. And marching bands will often have nearly a half dozen tuned bass drums usually harnessed to the performer striking the drums on either side with a mallet in each hand.

Snare Drum

The snare drum is an untuned drum and smaller than its bass counterpart. Snare drums are often made of wood or brass with two heads, on top and bottom, and metal wired affixed to the bottom, called snares. These snares give the snare drum its unique sound when struck. The snares can be tightened and released with a lever to change the tone of the drum. 

Snare drums, like bass drums, are often used in orchestras, marching and concert bands, drum lines, and of course contemporary bands. Known for their powerful staccato sound, snare drums are traditionally played with sticks and brushes. 

Cymbals

Cymbals in a drum setCymbals are large round discs, typically made of alloy metal and bronze. Cymbals are untuned percussion instruments and vary in size from very small to extremely large. Cymbals are typically played by striking the metal disc with sticks, mallets or brushes. 

Cymbals are found in nearly every type of ensemble, including orchestral settings, big bands, and virtually any ensemble with a drum kit. The larger the cymbal, the deeper and more dramatic the sound. 

Tambourine

Person playing a tambourineA tambourine is a very small, hand-held drum with metal discs set into the sides that jingle when hit or slapped. This is an untuned percussion instrument and it’s played by holding with one hand and tapped or slapped against the other hand, palm, arm, hip or other part of the body. 

​​Castanets

Castanets are made of two pieces of wood tied together, and played by holding them between the fingers and clicking the pieces of wood together. They’re often mounted on a large piece of wood and played by a percussionist by hitting them with his or her hands.

Latin, Afro Cuban, and Persian percussion

Group of street performers playing various drum typesAs the name suggests, Latin and Afro Cuban percussion instruments originate from those Latin nations and regions of the world. Latin/Afro-Caribbean percussion instruments include the bongo drums, congas, maracas, and more.

Persian instruments typically originate from Middle Eastern countries like Iran. Persian instruments include the Persian dulcimer, Tombak, Daf and Dayereh. 

Learning to play instruments from the percussion family

Drummer rocking out during rooftop performancePercussion and drums are the rhythmic force driving the ensemble. The percussion instruments are tasked with keeping time, the most critical element in most modern music. Having an understanding of the instrument’s important role, and how it closely collaborates with other rhythm section instruments is key to unlocking its potential.

Reading notation will play a major role in how quickly one can develop a strong repertoire, especially with tuned percussion instruments that may be responsible for melodic figures. For those interested in composition, a broad understanding of the colors, textures and percussion sounds that the various instruments in this family produce will undoubtedly offer a rich palette from which to draw, illustrate, and enhance any piece. 

Benefits of learning drums

Young girl energetically playing the drumsThere are countless reasons to learn music, but drums and drum sets specifically have some unique benefits any student of the instrument can enjoy. As a therapeutic tool, how many instruments are there where you can violently bang on things? It’s physical stress relief and a creative outlet in one! 

Learning the drum set helps improve coordination throughout the body, using all limbs and not just arms and hands. It’s a full body workout with precise movements coordinated between your arms, hands, legs and feet. For anyone looking to improve their gross motor skills as well as fine motor skills, it’s hard to find a better option than the drum set. 

And last, if you’re looking to make friends, every band needs a drummer! You don’t find too many ensembles with 5 guitar players and no drummers. There will always be a place for percussion in any kind of contemporary music ensemble, so keep that in mind when considering which instrument may give you the most opportunities to play in a band!