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A percussion instrument is any object which produces a sound by being hit with an implement, shaken, rubbed, scraped, or by any other action which sets the object into vibration. The term usually applies to an object used in a rhythmic context or with musical intent.

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 family of instruments including drums, rattles, metal plates, or wooden blocks which musicians would beat or strike (as in a collision) to produce sound.

Percussion beaters and sticks



Ancient Chinese musical bronze bells from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, c. 6th century BC.

Anthropologists and historians often speculate that percussion instruments were the first musical devices ever created. The human voice was probably the first musical instrument, but percussion instruments such as hands and feet, then sticks, rocks, and logs were almost certainly the next steps in the evolution of music.

As humans developed tools for hunting and eventually agriculture, their skill and technology enabled them to craft more complex instruments. For example, a simple log may have been carved to produce louder tones (a log drum) and instruments may have been combined to produce multiple tones (as in a 'set' of log drums).


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.

Percussion instruments are sometimes classified as being "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 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 five categories:


"Idiophones produce sounds through the vibration of their entire body."[1] Examples of idiophones:


Most objects commonly known as "drums" are membranophones. "Membranophones produce sound when the membrane or head is struck."[1]

Examples of membranophones:

  • The lion's roar and the cuíca, which are not struck like other drums, produce sound by drawing a string or stick through an opening in the membrane. The lion's roar is sometimes classified as a chordophone, but this is inaccurate because the membrane produces the sound, not the string.
  • 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.


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. Examples of aerophones played by percussionists:


Electrophones are also percussion instruments. In the strictest sense, all electrophones require a loudspeaker (an idiophone or some other means to push air and create sound waves). This, if for no other argument, is sufficient to assign electrophones to the percussion family. Moreover, many composers have used the following example instruments and they are most often performed by percussionists in an ensemble. Examples of electrophones:

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.

Definite pitch

Percussion instruments in this group are sometimes referred to as "pitched" or "tuned".

Examples of percussion instruments with definite pitch:

Indefinite pitch

Instruments in this group are sometimes referred to as "non-pitched", "unpitched", or "untuned". This phenomenon occurs when the resultant sound of the instrument contains complex frequencies through which no discernible pitch can be heard.

Examples of percussion instruments with indefinite pitch:

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 on modern vehicles which houses the brakes), or a fifty-five gallon oil barrel to be musical instruments, yet these objects are used regularly by composers and percussionists of modern music.

One might assign various percussion instruments to one of the following categories:

Conventional or popular


(Sometimes referred to as "found" instruments)

  • Brooms
  • Clay pots
  • Five gallon buckets
  • Garbage cans
  • Metal pipes
  • Plastic bag
  • Shopping carts
  • Spokes on a bicycle wheel
  • Rocks in a bucket
  • Beer kegs

John Cage, Harry Partch, Edgard Varèse, and Peter Schickele, all noted composers, created entire pieces of music using unconventional instruments. Beginning in the early 20th century, perhaps with Ionisation by Edgard Varèse which used air-raid sirens (among other things), composers began to require percussionists to invent or "find" objects to produce the desired sounds and textures. Another example includes the use of a hammer and saw in Penderecki's De Natura Sonoris No. 2. By late 20th century, such instruments had become common in modern percussion ensemble music and popular productions, such as the off-Broadway show, Stomp.

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

Some percussion instruments

"Common" drums

This category includes instruments which are widely available and popular throughout the world:


Percussion instruments 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 bassist and the drummer are often 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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other percussion instruments (like the triangle or cymbals) have been used, again relatively sparingly in general. The use of percussion instruments became more frequent in the twentieth 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.

Percussion notation

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.

Names for percussionists

The general term for a musician who plays percussion instruments is "percussionist" but the terms listed below are often used to describe a person's specialties:

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Gary D. Cook, Teaching Percussion, p.2, 3rd edn, 2006, Thomson Schirmer, ISBN 0 534 50990 8

Further reading

  • James Blades, Percussion Instruments and Their History, (1970).
  • Shen, Sinyan, Acoustics of Ancient Chinese Bells, Scientific American, 256, 94 (1987).

External links


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