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 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.
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:
21 Struck drums, includes most types of drum, such as the timpani, snare drum, and tom-tom. (Included in most drum sets or
412.12 Percussion reeds, a class of wind instrument unrelated to percussion in the more common sense
There are many instruments that have some claim to being percussion, but are classified otherwise:
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:
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:
Examples of membranophones:
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. 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:
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:
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.
In fact many traditionally unpitched instruments, such as triangles and even cymbals, have also been produced as tuned sets.
Examples of percussion instruments with indefinite pitch:
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:
(Sometimes referred to as "found" instruments or as custom percussion)
One pre-20th century example of found percussion is the use of cannon (usually loaded with blank charges) in Tchiakovsky's 1812 Overture. 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. Rock band Aerosmith used a number of unconventional instruments in their song Sweet Emotion, including shotguns, brooms, and a sugar bag. The metal band Slipknot is most well known for utilizing custom percussion in metal, being that two of the nine members in the band play custom percussion. Most of their songs include either one or both custom percussion players. Along with custom made deep sounding drums, their play includes hitting baseball bats and other objects on beer kegs to create a distinctive sound.
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.
This category includes instruments which are widely available and popular throughout the world:
Different objects are used to strike a percussion instrument in order to produce its sound.
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: