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Percussion Instrument

Percussion Instruments, name given to the orchestral family of musical instruments, which are sounded by striking or shaking. There is a huge range of such instruments all over the world; they are the oldest musical instruments in existence. The Western symphony orchestra in the late 20th century includes a very wide range of percussion instruments, of which some have definite pitches while others are of indefinite pitch.

Pitched Percussion

Pitched percussion instruments include the timpani (kettledrums), the most important percussion instruments in the orchestra. Written parts for timpani first appeared in the Baroque orchestra of the mid-17th century. In the Classical orchestra, two were used, tuned to tonic and dominant (the first and fifth degrees of the scale); a third was often used in the 19th century, and modern orchestras frequently use four, with many works requiring several more (when it is common for two players to play several timpani each, as in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, 1913, or Holst's The Planets, 1916). Another type of pitched drum in the orchestra is the roto-tom (a modern development of the unpitched tom-tom, in which the drums can be tuned to a precise pitch by rotating the drum head).

Other pitched percussion instruments include the celesta (played with a keyboard like a piano), the tubular bells (played with leather or plastic beaters), and the mallet instruments: the glockenspiel and vibraphone (both made of metal bars), the crotales (of metal discs), and the xylophone and marimba (both of wooden bars). From the late 19th century these instruments were used occasionally and for special effects, but during the 20th century have become a standard part of the composer's orchestral palette. The glockenspiel may be used to support a melody or for bell-like effects. It appeared relatively early in comparison with other percussion instruments, and has taken various forms, including a version for a marching band in which the metal plates are arranged vertically, and a version played by a keyboard (used by Mozart in The Magic Flute, 1791, and more recently by Messiaen in the TurangalÓla Symphony, 1948). The standard orchestral version, with steel plates mounted horizontally in a case and struck with mallets, appeared in the 19th century. The celesta (a variant of the keyboard glockenspiel, but with a much softer, less penetrating tone) was invented in the late 19th century—its earliest well-known appearance was in the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker (1892). The xylophone first became known in the early 19th century, and its first significant orchestral appearance was in Saint-SaŽns' Danse Macabre (1874). Saint-SaŽns also made use of tubular bells, as did Tchaikovsky in, for instance, his 1812 Overture (1880). To the list of tuned metal percussion must be added steel drums (usually played in ensemble in steel bands), formed from oil barrels in which the head has been beaten into a concave shape with several distinct areas, each tuned to a separate pitch; and gongs, lipped circular sheets of metal with raised central domes which are played with heavy, felt-covered beaters.

Unpitched Percussion

Instruments without pitch used in the orchestra include a range of drums, the most prominent of which are the snare drum (or side drum), tenor drum (military in origin like the side drum, but without snares), and the bass drum. In the 20th century this group has been augmented by the bongos and the conga (both from Latin American music, and played with the hands), the tom-toms (of Native American origin, and played in the orchestra with sticks), and the friction drum (a drum with a wooden stick or length of string attached to the head, which when rubbed with a cloth or the hand produces a roaring sound). Related to this family is the tambourine, effectively a drum played with the hands to which metal jingles have been added. The basis of the modern drum kit, or drum set, used throughout the world of jazz and rock music, is a snare drum, a small bass drum with a head damped to produce a “dead”, unreverberating sound, a range of intermediate tom-toms, and a variety of suspended cymbals, such as the ride, the splash, the sizzle, and the hi-hat.

Other unpitched metal percussion includes the triangle (played with a metal beater); the clash cymbals (two hand-held cymbals struck together); the tam-tam (similar to a large gong but without a central dome and producing no definite pitch); the brake drum (a suspended steel circle from a vehicle brake, producing a clear, penetrating tone when struck); the cow bell (whether used individually or in groups their rather dead tone means they are usually treated as unpitched instruments); sleigh bells or jingles (small bells mounted on a stick and shaken rhythmically with the hand); and the anvil (occasionally a real anvil is used, but more often a smaller, specially produced substitute).

Unpitched wooden percussion includes the castanets (in the orchestra usually mounted on a box rather than played in the hand, as in traditional Spanish music); the maracas and the cabasa (both of Latin American origin and originally made from gourds, the maracas are mounted on sticks and contain loose material such as gravel which rattles when shaken, while the cabasa has rattling material sewn on to a string framework tied around its outside); the claves (a pair of thick sticks of resonant solid wood, producing a pure-toned sound when struck together), the wood block (a rectangular block of wood notched to add resonance, and played with a stick), and temple blocks (usually at least three or more, of Chinese origin, they are similar in construction to the wood block but spherical or clam-like in shape and mounted on stands). A variety of playing techniques can produce a wide range of effects.


The appearance of percussion instruments in the Western orchestra is probably an indirect result of African and Asian influence (as can be seen from the non-European origin of so many of them). It is probable that the timpani derives from drums brought to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and since the 17th century they have had a constant place in Western orchestral music, including operas, concertos, and symphonies.

More drums appeared in the 18th century, when Turkish military music (the music of the Janissaries) enjoyed considerable popularity in army bands. Gluck, in his opera Iphigťnie en Tauride (1779), Mozart, in the Singspiel The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), Haydn in his Military Symphony (no. 100, 1794), and Beethoven in his Symphony no. 9 (1824), all wrote “Turkish” music, using the bass drum (known at the time as the Turkish drum), triangles, and cymbals. It was this combination that became the basis for all later expansions of orchestral percussion, although their appearance was by no means common in orchestral music through most of the 19th century, being reserved for moments of exotic “colour” rather than as a regular part of the composer's orchestral range. For this reason many percussion instruments made their Western orchestral debuts in operas, since a story set in a distant corner of the world would provide a pretext for the composer to introduce an unusual instrument. Later on in the 19th century the emerging form of the tone poem also began to fulfil this function. For instance, a vogue for Spanish music, which can be seen in a work like Chabrier's tone poem Espa?a (1883), led to the introduction of the tambourine and the castanets.

The 20th century has seen a huge increase in the number and variety of percussion instruments in use in Western orchestras. This is due to many factors, including the ease of foreign travel allowing unusual instruments from all parts of the world to be introduced, and the increasing interest of composers throughout the century in using the orchestra as a tool for producing subtle variations of timbre, rather than simply as a medium through which to express an abstract idea. The last few decades have also seen a great improvement in the standardization and quality of construction of once unusual instruments, with companies such as Zildjian, Premier, and Ludwig producing a huge range of instruments, sticks, and beaters for all levels of use.

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