A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater (including attached or enclosed beaters or rattles) struck, scraped or rubbed by hand or struck against another similar instrument. The percussion family is believed to include the oldest musical instruments, following the human voice.
The percussion section of an orchestra most commonly contains instruments such as timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and tambourine. However, the section can also contain non-percussive instruments, such as whistles and sirens, or a blown conch shell. Percussive techniques can also be applied to the human body, as in body percussion. On the other hand, keyboard instruments, such as the celesta, are not normally part of the percussion section, but keyboard percussion instruments such as the glockenspiel and xylophone (which do not have piano keyboards) are included.
Percussion instruments are most commonly divided into two classes: Pitched percussion instruments, which produce notes with an identifiable pitch, and unpitched percussion instruments, which produce notes or sounds without an identifiable pitch.
Percussion instruments may play not only rhythm, but also melody and harmony.
Percussion is commonly referred to as "the backbone" or "the heartbeat" of a musical ensemble, often working 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. Most classical pieces written for full orchestra since the time of Haydn and Mozart are orchestrated to place emphasis on the strings, woodwinds, and brass. However, often at least one pair of timpani is included, though they rarely play continuously. Rather, they serve to provide additional accents when needed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, other percussion instruments (like the triangle or cymbals) have been used, again generally sparingly. The use of percussion instruments became more frequent in the 20th century classical music.
In almost every style of music, percussion plays a pivotal role. In military marching bands and pipes and drums, it is the beat of the bass drum that keeps the soldiers in step and at a regular speed, and it is the snare that provides that crisp, decisive air to the tune of a regiment. In classic jazz, one almost immediately thinks of the distinctive rhythm of the hi-hats or the ride cymbal when the word "swing" is spoken. In more recent popular music culture, it is almost impossible to name three or four rock, hip-hop, rap, funk or even soul charts or songs that do not have some sort of 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.
Music for pitched percussion instruments can be notated on a staff with the same treble and bass clefs used by many non-percussive instruments. Music for percussive instruments without a definite pitch can be notated with a specialist rhythm or percussion-clef. More often a treble clef (or sometimes a bass clef) is substituted for rhythm clef.
Classification of Percussion Instruments
Percussion instruments are classified by various criteria sometimes depending on their construction, ethnic origin, function within musical theory and orchestration, or their relative prevalence in common knowledge.
The word "percussion" has evolved from Latin terms: "percussio" (which translates as "to beat, strike" in the musical sense, rather than the violent action), and "percussus" (which is a noun meaning "a beating"). As a noun in contemporary English it is described in Wiktionary as "the collision of two bodies to produce a sound". The usage of the term is not unique to music but has application in medicine and weaponry, as in percussion cap, but all known and common uses of the word, "percussion", appear to share a similar lineage beginning with the original Latin: "percussus". In a musical context then, the term "percussion instruments" may have been coined originally to describe a family of musical instruments including drums, rattles, metal plates, or blocks which musicians would beat or strike (as in a collision) to produce sound.
Hornbostel-Sachs has no high-level section for percussion. Most percussion instruments (as the term is normally understood) are classified as idiophones and membranophones. However the term percussion is instead used at lower-levels of the Hornbostel–Sachs hierarchy, including to identify instruments struck with either a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker) or against a non-sonorous object (human body, the ground) – as opposed to concussion which refers to instruments in which two or more complementary sonorous parts are struck against each other – and for other purposes, for example: 111.1 Concussion idiophones or clappers, played in pairs and beaten against each other, such as zills and clapsticks.
There are many instruments that have some claim to being percussion, but are classified otherwise:
- Keyboard instruments such as the celesta and pianos.
- Stringed instruments played with beaters such as the hammered dulcimer.
- Unpitched whistles and similar instruments, such as the pea whistle and Acme siren.
