“The possibilities of percussion sounds, I believe, have never been fully realized.” – Charles Ives
When we think about the different types of musical instruments, those from the percussion family are also to be considered. In simple words, percussion is the production of unique miscellaneous sounds that accompany the main rhythm of a particular beat. This has been a very old concept in the music industry, even before string and wind musical instruments were invented. The word ‘percussion’ comes from ‘percussio’, which simply means ‘to beat or strike’ or ‘percussus’, that means ‘a beating’. Today, with the advent of electronics in musical instruments, this concept has turned all the more advanced. Those who are well versed in the rhythm section and can play few of these instruments are referred to as percussionists.
What are Percussion Instruments?
Percussion instruments are any miscellaneous instruments which tend to produce sound when they are hit, shaken, scratched, or put through any similar action. Conventionally, percussion instruments are believed to be rhythm-based musical instruments. Nevertheless, in today’s music scene, anything that can be used to produce a sound in rhythm is considered a percussion instrument. These instruments primarily focus on producing a rhythm and beat instead of melody notes.
However, there are some which, along with a rhythm, give out a pleasing sound as well. Basically, these instruments are classified as per their physical characteristics, sound, and orchestration. But it becomes very difficult to be specific when it comes to exact classification. This is because there may be some instruments which can be included in more than one class.
List of Different Percussion Instruments
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Chimes, also referred to as tubular bells, are prominent entities in the family of percussion. They are made up of metal tubes, which are arranged as per the length, owing to different sounds to be produced. The tuned metal tubes are played by a mallet which is like a hammer, and has two sides made up of rubber and wood to produce different tunes. Chimes played using the rubber side of the mallet sound soft, whereas those played by the other side sound bright and solid. The pedal on the setup is used to alter the sound’s sustain.
A marimba is a musical instrument that has wooden bars on its surface which have to played by mallets. The format of the bars is pretty much similar to that of piano keys. For every bar there is a metal tube extending below, which does the job of resonating and amplifying sound. The player can even use four to six mallets at a time. Softer mallets are used to produce lower tones, whereas harder ones for higher tones. Every bar can be hit at different places to produce different sounds. The sound bars are normally made of rosewood, but can also comprise synthetic material.
Cowbells are small but effective percussion instruments used in almost any type of music where rhythm is required. In musical terms, a cowbell is a metal-like bell which has to be hit with a stick. In rock music, it is mostly used by drummers as a substitute for hi-hats in a specific bar. It is generally used as a standard part of a percussion set. To know how a cowbell sounds, you can listen to songs like Dance the Night Away by Van Halen, Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N’ Roses, and Rock of Ages by Def Leppard.
A tom is a drum that is mounted on a standard drum kit, typically above the bass drum. Normally, it is supposed to be hit with a stick during a roll; but this relates to no specific rules. It has a tone that is lower than a snare, but the sound can be made lower according to the tightening of drum heads and size of the tom. There are two toms in a standard drum set, wherein these drums are known as tom-toms. There can be single-headed or double-headed toms, as per the player’s preference. These instruments come in sizes of 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 18 inches.
The snare drum is probably the most important part of a drum kit. It has the highest drum sound in a drum set, and is hit in coordination with the bass drum. This drum has strands of snares made up of metal wires located beneath the drum on the lower head, which is what makes the sharp sound. This individual drum is a prominent part when the drummer hits a roll. Another variation of percussion that can be played using the snare drum is the ‘rim shot’. In this technique, the player hits the snare rim by a stick, instead of a shot on the head.
Just like the tom-toms, the floor drum is a typical component of a drum set. Generally, it is kept on the floor in order after the tom-toms. It has a sound lower than the tom-toms and snare, but is a bit higher than the bass drum. The floor drum is also used while hitting rolls, in accordance with the toms and snare. A standard drum kit has just one floor tom, whereas a professional drummer might choose to keep two of these. This drum might even act as a backup to the sound of a kick drum.
Cymbals are probably the most popular and interesting percussion instruments. They come in a variety of sizes, brands, and thickness levels; which are factors affecting their sound. Cymbals provide a crashing, powerful, and solid sound to a musical piece. A drummer usually hits cymbals at the end of a roll. Cymbals come in different types such as crash, ride, splash, effects, and hand cymbals. Hi-hats are two cymbals placed inverted to each other, played by pressing a pedal and/or hitting. Major cymbals manufacturers are Zildjian, Paiste, Sabian, and Meinl.
A triangle is one of the simplest percussion instruments found. It is a metal rod molded in the shape of a triangle, with a thin wire or gut to hold at the top. Note that this is not a complete triangle, and has one angle left open to have a variable pitch. It is supposed to be hit with a beater made up of metal, but can even be played using a wooden beater or knitting needles. This depends as per the sound volume expected. The use of the triangle can be found in any type of music that requires accents and percussion sounds. It is believed that to play this instrument, no specific skill is required besides having a basic sense of rhythm.
A djembe is known by many names such as jenbe, djimbe, jimbay, and yembe. This instrument has a hard wooden shell with a head, and is to be played with bare hands. The rounded shape and deep body is what gives it the bass sound. This instrument has to be tuned by pulling the ropes down on the shell tightly, so that the ring brings the head on the shell. There are a variety of tones that can be produced by hand techniques, which include fingers being held closer to each other or in a relaxed manner.
This is one of the most interesting percussion instruments to play on. It consists of wooden bars of varying lengths which have sounds as per different notes. Longer bars have a bass sound, and the pitch and note increases as the bar goes shorter. The bars are placed in the order of longer bars to shorter ones in the setup. The bars are hit with mallets made up of plastic, wood, or rubber to vary sound volume and effect produced. Concert xylophones consist of resonators placed beneath the bars which contribute to the sustain and volume.
Bongos are believed to be one of the most portable rhythm instruments. These are small open-ended drums which have heads to be beaten on using bare hands. Both drums are connected to each other. They are supposed to be played while sitting, with the drums being placed in between the knees. Both drums differ in size, with the larger drum having a bass tone and the smaller giving out a higher tone. You can even use bongos as a substitute to drum beats, when carrying drums along is not possible. For a right-handed player, the big drum has to be on the right side while playing.
This is a classical percussion instrument hailing from India. It comprises a pair of hand drums, each being of a different size and sound. Unlike other hand percussion instruments, playing the tabla includes a lot of finger and palm beating techniques. On the bigger drum, the player has to use the tip of the middle finger to create a bass effect. The center of the skins on both drums consists of hardened black powder known as ‘Syahi’. This is what contributes to natural overtones and clarity in pitch. Zakir Hussain is believed to be one of the best tabla players in the music industry.
The congas are percussion instruments much similar to other hand drums. They consist of two or three extended cylindrical shells, each varying in size for bass and treble sound. These hand drums are kept on the floor using stands, which enables the musician to play while standing. The drum heads are secured by rims and screws, and can be tuned by using a tuning key. Here again, the player needs to use his hands to create different tones and percussive sounds. This instrument is mostly used in Cuban, African, and Caribbean music.
This is one instrument which can be played by almost everyone who has a little rhythmic sense. A tambourine has a frame made up of wood or plastic, with metal jingles in pairs, which make a kind of a jingling percussive sound. It is simply to be beaten on the hand to allow little metal cymbals to jingle with the beat. These instruments may come with or without drum heads. Most tambourines are circular in shape, but can come in different shapes and sizes. These may be included in a drum set played by a percussionist.
These are just few of the common ones found in the percussion instrument family. There are many more which are included in the rhythm section. Any particular thing can act as a percussion, provided it sounds in sync with the rhythm, tone, and accents.