Nov 14

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Orchestral Instruments; Part 4 – The Percussion


The Percussion

Percussion instruments come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, are made of all kinds of materials and produce a hugely diverse range of sounds. What do they have in common? They all produce sound when they are struck.

What is the oldest percussion instrument?


Ancient Cymbals

Percussion instruments were probably the first type of musical instrument to be created. It doesn’t take too much imagination to find some objects lying around and to bang them together! As people began to develop the craft of music, they also put some effort into making the best-sounding instruments. Animal skins stretched over hollowed out wood made good drums, and when metalwork began, metal instruments soon followed.

While ancient instruments made from animal by-products or wood are less likely to survive over the centuries, metal instruments endure. The earliest cymbals originated in China around 3,000 years ago, for example! Cymbals are mentioned many times in the Bible. Gongs are also extremely old, and are first mentioned in Chinese literature in about 500AD.

Which percussion instruments are standard orchestral instruments?

In early classical orchestras (from the beginning of the 19th century), the only percussion instruments which were regularly used were the kettle drums, also known as timpani. A kettle drum has a large, round copper (or fibreglass) body, with a synthetic membrane skin stretched taut across the top.



One kettle drum produces one tuned note. In an orchestra, there will normally be at least 2 or 3 drums, tuned to different notes. The timpanist hits a different drum to play a different note. The drums themselves can be tuned to different notes too, although this is usually only done before a piece is played, rather than during it. Kettle drums have pedals on them, which allow them to be tuned to a note within a range of a fifth. For example, an individual drum might have the range from C-G, and the player might tune it to D for a particular piece. (In very modern music, the player is sometimes asked to change the pitch of the drum mid-piece).

Apart from the timpani, other percussion instruments which were used more and more frequently in the symphony orchestra include the triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, cymbals, tambourines and other types of drum. Percussion players often have to be able to play all the instruments of the percussion section, and they require a wide range of skills!

The triangle is perhaps the simplest of the percussion instruments. It’s simply a triangular piece of metal with a gap left at one corner. It’s struck with a metal striker and produces a high-pitched metallic tingling sound. Although it’s small, the triangle can always be overheard above the rest of the orchestra.

The glockenspiel and xylophone are quite similar, but a xylophone is made of wood and a glock is made of metal. They are set out with a keyboard arranged in the same way as a piano. Another similar instrument is the marimba, which is like a xylophone with additional “resonators” which makes the sound much richer. Professional players can move with incredible speed on their instruments – sometimes so fast their mallets become a blur! Here’s a pretty amazing performance of Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” arranged for marimba duet.

Cymbals are two metal discs which are struck together to produce a loud crashing noise. Since Mozart’s time, cymbals have been included in classical music where a loud, dramatic crash is needed. Tchaikovsky starts the final movement of his fourth symphony with a loud cymbal crash, and uses the cymbals heavily in this movement to create a feeling of drama and intensity.

Of course, you don’t have to bash cymbals together – you can hit one of them with a stick instead!



Tambourines are often found in classical music which is based on folk music or which has an Eastern or exotic feel to it. The tambourine has a stretched skin mounted on a round frame, with small metal discs attached to give an extra buzz to the sound. It was first used in the orchestra in the 18th century, most often in opera.

snare drumApart from the timpani, the other types of drum which you might come across in a symphony orchestra are the snare drum and the bass drum.

The snare drum (also called a “side drum”) has a snappy sound and is used a lot in pieces which have a military theme or where a steady, dance-like beat is required. It was used in Ravel’s famous “Bolero”, for example.

The big bass drum has an important role in the orchestra. It often adds a deep feeling of drama, tension or impending doom, usually when a drum roll is performed, or it can be struck to add power. Verdi uses a bass drum in the “Dies Irae” from his famous “Requiem”. In this clip, the bass drum is clearly seen (and heard!) at about 22 seconds in.



  1. Tenon Saw

    This is a great series of articles about the orchestra. Thank you.

  2. Anthony

    Yeah I agree that this is a very useful and appreciated source because it gives us some sense of where the instruments that we see a lot come from

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