Did you know that percussion instruments are thought to be the world’s oldest form of manmade instrument?
This category of musical instruments (alongside the other four families of strings, woodwinds, brass, and the human voice) is also the largest and could very well be considered the most diverse.
This guide to percussion instruments will do the following:
- Provide a broad overview of percussion history
- Cover how percussion instruments work
- Explain the main two different types of percussion instruments
- Give an instrument-by-instrument rundown
- Look at which percussion instruments tend to feature in orchestras
- Complete Percussion Instrument List
By the time we’re done, I’m sure you’ll have a newfound—or deepened—appreciation for these infectious instruments.
How Percussion Instruments Work & Produce Sound
Percussion instruments are played by individuals referred to as percussionists.
These musicians produce sound by striking or scraping the instrument with a beater (e.g. a drumstick, or even one’s hands).
Types Of Percussion Instruments
There are two main types of percussion instruments: membranophone and idiophone.
It’s pretty easy to remember what kind of percussion instrument “membranophones” are—just think of “membrane,” or the thin layer that’s stretched tightly over a frame.
For example, the snare drum and tom drums of a typical drum kit are membranophones.
Idiophones, on the other hand, produce sound when hit by the percussionist due to the resulting vibrations of the entire instrument—think, for example, of the cymbals of a drum kit.
Tuned & Untuned Percussion Instruments
Also referred to as pitched and unpitched percussion, tuned/pitched percussion can play melodies and has an adjustable pitch, whereas untuned/unpitched percussion cannot.
Unpitched percussion instruments, such as snare drums, are used for their rhythmic purposes rather than tonal purposes.
Pitched percussion instruments, on the other hand, can provide both rhythmic intrigue as well as melodic lines.
Both pitched and unpitched percussion instruments can be either membranophones or idiophones.
Most Popular Percussion Instruments
There is an incredible diversity of percussion instruments and dozens in both the membranophone family and the idiophone family.
For this guide, we’ll focus mainly on the better-known varieties, starting with membranophones, and then switching over to idiophones.
Bongos are often confused with congas and vice versa. To help remember the difference, just remember that bongos are smaller than congas and also yield a higher pitch.
By comparison with bongos, congas are much taller. Unlike bongos, which are usually held by the percussionist, congas usually stand on the floor.
This drum is of African origin and has a unique, goblet-shaped appearance. Djembe players hold it between their knees and play using their hands.
You may have heard this by the name of “kettle drums,” another appellation for these massive drums that sit on the ground in front of the timpani player, who hits them with felt-tipped mallets.
Timpani drums can have their pitches adjusted through the use of a foot pedal that loosens or tightens the drum head.
With origins in the Middle East, tambourines are one of the more commonly recognized percussion instruments. They are used either by themselves or on top of a drum kit’s hi-hat, and feature distinctive jingles (technically known as “zills”).
Thought by some experts to be the oldest type of drum, mridangams have two different drum faces: left and right. In traditional mridangam playing, a flour and water mixture is applied to the left face so that it produces a lower tone when played.
The ngoma is of African origins and sits on the floor. It has a unique barrel shape, and the drummer uses big wood beaters to play it.
In traditional Indian music, tabla is extremely common. Often paired with a sitar in this music, tablas are a set of two drums, one called the “male drum”—which produces a lower tone—and the other called the “female drum”—which produces a higher tone.
The bodhran is a drum featured in traditional Irish music. Sometimes the bodhran will still make its way into orchestral music, especially with Irish and British composers.
The bodhran looks like a tambourine but has no jingles, the player striking it with a small beater.
This is where we’ll be transitioning to idiophones, because the standard drum kit contains both membranophones and idiophones.
The bass drum, snare drum, and tom drums are membranophones, while the cymbals are idiophones. Drum kits are well known for their use in jazz, rock, and many other types of music.
The xylophone is made from wooden bars laid out like a piano keyboard. Xylophone players use felt-tipped mallets to hit the bars and produce different pitches.
Often mixed up with the xylophone, and for good reason, the vibraphone is really an adaptation of the xylophone with metal bars rather than wooden ones. It also contains a built-in resonator that projects the sound. In essence, vibraphones are electrified marimbas.
