A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that a musician sounds by striking or scraping. Historians believe that the percussion family includes the oldest musical instruments, following the human voice.
The percussion section of an orchestra usually contains instruments such as timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and tambourine. However, the section can also provide non-percussive instruments, like whistles and sirens, or a blown conch shell. Body percussion applies percussive techniques to the human body. Moreover, keyboard instruments, such as the celesta, are generally not part of the percussion section.
The percussion family is the largest in the orchestra. It includes any instrument that makes a sound when a musician hits, shakes or scrapes it. Some tuned instruments can sound different notes, like the xylophone, timpani, or piano, and some are untuned with no definite pitch, like the bass drum, cymbals, or castanets. Percussion instruments keep the rhythm, make distinctive sounds, and also add excitement and color. Unlike most of the other players in the orchestra, a percussionist will usually play many different instruments in one piece of music. What’s more, percussionists may play not only rhythm but also melody and harmony.
The History of Percussion Instruments
Most natural systems follow some rhythm: beating harts, the motion of the planets, ocean waves, phases of the moon, the seasons, the list is long. It is only natural that primitive humans would begin striking sticks or stones rhythmically. Rhythm is one of the critical ingredients of music. Therefore, percussion instruments often establish and maintain the rhythm in the performance of music. James Blades, a renowned percussionist, wrote one of the best histories of percussion instruments in his book: Percussion Instruments and Their History. The book traces these instruments from their primitive origins to composers’ use of modern percussion.
As human society progressed, so did the complexity of percussion instruments. People learned how to make them such that they produced sounds with different volumes, textures, and tones. For example, a slit drum has “tongues” on top, which represent different notes depending on their width and thickness. Likewise, the percussion instruments used in modern orchestras came from Asia Minor. Some of these moved east due to mass migrations and moved back west due to events like the Crusades when soldiers brought Middle Eastern drums home with them.
Musicians commonly refer to Percussion as “the backbone” or “the heartbeat” of a musical ensemble. Percussions often work in close collaboration with bass instruments, when present. In jazz and other popular music ensembles, the pianist, bassist, drummer, and sometimes the guitarist are referred to as the rhythm section. What’s more, in almost every style of music, percussion plays a pivotal role.
In more recent popular-music culture, it is nearly impossible to name three or four rock, hip-hop, rap, funk, or even soul charts or songs that do not have some percussive beat keeping the tune in time. Because of the diversity of percussive instruments, it is not uncommon to find large musical ensembles composed entirely of percussion. Rhythm, melody, and harmony are all represented in these ensembles.
Percussion instruments are so numerous and diverse; it’s hard to pin down specific categories to classify them all. However, people usually separate them into two groups: pitched and unpitched. Pitched percussion instruments produce notes with an identifiable pitch, and unpitched percussion instruments produce notes or sounds without an identifiable pitch.
Pitched Percussion Instruments
As their name suggests, pitched percussion instruments can produce identifiable musical notes belonging to one or more pitches. The best example of this is the xylophone, where each block or key produces a distinct sound no matter how hard it’s struck. Other pitched percussion instruments include the marimba and the tubular bells.
Unpitched Percussion Instruments
Unpitched percussion instruments don’t have a definite pitch. They’re often used to provide rhythm or accents and are played independently of a song’s harmony and melody. Some examples are the snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, and triangle.
According to another categorization, Percussion idiophones include many percussion instruments played with the hand or by a percussion mallet, such as the hang, gongs, and the xylophone, but not drums and only some cymbals. Struck drums include most types of drums, such as the timpani, snare drum, and tom-tom. Percussion reeds are a class of wind instruments unrelated to percussion in the more common sense.