On Radio 3 Now

In Tune

16:30 - 17:30

Sean Rafferty presents a selection of music and guests from the arts world.

Next On Air

17:30 Opera on 3

View full schedule

Musical Instruments
Percussion Instruments
Every society that has any music at all has percussion instruments, and their variety is enormous. Within the context of the Western classical tradition, percussion was, until relatively recently, treated almost as an optional extra rather than as a central constituent, and a high percentage of the percussion instruments used regularly within that tradition today originated outside Europe.

The defining characteristic of percussion is that the sound is created by striking (or shaking) the instrument: the piano is a percussion instrument operated by a keyboard .

Percussion instruments can be divided into two types: tuned percussion (such as the xylophone or marimba ), in which specific notes are sounded, and those of indefinite pitch (such as the triangle or cymbals ), in which the vibrations contain many different notes sounded simultaneously, giving an imprecise overall effect. The material struck is generally a hard substance -- such as metal or wood -- though it can be soft, such as the membranes used in almost all types of drum .

Drums typically consist of a membrane, such as animal hide, stretched over a resonator, such as a bowl, and then struck with an implement or by hand. Virtually universal as a folk instrument, at some early stage they began to be employed in military contexts, where their potential for signalling was obvious. Often used in conjunction with the equally warlike trumpets, they were the first percussion instruments to find their way into the concert hall.

Those most familiar from the modern orchestra, the timpani or kettledrums , which were tuned by increasing or decreasing the tension of the skin by means of handles, arrived in Europe via the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. They began to make appearances in the orchestra during the Baroque era and became fixtures during the Classical period. Since re-tuning them was a slow and difficult procedure, not to be attempted without some minutes' pause, they could be sounded only when their tuned notes fitted the harmony; later, two sets were often used, allowing the composer four resounding bass notes to call upon instead of two. The pitch of modern timpani, however, can be precisely and instantly altered by means of a pedal.

Also introduced from Asia Minor were the larger bass drum , the triangle and the cymbals , all of which long retained an association with their cultural origins in their joint title of Turkish instruments . For this reason Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Christoph Willibald Gluck employed them during the Classical period in operas with Eastern settings. Similarly, though far less frequently, the castanets have been employed by Western classical composers in contexts recalling their Spanish origins: Georges Bizet 's Carmen provides the obvious example.

Other types of drum -- notably the snare drum (or side drum ), in which gut or wire strings (snares) stretched over the membrane add a rapid flutter to the basic beat -- later joined the orchestral contingent. The tam-tam or gong came from Eastern Asia, its ominous sound usually evoked in ritualistic scenes in opera (as in Vincenzo Bellini 's Norma or Giacomo Puccini 's Turandot ) or at moments of extreme emotion (as in the 'Pathétique' Symphony by Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky ). Smaller but just as effective is the tambourine , a hand-held drum to which metal bells (known as jingles) are attached. The instrument probably had a Moorish origin, and was known in the West during the Middle Ages when it provided an accompaniment to dancing.

An invariable rule is that the appearance of such instruments for colouristic or descriptive purposes in the opera house was only later followed by their adoption in the concert hall. The standard orchestra of the Classical period admitted only the timpani, but with the rise of the Romantic composer -- whose interest in the colourful and the exotic was much greater than that of his predecessors -- more and more percussion instruments were imported into the concert hall after having proved themselves in the theatre. The French Romantic Hector Berlioz and later the Russian Tchaikovsky took the lead in this expansion of the role of what had hitherto been considered 'salt and pepper' additions to the orchestra, while more conservatively inclined figures such as Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner held back. Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century the regular percussion complement had increased substantially, with the number and variety of instruments used in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler or the tone poems and operas of Richard Strauss reaching unprecedented levels.

This was one late-Romantic trend that the Modernists of the twentieth century did not seek to reverse: rather they intensified it, discovering in the clamour of percussion a useful antidote to the string-dominated lyricism of the dying aesthetic. Igor Stravinsky , Sergey Prokofiev and Béla Bartók all realised the full potential of the percussion department in scores whose visceral impact partly depends on banks of players placed at the back of the platform outgunning the assembled strings, woodwind and brass to the front. In 1931 the French-born American pioneer of new musical sounds Edgard Varèse produced Ionisation , a work written almost entirely for untuned percussion. More recently, the orchestral textures of Sir Harrison Birtwistle regularly place an expanded percussion section at the centre of proceedings.

Little of this concerns the use of percussion simply as noise: the twentieth century also saw a growing attention to tuned percussion instruments, which lent a luminous glamour to the melodies and harmonies of many of the orchestral works of Olivier Messiaen . The xylophone (possibly of African origin, and consisting of variously pitched wooden bars struck with hammers), the vibraphone (an electronic instrument developed in the USA in the 1920s whose resonating tubes are struck with soft beaters), the tubular bells (an assembly of tuned metal cylinders) and many others have all been inventively deployed. In addition, increased attention to percussion instruments has produced not merely outstanding orchestral players but a renowned international soloist, Evelyn Glennie , whose repertory is large and continually increasing.

Guide to Classical Music
Related Links
on radio 3
on bbc.co.uk
on the web
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.