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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Instruments - Percussion

If it get hit to make the sound/music - it's percussion!

The percussion family is huge! If you have to hit it or shake it to make the sound it belongs to the family of percussion. Percussion is split into two groups: pitched percussion and un-pitched percussion.


If the percussion instrument can play a melody, and sound different notes, it's a pitched percussion instrument. Most of the time they will read in treble clef.

Here are just some of the many pitched percussion instruments:

Glockenspiel – A high pitched, tinkly, metallic instrument. Mallets (sticks with balls on the end) are used to play the instrument. The ends of the mallets can be hard plastic, rubber, wooden, or metal. Technically, it is a transposing instrument as the pitch sounds two octaves higher than the written pitch. The range is between two-and-a-half to three octaves.

Celesta – A keyboard version of the glockenspiel.

Tubular Bells – These are a set of hollow, metal tubes, that get struck with a (musical) hammer to produce a sound not dissimilar to church bells.

Vibraphone – A huge glockenspiel with the addition of resonator tubes under each note. The music sounds at the pitch it is written. The vibraphone consists of dampers which, similar to the piano, can allow the notes to resonate when the pedal is down, or muted when the pedal is up. The thing that makes the vibraphone unique is the fact that there is all a fan that when switched on will produce a vibrato/tremelo sound; that is to say the note wobbles but don't say that it wobbles in your exam!

Xylophone – A mid to high range instrument made of wooden bars. (The name comes from Greek word, xylo meaning wood.) Again, mallets are used to produce the sound. Parts are written an octave below the pitch that sounds, making it a transposing instrument. The range is similar to that of the glockenspiel.

Marimba – A low sounding wooden instrument similar to the xylophone.

Timpani/Kettle Drum – When you see an orchestra playing live, these beasts at the back look (and sound) very impressive! They consist of a large, metallic body and a membrane stretched over the edge of this. There are keys around the edge with tighten or loosen the skin producing different tones. Very often they will have a pedal to enable the player to change a note quickly. They come in various sizes, the large the size the lower the pitch. They are played with mallets (soft and hard depending on the music and effect desired).

Un-pitched Percussion

There are more un-pitched percussion instruments than I have space for! So I'll cover some of the basics...

Drum Kit – A drum kit will often consist of a kick drum (bass drum) so called because it's played using a pedal which 'kick' the skin. It'll also have a snare drum a hi-hat, a cymbal (or two), a tom-tom, and a floor tom. The tom-tom will be on an arm that fits onto the kick drum. The floor tom, which has a low sound, stands on the legs on the floor. Some drummers have a variety of tom-toms (which when hit from left to right will get gradually lower in pitch). There are also numerous different types of cymbal they will use. I'll go into more detail about the cymbals shortly. The drum kit will be used in rock, pop, blues, jazz, musicals...just about anything really (apart from a marching band!) This is a video of Terry Bozzio's (Frank Zappa, Missing Persons) 'big kit'.

Bass Drum – A very low sounding, big drum. Can be used in a marching band where the player will wear a harness to carry the thing, and hit the skins (it's double sided) with a big soft mallet. In marching bands the bass drum is used to keep time. When used as part of a drum kit, it will sit on the floor, often with feet jutting out to stop it moving across the floor.

Snare Drum – So called because underneath this drum are some fine metal wires which when engaged will produce a buzzing type sound. A snare drum can also be played with the snares disengaged, which will produce a standard drum type sound. When in a marching band there will often be several snare drums, playing march patterns which usually consist of rolls (notes played very fast to sound like one sound), and individual notes to punctuate certain beats. In a drum kit situation the snare drum will be used to provide emphasis and back beats.

Tom-Tom – Often called 'rack-tom' because they are sat on a rack that is mounted on the kick drum. They produce a fairly hollow sounding tone. The smaller the drum the higher the tone, with the opposite being true as well.

Floor Tom – Stands on the floor and produces a low, though not as low as the bass drum, tone.

Timables – Often used in salsa music and often in pairs (one high sound and one low sound). They are similar in effect to the tom-tom, though look more like a snare drum.

Bongos – Two adjoined, hand drums with skins. The larger drum produces a low sound, while the higher produces a higher one (shocker!). They are played with the hands and often between the legs of the player. Often used in Latin music.

Congas – These are similar to bongos in that they produce a similar sound However, congas have stands and are considerably taller. They are played with the hands.

Bodhran – A hand held drum on a large frame with a skin on one side. There is often a cross bar the player will hold. The instrument is played with a doubled headed beater and the tone of the drum can be adjusted by the players fingers as he holds the cross bar. Often used in Irish folk music.

Maracas – Originally wooden but nowadays plastic is used for the head. The head is hollow with some beads, dried peas, small stones, sand...when shaken the sound is produced. Again accents can be produced when hit with the palm of the hand.

Egg Shaker – A small, hollow, egg shaped, instrument with sand or fine gravel in it. Played in a similar way to the maracas except there is no handle. Accents are produced by shaking harder.

Castanets – Two, originally wooden, disks slightly hollowed out on one side joined together by elastic or strings. The sound is produced by bringing the woods together. Used a lot in flamenco music.

Tambour – A hand held drum, similar to a bodhran.

Tambourine – A hand held drum with pairs of cymbals around the edge. Sometimes they have a skin which can be struck, often they are just skinless. They can be shaken in time with the music and the edge struck to accent specific beats.

Sleigh Bells – If you want to make anything (literally) sound Christmassy, add sleigh bells! Attached to a wooden handle are dozens of small bells that when shaken sound.

Hi-Hat – The hi-hat consists of two cymbals sat on top of each other, on a stand. The stand has a long metal rod which the top cymbal attaches to. The rod is activated by a pedal which when pressed brings the hi-hats together to produce a muted metallic sound when struck by a drum stick. When the pedal is released the sound produced is longer and more resonant. Great effects can be produced by varying the amount the pedal is used.

Crash Cymbal – A bright sounding cymbal that crashes when hit. Great for producing loud accents. If used with soft mallets a swelling crash can be produced by playing a roll (lots of notes played in quick succession).

Clash Cymbals – Similar to a hi-hat in that there are two cymbals. They are held by leather straps and are played by clashing them together.

Ride Cymbal – A large cymbal that is largely used to keep time, especially in jazz/swing music. It is played with a drumstick and although can be used for accents, is largely used instead of a hi-hat.

Splash Cymbal – A small, wishy-washy, splashy sounding cymbal.

China Cymbal – A large(ish) cymbal that gives a distinctly Oriental, bright, crisp, explosive sound.

Triangle – So called because of its shape. Made of metal. The smaller the triangle the smaller and tinkly the sound. Larger triangles produce a more resonant sound that lasts longer. The triangle gets suspended from a string or rubber meaning that the player doesn't touch the metal (unless they want to produce a muted sound). A metal stick is used to strike the instrument.

Cowbell - Taken from the bell that cows wear in Austria. The sound can be quite a dull one but it cuts through all the noise! Used a lot in Latin music, in conjunction with timbales (often). Famously used in Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper" which was parodied on Saturday Night Live.

In honesty, if you can hit it and it produces a sound, it can be used as a percussion instrument. I've written and arranged pieces that have used a brake drum (literally from a car), heavy chains, saucepans, cheese graters, chopping name it! You are only limited by your imagination.

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