Popular in Percussion
Percussion encompasses an array of different instruments - from the very large to the very small and from all over the world. Everything from a simple wooden block to a xylophone, slide flute, or full drum kit falls under percussion, as well as African, Asian or Middle-Eastern instruments. Whether tuned or rhythmic, percussion is a feature of orchestral music, pop music and band music - you can even find percussion ensembles made up of nothing but percussion instruments.
Percussion instruments can be divided into two main groups: melodic and rhythmic, each of which do different things.
Melodic percussion instruments are tuned, so you can easily play melodies and even chords with them. The xylophone and glockenspiel are classic examples of melodic percussion instruments, but since it involves hammers hitting a set of strings, even a piano is a melodic percussion instrument.
Rhythmic percussion includes instruments that keep the beat, ensuring that the other musicians are following the same tempo and can play in time with one another.
Frame Drums & Other Drums
There are roughly two types of drums within percussion: frame drums and all other drums. Frame drums are held and played with your hands and stem from many different cultural traditions, then there are drums like the snare drums and bass drums of a full drum kit. These are played with drumsticks or beaters .
Playing Percussion with Sticks, Beaters or By Hand
Some percussion instruments are largely played by hand while others are played with sticks or beaters. Instruments played by hand are often traditional folk instruments that originated anywhere from Ireland to Africa. Classic examples are the conga , bongo and djembe . Other percussive instruments that are played by hand include smaller instruments like whistles, the tambourine and various percussive sound effects. Other instruments, like a drum kit, glockenspiel, the marimba and triangle are played with a stick simply because it gives the instrument a louder and fuller sound than it would when played by hand.
The Percussionist's Role
A percussionist plays one or more percussive instruments as part of an orchestra, a band, or a special percussion ensemble. The percussionist could play a xylophone, timpani and chimes, but they could also play an unending list of smaller percussion instruments which are used for accents rather than continuous beats or crescendos. These smaller instruments can include a tambourine, a triangle, the bongos or even whistles. Basically, the average percussionist is a multi-instrumentalist.
Any percussionist is likely to need a number of percussion accessories . For a start, a good bag for storing a range of different drum sticks and beaters is always useful, and since every stick and beater will result in a slightly different timbre, they'll need a lot of those as well. A beater is basically a drum stick with a round head on the end, which can either be made of harder materials like rubber, or softer materials like felt. A soft beater will produce a warmer and fuller percussive sound while a harder beater will result in a more fierce and cutting sound. For performances, percussionists also use specialised percussion tables where they can lay out all of their instruments, sticks and beaters. A music stand is also another handy tool.
Body percussion is literally where your body is used as a complete percussive kit. By striking different parts of the body, you can create different percussive sounds. Hit your chest for a bass-drum-style sound, and slap your thighs for a higher-pitched percussive sound.
What Percussion Instrument Do I Need?
The first thing to figure out is whether you want a melodic or rhythmic percussion instrument. On the melodic side, a xylophone or glockenspiel is always a great place to start. On the rhythmic side, a small drum is the best place to start for beginners. With just one drum you can already learn to play various rhythms and patterns which can then be transferred to other percussive instruments. A really popular and accessible percussive instrument is the cajon . If you want a little more help finding the right thing, see our Percussion Instrument Buyer's Guide.
Frequently Asked Questions About Percussion
What are big drums called?
Bass drums and timpani drums are the biggest drums in the percussion family. The bass drum forms the foundation of almost any drum beat in rock, jazz, electronic music, and in fact, any pop music going. Timpani drums feature in a lot of classical music and have a massive kettle-like shape that produces a clear pitch.
What's the difference between a percussionist and a drummer?
A percussionist makes music by striking melodic and rhythmic percussive instruments. A drummer only plays rhythmic percussion instruments: drums and cymbals. So you could see drumming as a kind of sub-genre of percussion.
What is percussion music?
Any orchestra will have a percussionist or percussion section, and there are even full percussion ensembles. Percussion also plays a big part in musical education and in pop and rock bands. As such, percussion is pretty versatile, can be played alone or in groups and in any genre of music.
What are the most common percussion instruments?
The most common percussion instruments are the xylophone, the drum kit, the tambourine, the bass drum, timpani, the djembe, glockenspiel and the humble triangle.