The sounds of banging sticks, thumping drums, and scraped wood seem like a strange fit in a musical ensemble, but percussion instruments are integral to music, offering a lot more complexity and technique than meets the eye.
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What are Percussion Instruments?
- Percussion instruments produce sounds by being struck, scraped, or shaken.
- They add character to a piece while also keeping the beat.
- Percussion instruments are divided into
- Pitched instruments – Instruments that can be tuned to create notes of a certain pitch (xylophone, timpani, kalimba), and can also play melodies
- Unpitched instruments – Instruments that can only produce an indefinite pitch (triangle, drums, gongs)
Fun Historical Facts
- Percussion instruments are believed to be the oldest musical instruments next to the human voice and began with the simple clapping of hands or slapping of the chest and knees.
- Drums made of alligator skins have been found in Neolithic China, dating back to 5500-2350 B.C.
- Drums dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Egypt.
- The xylophone dates back to 2000 B.C. and has been documented in temple carvings.
- Seen in Asia by the 9th century
- Reached Europe by the 16th century
- By the 19th century, the xylophone was in common use thanks to the work of Russian xylophone virtuoso Michael Josef Gusikov.
- The triangle was in use by the 14th century.
- Much like bass drums and cymbals, triangles were a standard part of Turkish military bands during the 18th century.
- By the 19th century, the triangle was used purely to add sound to an ensemble.
- The timpani was introduced to Europe in the 15th century via the Ottoman Empire.
- Used in the orchestra during the Baroque period
- Became a fixture during the Classical era
- The snare drum was used to relay signals in the Swiss military in the 1400s.
The Drum Circle
Common percussion instruments:
- Snare drum
- Bass drum
The Drum Kit
A standard drum kit includes:
- One snare drum
- One kick drum
- Two mounted toms
- One floor tom
- One hi-hat
- One ride cymbal
- One or two crash cymbals
How Percussion Instruments Produce Sound
Percussion instruments can be split into two groups:
- Idiophone – The instrument itself is made of a resonant material that vibrates to produce sound (e.g., bells and gongs).
- Membranophone – The instrument has a stretched membrane that vibrates to make sound (e.g., drums). The sound is amplified by the instrument’s large, hollow body.
Although they are unpitched, drums can be tuned to play different “notes” based on
- The tightness of the drum (the tighter the drum, the higher the note)
- The size of the drum (the larger the drum, the lower the note)
However, this pitch is in relation to drums of the same set, not the instruments in an ensemble.
- For example, a smaller tom-tom will have a higher pitch than a large tom-tom.
- The pitch of the smaller tom-tom has no relation to the pitch of a guitar in the band.
Percussionists can also change the sound and volume of an instrument based on the type of beater used:
- Drum sticks
Keeping the Beat: Tips for Playing Percussion Instruments
- Learn to hold drumsticks, mallets, and other beaters properly. Improper grip will cause pain and muscle tension and prevent you from playing to your full abilities.
- Learn how to play a variety of different percussion instruments, not just the drums. Practice the 26 Standard American Rudiments, which will help you build dexterity and develop fluency in common stick patterns.
- Practice with a metronome or click track.
- Learn basic music theory. Drummers may not have to deal with pitch, but time signatures, note values, tempo, and rhythm are universal.
- Play with good posture to reduce strain and prevent injury. Good posture checklist:
- Seat: set at a height that provides enough space to move your knees up and down
- Back: straight
- Thighs: parallel to the floor
- Arms: as relaxed as possible—you shouldn’t have to overextend to reach any of the pieces of your drum kit
- Be mindful of your breath and breathe evenly while playing.
- Practice with a recording to developing better timing and rhythms.
- If you’re worried about bothering the neighbors
- Purchase a practice pad.
- Invest in dampening pads for your drum set.
- Consider soundproofing your room.
Learn to play the drums, triangle, xylophone, and other percussion instruments with California Music Studios | californiamusicstudios.com