For many young children, the percussion instruments are the most fun to play and learn. Striking, shaking, or clanging these instruments produces an immediate response that the child can hear or sometimes even see. This easily grasped one-to-one correspondence between the child’s actions and the instrument’s sound is a big part of the appeal.
Playing a percussion instrument is also valuable because it helps people of all ages improve their physical coordination, dexterity, and motor skills. In addition, percussion instruments give music students the chance to let loose creatively in ways that few other instrument types can equal. Researchers have even learned that drumming and practicing other percussion instruments can reduce stress and even improve the immune system.
For all these reasons and more, percussion instruments are justifiably popular with student musicians, professionals, and audiences around the world.
The following is a closer look at a few members of this truly global family of musical instruments. This list focuses on some of the more seldom-discussed instruments in the percussion family, and thus omits the piano and the many types of acoustic and electronic drums that are popular in the U.S.
The boom of the timpani
In Sergei Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf, an imaginative musical romp through the instruments of the orchestra, the crash of the timpani announces the arrival of the hunters.
Timpani, also known as kettledrums, entered the Western musical world during the Middle Ages, imported by returning Crusaders and Arabic warriors arriving in western and southern European ports. Timpani came to be used in connection with trumpets to herald the arrival of aristocratic cavalry troops onto a battlefield.
Timpani consist of large, round, copper-bodied drums shaped like half of a sphere. Their drumheads consist of sheets of plastic or calfskin stretched tight across the opening. A player produces sound by striking the instruments with sticks or mallets made of wood or tipped in felt.
Timpani can be tuned to produce a variety of pitches when their drumheads are loosened or tightened via an attached foot pedal. In a typical orchestra, a single musician will play four or more timpani in a range of sizes and pitches. Playing the timpani calls on all the performer’s skills of attention and sense of pitch, since a typical orchestral piece calls for multiple tuning changes.
The xylophone’s flexible range
The xylophone’s early history lies in Asia, most scholars believe, before it spread to Africa and then to Europe. The instrument’s name derives from an ancient Greek word that refers to its wood-like tones.
The common denominator among the many types of xylophones available today is that the typical xylophone consists of a set of keys, or bars, organized in octaves, like piano keys. Affixed beneath the keys are a series of resonators, or metallic tubes, which produce the sound. Xylophones can be simple toys for the youngest children or sophisticated, multi-octave orchestral instruments.
The xylophone player strikes the keys with a mallet. Mallets are produced in varying degrees of softness or hardness; changing the pitch of the xylophone involves using a different type of mallet or changing the way one strikes the keys.
The xylophone’s close relatives in the percussion family include the larger and more mellow-toned marimba, the smaller and jingly-voiced glockenspiel, and the vibraphone.
The Jazz Age vibraphone
Invented in the 1920s, the vibraphone is distinguished by its metal keys and resonators and by the addition of little spinning discs, or fans, in its interior. These small discs are electrically powered and are arranged under the keys and over the resonators.
A player uses felted or wool-tufted mallets to strike the keys. He or she tunes the vibraphone by means of a motor that turns a rod connected to the discs. The resulting sound is the type of shifting, sliding pitch that’s referred to as vibrato when produced by the human voice.
The vibraphone has found extensive use in the popular jazz repertoire of artists such as Lionel Hampton. The instrument’s first appearance in an orchestra was in the 1937 Alban Berg opera Lulu.
The cymbals – the orchestra’s alarm clock
The crashing of the cymbals in the orchestra makes everyone take notice. A set of these ultra-loud percussion instruments consists of a pair of large discs, ranging in size from 16 to 22 inches in diameter. These discs are typically fashioned of spun bronze.
A player hits the cymbals together, or in the case of suspended cymbals, strikes them with a mallet. In general, larger cymbals produce lower sounds.
The waterphone’s New Age appeal
The waterphone is a newer innovation in percussion. Patented in the 1970s and based on a Tibetan water drum and other instruments, the waterphone consists of a bowl of water, a resonator, and a series of differently sized metal rods. A player uses a mallet, bow, or his or her own fingers to produce sound by striking the rods.
The vibration causes the water to shift in the bowl, thus altering the shape of the resonance chamber and creating a whole range of gliding sounds and echoes. Musicologists have described the waterphone’s sound as mysterious and otherworldly, and the instrument is noticeable in many television and film soundtracks.
The triangle’s thousand-year-old lilt
The triangle is a simple steel bar bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle, with part of one corner left open. The player strikes the instrument with a simple steel rod.
In use at least since the Middle Ages, the triangle often featured an attached set of jingly rings until the early 19th century. As European audiences of the 1700s demanded music in the Turkish style, Western musicians paired the triangle, the cymbals, and the bass drum into an ensemble with the aim of replicating the popular Turkish Janissary sound.
The triangle’s piercing pitch is audible even over the sounds of a full orchestra. Accordingly, classical composers tend to use the triangle sparingly, often to add punctuation to a composition.