‘Percussion’ includes anything that can be struck, shaken, rubbed, knocked, scratched, slapped or stroked to make a sound. So it can be a big section in the orchestra!
There are many instruments, from many cultures and backgrounds: a single percussionist will play only a selection of those available.
The percussion section is the most ‘colourful’: it gives a variety of wonderful sounds.
The oldest percussion instrument is a pair of hands: babies can clap these before they can speak, and have probably been doing it since the year dot.
The 20th century was when percussion really took off: composers such as Stravinsky, Varèse, Cage, Bartók, Messiaen and Boulez wanted to break new ground with their music, and percussion instruments, with their variety and vibrancy, helped them to do it.
Percussion didn’t just bang and crash anymore. And the range of instruments expanded, with traditional instruments from Africa, Latin America and the Far East (gongs, cymbals, drums and xylophones) joining in.
Solo percussionists emerged, too – such as Evelyn Glennie in the UK. Now there are more pieces for solo percussionists to play, and more solo percussionists to play them!
Inside the orchestra
The percussion section is the most exotic part of the orchestra, and has the greatest variety of sound. Instruments come from all over the world.
A composer can include anything at all in a piece, so if you’re a percussionist you could be asked not just to play a xylophone or bang a drum, but tap on a typewriter, pop a cork, or even fire a pistol. Percussionists don’t just know how to play one of the percussion instruments: they can play many.
Brilliant and vibrant, the section can do almost anything, from gentle tunes or little chimes, to massive, exciting bangs and crashes. Composers can ask for all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds to go with the other orchestral instruments.
The sounds are often made by just one or two people, who dash around like athletes between all the instruments at the back of the orchestra!
Outside the orchestra
Concertos: There are timpani concertos from the Baroque era (1600–1750) but most others have been written since the mid-1980s. Since the percussionist has to play a lot of instruments, it’s almost like an obstacle course as much as a musical performance! The effect is exciting to hear and to see.
Solo pieces: There are pieces for all sorts of instruments and combinations of instruments. The repertoire is growing all the time.
Jazz: Drums belong here, of course! So does the vibraphone.
Pop music: Pop music would be lost without percussion. Nearly all of it has a drumbeat.
World music: Percussion instruments aren’t just used in music from around the world – they’ve come from around the world. That’s why the percussion section is so exotic and colourful.
Playing percussion isn’t easy. Here are some of the skills you need:
Unlike everyone else in the orchestra, you sometimes have to play different things at once, with both hands and feet. If you can pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, perhaps you’d make a good percussionist…
Sense of rhythm
Percussionists must be rhythmic and precise. Imagine walloping a bass drum or clashing a cymbal at the wrong moment!
You’re on your own at the back of the orchestra with some of the loudest instruments. You just have to believe in yourself and go for it.
All orchestral players need this. It means being sensitive towards the music they are playing: they have to listen, and know how to blend in with everyone. You might think that percussionists, because they ‘just hit things’, don’t need to be ‘musical’ at all. But this isn’t true. Striking a drum, for example, can be done in many different ways: it needs judgement and a good ear to know exactly how hard and at what angle to bring down the beater onto the instrument. The sense of touch is really important.
Percussionists often don’t own all the instruments, as there are so many to play. But they always have their own set of sticks, hammers, mallets or beaters.
What is in the percussion section?
In theory, the percussion section could include anything that makes a sound (just think what a percussion section you have in your kitchen cupboards…). In reality, the orchestra has regular members that appear in many pieces. These fall into two groups: tuned and untuned.
Tuned percussion (percussion of ‘definite pitch’)
These instruments can produce more than one pitch, or note. The most common are:
- Timpani (or ‘Kettledrums’) – the only drums that can produce different pitches
- Tubular Bells (or ‘Chimes’)
- Celesta (or ‘Celeste’)
Untuned Percussion (percussion of ‘indefinite pitch’)
These instruments don’t have a definite pitch: they produce just one sound. The most common are:
- Snare drum (or ‘Side drum’)
- Bass drum
- Wood block
These instruments can create many sound effects but not really pitches, which is why the neutral clef is used when the music is written down.
An ‘idiophone’ is an instrument that makes a sound by the whole thing vibrating when it is struck. So that’s most of the percussion family! But drums are called ‘membranophones’ because the sound of a drum is produced by the vibrating ‘membrane’ (the skin) that is stretched across it.
The instrument is one thing, but the stick used to strike it is another. Sometimes, as with the tambourine, your hands do all the work. But many other instruments need beaters, and percussionists have whole cases full of different kinds: soft to hard; light to heavy; small to large.
The beaters come in various colours, too. This isn’t just for fun – the colours indicate weight and strength, which makes a difference to the sound.
The radical 20th-century Hungarian composer György Ligeti wrote a piece called Aventures that asks one percussionist for many weird things, including: ‘…paper bags (to pop)… toy frog (to squeak); balloons (to squeak); cloth (to tear); book (to flick pages); tin foil (to rustle); empty suitcase (to hit); metal dustbin and tray of crockery (crockery to be thrown into dustbin)…’ – and the list goes on!
