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Percussion Instruments 

Percussion instruments are any that make a sound by being hit, scraped or shaken and they have a pivotal role in music. 

Percussion is the largest group in an orchestra and contains a variety of instruments that play melodies, harmonies and rhythm.  

The word ‘percussion’ comes from the Latin ‘percussio’ which means to “to beat, strike” as a musical term.  

Percussion instruments are classified as definite pitch or indefinite pitch in accordance with the sound they make.

Types of sound production

Percussion instruments can be assigned to one of four categories:

  • Idiophone – producing a sound due to vibration of the instrument.  Include chimes, handbells, slit drum, cymbals, triangles and xylophones
  • Membranophone – a sound is produced when a membrane is struck with the hand, a mallet, a stick or a beater.  Includes bongos, bass drums, snare drums and timpani
  • Chordophone – defined as string instruments but are also percussion instruments.  Includes pianos, cimbaloms and berimbaus
  • Aerophone – mostly  wind instruments. Includes sirens, slide whistles and samba whistles

Types of pitch

  • Definite pitch – a obvious pitch that can play different notes so is able to play melodies and harmonies.  Includes handbells, harps, vibraphones, timpani, steel pans and xylophones
  • Indefinite pitch – sounds produced using complex frequencies with no discernible pitch but are important for rhythm.  Includes castanets, bass drums, cymbals and snare drums

Benefits of percussion instruments

Percussion instruments are generally considered the rhythm section within an orchestra and produce a range of different sounds.  

Pitched or tuned instruments are used to add a ‘celestial’ impact whilst unpitched or untuned instruments, such as the cymbal, are played to create a climatic element to the music.  

A percussionist in an orchestra will often play more than one percussion instrument.  The instruments are used to maintain the rhythm, add variety and excitement to the music, and produce distinctive sounds.  

The most common instruments in the percussion section are:

  • Timpani
  • Cymbals
  • Snare drums 
  • Bass drums
  • Triangle
  • Maracas
  • Chimes
  • Tambourines
  •  A celesta
  • Gongs 
  • Piano
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