The percussion family

Most percussive instruments were only introduced to orchestras in the last couple of centuries. The percussion section sits at the back of an orchestra.

What to consider when choosing a percussion instrument

Variety in instruments: There are so many different types of percussion instruments from the drum kit, triangle and piano - you could even rummage through rubbish and create a set of recycled percussion instruments.

They're loud: Percussion instruments tend to take up a lot of room and are known to be loud so bear the available space and neighbours in mind. There are electric drum kits and pianos that are perfect for cramped rehearsal spaces, but do not have the same quality as the real thing although the technology has improved greatly.

Awareness of volume: A percussionist must possess the skills to maintain a strict tempo and reliable rhythm while showing an awareness of volume in an ensemble. It goes without saying these skills are integral to any musician but particularly so to rhythm players.

If you're an experienced percussionist already, why not search for new instruments to add to your set or explore the different sounds you can create with your existing kit. A crash symbol makes an explosion of sound when hit but sounds different if you attach a bath plug chain to it.

What are percussion instruments made from

A mixture of materials including metals, woods, rubbers, bone, dried foods and plastics.

Sticks and mallets are often made of wood but tipped with plastic, cotton or rubber.

How to play percussion instruments

The percussion family is the largest of all of the instrument groups. It consists of any instrument that makes a sound when hit, which means a lot of instruments classify.

A percussionist must be able to adapt to each instrument because they have to be played in different ways to sound correctly. For example, a gong cymbal has to be warmed up by lightly hitting the cymbal repeatedly before the final strike, not just one big hit.

The sound they make

The sound made completely depends on what the percussion instrument is made of, where it is hit, how hard or soft it is hit and what it is hit with.

A snare drum will sound differently when hit directly in the middle of the drum skin compared to the rim.

Example listening pieces

  • Guiseppe Verdi: Il Travatore, Act 2, Vedi! le Fosche Notturne Spogile (Anvil Chorus)

  • John Phillip Sousa: Stars and Stripes Forever

  • Aram Khachaturian: Gayenne Suite No.3, 5th movement, Sabre Dance

  • George Bizet: Carmen Suite No.1, 5th movement: Les Torédores

Timpani drums

A set of timpani drums are a collection of big copper bowls with a synthetic drum skin stretched over the top. At the bottom of the bowl is a foot pedal to change the drum’s pitch. Applying force to the pedal raises a ring tightening the skin and increases the pitch.

The player has to be able to know where to move the pedal to during the performance, sometimes there can be four to think about.

As well as hitting the drums with cotton tipped sticks, the player has to use the palm of their hand to stop the sounding note.

These big orchestral drums are classed as tuned percussion because each drum needs to be tuned to the piece of music. The skins are stretched or loosened with keys.

Timpani drums will be difficult for most people to fit inside their house so look for alternative surfaces that act like the skin of the drum. Surprisingly, hardback books possess almost the same level of bounce as stretched timpani drum skins, for example.

More from Bring the Noise

The brass family
The woodwind family
The string family