When you hear the word “percussion,” you probably think about drums and cymbals. However, drums are a small part of one of the largest families of instruments.
A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is struck by hand or a beater or against another similar instrument to produce sound.
If you wonder what instruments are in the percussion family, you will find out that there are so many of them that you might not even know them by the name. The most common percussion instruments are drums, such as snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and cymbals.
However, other percussion instruments are commonly used in drum sets and orchestras, such as conga, timbales, rototom, cowbell, xylophone, tambourine, gongs, chimes, and arguably, piano.
Percussion instruments can be tuned to generate a variety of tones when played, or they can be untuned to produce a single tone for rhythm and effects instead of a melody.
Let’s go over some common types of drums and instruments in the percussion family.
Drums are a part of the percussion family, considered one of the most popular percussion instruments. Drums create sound when you hit the membrane with the stick, mallets, hands or any other way.
All drums have three main parts:
Drums come in different shapes and sizes, but the most common are:
- Snare drum
- Bass drum
The snare drum is placed on the stand or hangs in front of the musician. It produces a sharp staccato sound when the head (membrane) is hit by a drumstick.
Unlike other drums, the snare drum has wires (the snare) placed under the membrane. The wires vibrate when the head is struck and give the snare drum a unique sound. The snare drum is an important part of marching bands, jazz bands and every drum kit.
The bass drum is one of the largest drums in the percussion family and an essential part of a drum kit. The structure of a bass drum is similar to a snare drum (excluding the snare wires), but it is played differently and has a much lower pitch.
A bass drum that we can see in the drum kits (kick drum) is placed in an upright position on the floor, and the sound is produced by a pedal with a mallet that can be moved by the foot.
Bass drum in orchestras can be much larger, and it is usually hit with a mallet. In the marching bands, the bass drum will be placed upright, fixed on the musician’s chest.
Timpani, or kettledrums, are deep-toned percussion instruments made from copper bowls and a membrane stretched on the top, which is hit by a mallet or stick.
A larger timpani produces a deeper tone, while smaller have higher pitches. Also, they have a foot pedal that can raise or lower the drum’s pitch. They are mostly used in orchestras and band music to add depth and richness to the sound.
Cymbals are thin, round sheets of metal that can be played against one another or hit by a stick or mallet. Cymbals are made from copper-based alloys and come in various shapes and sizes. In general, cymbals have a high pitch and strong attack, adding a unique effect to the sound.
The most common kinds of cymbals are:
Crash cymbal: The most common type of cymbal that makes a loud crash when they are hit.
Ride cymbal: Used to keep a steady beat in music, making a continuous shimmering sound when it is hit with a stick or mallet.
Hi-hat cymbal: A pair of cymbals that sits on top of a stand and can be pressed down by the foot pedal to make the two cymbals close together.
Splash cymbal: A small, thin crash cymbal that makes a sharp, crashing sound when it is hit with a stick or mallet.
Other percussion instruments
The percussion family is large, so we wil just scratch the surface of all kinds of instruments that belong in it.
However, some of the instruments have to be mentioned, besides drums and cymbals, because they have a significant role in most orchestras.
The conga, also known as the tumbadora, is a single-headed, tall, narrow drum from Cuba.
It is primarily a hand drum, but it can also be played with mallets.
Conga can be heard mainly in Latin music such as salsa, descarga, Afro-Cuban jazz, etc.
Timbales, also known as pailas, are single-headed shallow drums with a metal casing.
They have a flatter sound than single-headed tom-toms and are typically tuned much higher.
Timbales are usually played with drumsticks or with bare hands sometimes.
The rototom is a drum without a shell and is tuned by rotating.
It has a single head in a die-cast zinc or aluminium frame.
Rototom has a variable definite pitch and can be tuned, making it different from most other drums.
The cowbell is an idiophone hand percussion instrument that can be found in various musical styles, including Latin and rock.
It is usually made of casted metal in a shape of a hollow cup that vibrates when struck.
A tambourine is a musical instrument in the percussion family consisting of a frame, often of wood or plastic, with pairs of small metal jingles, called “zills.”
Classically the term tambourine denotes an instrument with a drumhead, though some variants may not have a head at all.
They can be mounted, for example, on a stand as part of a drum kit (and played with drumsticks), or they can be held in the hands and played by tapping or hitting the instrument. Tambourines are often used with regular percussion sets.
The gong is a percussion instrument that originated in China and Southeast Asia. It looks similar to a cymbal, and it’s made of bronze or brass. They are often played vertically using sticks.
When hung horizontally, they may also be played using hammers.
Some people use different types of mallets to play them, depending on the type of sound one wants to produce. Gongs produce a range of sounds, including buzzing, thunderous crashes, and metallic rattles.
A chime is an instrument made of tubes or rods that are fixed to a frame or bar, frequently used in orchestras.
The instrument consists of tubes made from different kinds of materials such as aluminum, copper or wood. The tubes are struck with a mallet, which produces a musical note.
Chimes are usually tuned to musical scales and have many different sounds and tones depending on the material they are made out of.
Is piano a percussion instrument?
The piano is classified as a string instrument because the strings inside the wooden frame produce the sound. However,it is also considered a percussion instrument for a good reason.
The sound of piano is produced when hammers inside the instrument hit the strings. Therefore, a piano can be classified as a stringed percussion instrument. There are 88 keys on a standard piano: 52 white keys and 36 black keys.
A pianist plays it by pressing keys, which causes hammers to hit the strings to make a sound. Strings of the piano are tuned to different melodies, which correspond with keys and represent musical notes.
The piano is one of the most popular instruments in the world, played as a solo instrument or a part of the orchestra.
What are tuned and untuned percussion instruments?
The distinction between tuned (pitched) and untuned (unpitched) percussion is that tuned instruments may play melodies and have their pitch altered, whereas untuned ones cannot.
Popular tuned percussion instruments are:
Percussion instruments are pitched using a variety of techniques.
It can happen by altering the membrane’s tension or due to physical characteristics (composition, density and dimensions) and variation of air volume displaced.
The most common untuned percussion instruments are:
They have no noticeable pitch and are primarily used to keep the rhythm of the music or to give special effects with unusual sounds.
The percussion family is rather large, so there are a lot of instruments to explore.
The most commonly used percussion instruments are drums and cymbals, but there are others like conga, timbales, rototom, cowbell, xylophone, tambourine, gongs and chimes.
A piano is mostly considered a string instrument, but it is also part of the percussion family because its strings produce sound when hit by a hammer.
Percussion instruments can be tuned to produce different tones when played, or they can be untuned and have a single tone and give the rhythm and effects rather than a melody.
All of these instruments have their own unique sound, but some of them can be combined together and played simultaneously as in a drum kit.
Drummers often like to experiment with sounds and add different percussion instruments to their drum sets that usually consist of a bass drum, snare, tom-toms and cymbals.
If you dive into the world of percussion family instruments, you might find various interesting additions to your set and broaden the sound of your drumming.