Drums, cymbals, xylophones, triangles - in fact anything that has to be hit in order to make a sound is included in the percussion section.

Instruments: Percussion

In this film, David Corkhill introduces some of his instruments in the percussion section. Why not download our iPad app, 'The Orchestra', to learn even more? Visit for more information.

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The percussion section first carved out its place in the orchestra as a result of the vogue for Turkish marching music in Mozart´s time, bringing bass drums, snare drums, triangles and cymbals into play. But it is since the start of the 20th century that the variety of other percussion instruments has really taken off. Untuned instruments such as gongs from east Asia or tuned instruments like the marimbas of Africa have been adopted and adapted for use in the modern orchestra. Today composers take a truly global approach to using percussion instruments. This process is further encouraged by the percussionists themselves, many of whom are enthusiastic adopters of new instruments and pride themselves on perfecting their skills with an enormous range of instruments.

Percussion instruments provide an enormous range of timbres. Although the word "percussion" means "struck", the percussion family traditionally includes effects that are blown or produced in other ways. Some of the instruments classified as 'unpitched' do in fact have pitch, but this is unpredictable or uncontrollable. A catalogue of percussion can never be complete, and it is true to say that any percussion instrument may be integrated into the modern symphony orchestra. 


While a centuries-old folk instrument in Africa, the xylophone found in a modern percussion section didn't enter the orchestra until the 1860s.

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The art of the orchestra lies in the combination of acoustic sounds - with the exception of the electric organ (when a proper pipe organ isn't available), the odd synthesizer and the vibraphone.

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A steel rod bent into the shape of an isosceles triangle, this is a young person's percussion instrument.

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This hand-held hoop drum with metal plates called jingles, hit with the fingers, fist or knee (or all three), easily signals high times, often by encouraging frenzied dance or summoning gypsy fantasies.

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Tam-tam is the European name for gong (the only percussion instrument with the same name in Italian, French and German).

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Snare and Tenor Drum

An unpitched instrument with an unmistakable sound, the snare drum has a surprising number of purposes.

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The marimba is similar to the xylophone in that it has the same layout of wooden bars with tuned resonators but it is a newer invention (ca. 1910) and, like the vibraphone, it comes from the US.

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The glockenspiel is a set of tuned metal or wooden bars of graduated length suspended in a case and hit with hard mallets topped with wood or metal hammers.

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Composers obviously pull out the crash cymbals (sometimes called clash cymbals) when they want to make a very big point.

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The crotales are the small tuned bells that make the ending of Debussy's Prélude A l'après-midi d'un faune magical.

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Bass Drum

The largest unpitched drum in the orchestra exists for those moments when a big boom is needed.

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