Find out more about the development of the Percussion Instruments in .
A Little History of the Percussion Instruments
The percussion section grew up when composers like Mozart and Haydn used Turkish military percussion instruments in their march-like music. This Turkish-style music was really popular. The section grew from bass drum, cymbals and triangle to include tam-tam, glockenspiel, tambourine and snare drum – to name a few.
The 20th century was when percussion really took off: composers like Stravinsky, Varèse, John Cage, Bartók, Messiaen and Boulez showed just how much could be done with a percussion section. It was used more cleverly: it didn’t just bang and crash anymore. And the range continued to expand, with traditional instruments from Africa, Latin America and the Far East (gongs, cymbals, drums and xylophones) joining in.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● Drums are...
● Where is the percussion section of the orchestra?
● What does a percussionist need to do when not playing anything?
● Where do percussion instruments come from?
● Which of these is most important for a percussionist?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Music Featuring Percussion
Johann Strauss I (1804–1849)
Radetzky March, Op. 228
Soldiers need a strong sound to march to, so drums and cymbals are a big part of military marches. This is the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss I – the father of a very musical family in Austria, famous for writing waltzes. The whole thing starts off with snare drum, joined by cymbals at 0.07.
Performers: Budapest Strauss Ensemble; Istvan Bogár
Taken from Naxos 8.553596
Danny Elfman (b. 1953)
Spider-Man: Main title theme (arranged by John Wasson)
Music is used in films to underline the excitement, the tension and the feelings of the characters. There is plenty of percussion used! Danny Elfman wrote music full of dark, glittering sounds for Spider-Man (2002), and you can hear the glitter right at the start here from the wind chimes: very small metal chimes hanging from a bar, brushed across by the hand of the percussionist. Combined with the high violin sound, it is a magical start… Soon the tom-tom drums enter, and the energy gets going, with pounding rhythms.
Performers: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Carl Davis
Taken from Naxos 8.570505
Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943)
Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra
Joseph Schwantner is an American composer who loves bringing out different sounds from the orchestra. This is a concerto for percussion – so there is an orchestra there, but just like a violin is the solo star of a violin concerto, the percussion section here is the star of this concerto. A composer could pick any percussion instruments to include in a concerto, and the solo percussionist sometimes has to rush about, changing from sticks to mallets, from beaters to hands, from one instrument to another. It’s exciting to watch a percussionist do this! Right from the beginning, you can hear some exciting tom-tom playing: tom-toms are drums. And then listen to the marimba at 0.42 – suddenly delicate, like raindrops. The raindrops increase, until at 1.53 the drums start to erupt again. ‘Misterioso’ means ‘mysteriously’ – and track 2 does sound mysterious. The vibraphone has a big part here: can you hear it right at the beginning? At 1.43 there are some quiet, bell-like sounds: these are pitched Alpine herd bells… so they’re like the kind of bells you might hear around goats on a mountain! At 3.29, the high, dinging crotales (the little cymbals that are struck with a beater) cut through. The last movement becomes fast and rhythmic. Just listen to the tom-tom and bongo explosion at 5.30! There are so many instruments and sounds in this music: it will give you some idea just how amazing the percussion section can be!
Performers: Christopher Lamb, percussion; Nashville Symphony Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero
Taken from Naxos 8.559678
Edgard Varèse (1883–1965)
The composer Varèse had an amazing musical imagination. He used to describe his music as ‘organized sound’. He thought music should be open, alive and free, with ever-changing ideas. His use of percussion influenced many composers who came after him. In 1936 he imagined new instruments in the future that would create ‘an entirely new magic of sound’ – he was always looking forwards. Ionisation was the first piece composed just for percussion instruments. (It has a piano near the end – but in the orchestra, the piano is often treated like a percussion instrument.) Almost all the instruments are unpitched, too. It’s as if the piece, with all its pops, and whirrs and dings, is describing another planet. See how many different instruments you can spot! Can you hear the siren?
Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Taken from Naxos 8.557882
Leroy Anderson (1908–1975)
Composers occasionally bring some funny things into the orchestra… here is a typewriter playing a very convincing percussion role. Typewriters were used before computers ever came along: the keys went clackety-clack; and every time you got to the end of a line there was a little bell sound, and you had to push the roller holding the paper back across to the other side. You can hear this in the music!
Performers: Alasdair Malloy, typewriter; BBC Concert Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin
Taken from Naxos 8.559357
Lenni-Kalle Taipale Trio
Of course percussion is really important in jazz music! The drummer will have a drumkit, which is a collection of drums and other percussion instruments – a standard kit has: snare drum, bass drum (operated with a pedal), tom-tom(s), hi-hat cymbals (opened and closed with a pedal), and a cymbal on a stand to be played with sticks. Here’s a nice example of a jazz track with percussion, beginning with a great roll on the snare drum alongside the piano. It’s an improvisation by this Finnish jazz trio on a popular tune, ‘Pippi Long Stocking’ – apparently when it’s played live, it gets everyone moving. If you listen, you’ll see why… So if you feel like dancing, now is your moment!
Performers: Lenni-Kalle Taipale Trio
Taken from Naxos 86035-2