The glockenspiel is part of the xylophone and vibraphone family, but smaller than its siblings. Glockenspiels contain small metal bars that produce sound when struck.
The marimba is very similar to the xylophone. It has the same basic structure and is played in a similar fashion, but it possesses a greater range of pitches.
These bells are in fact pitched chimes. Bells/chimes players use beaters to strike them and produce their distinctive sound.
Timbales have a metal frame and are small, stand-mounted drums. Timbale players use beaters and usually also have a cowbell and sometimes a woodblock in their kit.
One of the most well-known idiophones, cymbals are typically curved brass discs that come in a wide variety of sizes. In a standard drum kit, cymbals include a hi-hat, ride, crash, and splash, each being mounted on their own stand and played with beaters (usually drumsticks but not always). In orchestras and marching bands, cymbals are played as a handheld pair.
You might know claves from salsa music, as they are one of the common elements of this fun genre. Claves are essentially wooden sticks that click together, resulting in an unpitched sound.
Most people will recognize the gong for its distinct, almost onomatopoeic sound. With origins in Eastern traditional music, a type of gong is also often used in Western classical music, where it is known as a tam-tam.
Gongs are essentially large metal discs suspended in a frame and played with beaters.
A staple of Latin American music, maracas come from Venezuela originally. Another well-known idiophone, maracas are basically wooden shakers with handles.
Steel drums are made from a concave metal drum that is often positioned between a player’s legs. To produce different pitches, steel drum players strike different areas of the drum.
Ah yes, what kind of list would this be without the famed cowbell?! The cowbell is a hollow metal bell, drawing its name from a similar bell hung around the necks of cows. And yes, the answer is always “More cowbell!”
Percussion Instruments In Orchestras
Percussion forms a vital part of the orchestra. Percussion instruments help set, maintain, and alter the rhythm, make unique and exciting sounds, and add novelty and color to the mix.
Another unique aspect of percussion is that percussionists will often play multiple instruments throughout one piece of music, unlike, say, a cellist.
Percussion Instruments Used In Orchestras
The most standard percussion instruments found in orchestras are the timpani, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, maracas, gongs, chimes, and piano.
- Snare drum
- Bass drum
Wait, piano?! While this controversy lies beyond the scope of this brief overview, the piano holds a unique position, similar to both percussion instruments and string instruments, as it is struck like a percussion instrument, but this in turn triggers hammers that hit its strings.
Sections | Where Do They Play?
Where do percussion instruments play in an orchestra? Percussion instruments usually play in the fourth section (last section) of the orchestra.
A Brief History Of Percussion Instruments
At some point, one of our early ancestors hit one thing against another and appreciated the sound and/or rhythm that was produced.
This practice is so ancient and universal that drums are found in nearly every culture in the world and have likely existed since well before 6,000 B.C.E.
We know this thanks to Mesopotamian culture, which was depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, featuring the following lines: “Come then Enkidu, to ramparted Uruk… Where every day is set for celebration, where harps and drums are played.”
In addition to their use in celebrations (think parades) and armies, percussion instruments have long served significant roles in religious practice and are particularly known for their use in sacred ceremonies.
Full Percussion Instrument List:
Here are some of the many percussion instruments commonly played in the Western world and elsewhere:
- bass drum
- egg shaker
- el bombo leguero
- gaku daiko
- ghat singhari
- Jew’s harp
- kagura suzu
- kane (atarigane)
- musical saw
- ngoma drums
- patayani thappu
- pung cholom
- sand blocks
- sleigh bells
- snare drum
- stomp box
- taiko of Okinawa
- thumb piano
- tubular bells
- uchiwa daiko
- water drums
- wind chime
- wood block
Conclusion | Wrapping Up
It is no wonder why percussion is likely the oldest manmade instrument and continues to exercise such global appeal. We are, after all, deeply attuned to rhythm and love moving our bodies to it. Percussion helps provide this, but not only this!
As we have covered, percussion refers to a broad assortment of instruments, including pitched percussion (like the xylophone), which can play melodies.
This makes them more like the controversial piano—is it percussion or a stringed instrument or both?—in that they can provide rhythm and melody.
No matter which percussion instrument you pick up, you’re likely to have a fun time playing it. True mastery of these instruments, however, tends to take a lifetime.