Percussion instruments are sometimes classified as "pitched" or "unpitched." While valid, this classification is widely seen as inadequate. Rather, it may be more informative to describe percussion instruments in regards to one or more of the following four paradigms:
By methods of Sound Production
Many texts, including Teaching Percussion by Gary Cook of the University of Arizona, begin by studying the physical characteristics of instruments and the methods by which they can produce sound. This is perhaps the most scientifically pleasing assignment of nomenclature whereas the other paradigms are more dependent on historical or social circumstances. Based on observation and experimentation, one can determine how an instrument produces sound and then assign the instrument to one of the following four categories:
"Idiophones produce sounds through the vibration of their entire body." Examples of idiophones:
- Crash cymbals
- Lummi stick
- Orchestra bells
- Quadrangularis Reversum
- Singing bowls
- Slit drum
- Suspended cymbal
- Temple blocks
- Thumb piano (or Kalimba)
- Wood block
Most objects commonly known as "drums" are membranophones. Membranophones produce sound when the membrane or head is struck with a hand, mallet, stick, beater, or improvised tool." Examples of membranophones:
- Bass drum
- Snare drum
- The lion's roar and the cuíca are friction instruments which are not struck like other drums, but the sound is produced by applying friction to a string (lion's roar) or to a stick (cuíca) that is attached to the center of the membrane. In both cases, it is the membrane that vibrates, not the string nor the stick, thus ensuring their classification as membranophones. In the case of the lion's roar, a resined string (or gut) is fastened through a hole in the membrane. In the case of the cuíca, the stick is attached (tied) to the membrane before it is stretched and tightened to the body of the instrument, and the stick is accessible by placing one hand inside the body, rubbed with a wet cloth.
- Wind machines: A wind machine in this context is not a wind tunnel and therefore not an aerophone. Instead, it is an apparatus (often used in theatre as a sound effect) in which a sheet of canvas (a membrane) is rubbed against a screen or resonator; this action produces a sound which resembles the blowing of wind.
Most instruments known as "chordophones" are defined as string instruments, but some such as these examples are percussion instruments also.
- Hammered dulcimer, Cimbalom
Most instruments known as "aerophones" are defined as wind instruments such as a saxophone whereby sound is produced by a person or thing blowing air through the object. In a traditional ensemble setting, aerophones are played by a percussionist, generally due to the instrument's unconventional nature. Examples of aerophones played by percussionists:
- Apito or samba whistle
- Slide whistle
- Whistle or police whistle
By Musical Function or Orchestration
When classifying instruments by function it is useful to note if a percussion instrument makes a definite pitch or indefinite pitch.
For example, some percussion instruments (such as the marimba and timpani) produce an obvious fundamental pitch and can therefore play melody and serve harmonic functions in music. Other instruments (such as crash cymbals and snare drums) produce sounds with such complex overtones and a wide range of prominent frequencies that no pitch is discernible.
Percussion instruments in this group are sometimes referred to as "pitched" or "tuned". Examples of percussion instruments with definite pitch:
- Chimes/Tubular bells
- Glass harmonica
- Glass harp
- Tuned Triangle
- Wind chimes
Instruments in this group are sometimes referred to as "non-pitched", "unpitched", or "untuned". Traditionally these instruments are thought of as making a sound that contains such complex frequencies that no discernible pitch can be heard.
- Bass drum
- Slapstick or whip
- Snare drum
By Prevalence in Common Knowledge
Although it is difficult to define what is "common knowledge", there are instruments in use by percussionists and composers in contemporary music which are certainly not considered by most to be musical instruments of any kind. Therefore, it is worthwhile to try to make distinction between instruments based on their acceptance or consideration by a general audience.
For example, it is safe to argue that most people would not consider an anvil, a brake drum (the circular hub which houses the brake on the wheel of a motor vehicle), or a fifty-five gallon oil barrel to be musical instruments, yet these objects can be used by composers and percussionists of modern music.
One might assign various percussion instruments to one of the following categories:
Conventional or Popular
- Drum kit
- Gong (tamtam)
- Automobile Brake Drum
- Beer kegs
- Clay pots
- Firearms or explosive charges
- Five gallon buckets
- Garbage cans
- Metal pipes
- Metal pots
- Plastic bag
- Rocks in a bucket
- Shopping carts
- Spokes on a bicycle wheel
By Cultural Significance or Tradition
It is not uncommon to discuss percussion instruments in relation to their cultural origin. This has led to a division between instruments which are considered "common" or "modern," and folk instruments which have a significant history or purpose within a geographic region or cultural group.
Folk Percussion Instruments
- Kalimba (Thumb Piano)
- Latin percussion
- Pogo cello
This category includes instruments which are widely available and popular throughout the world:
By Capability of Melodic Production
- Non-melodic percussion: bongos, snare drum, etc.
- Melodic percussion: glass marimba, gendér, etc
By Percussive Beater
Different objects are used to strike a percussion instrument in order to produce its sound.