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Percussion

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

Video

Instrument: Percussion

In this film, David Corkhill introduces some of his instruments in the percussion section.

The Philharmonia’s Principal Timpani’s Chair is endowed by an anonymous donor in memory of Giuseppe and Barbara Modiano.

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Introduction

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.

Vibraphone

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.

The vibraphone, which was invented in the US in the early 1920s, is simply an electric xylophone, but that changes everything. The bars are made of metal, not wood. The resonators house small electric fans which create a vibrating tremolo effect for extending the pitch. Consequently, the xylophone’s clangorous hardness is replaced with a dewy smoothness that allows it to play legato and produce chords.

Vibraphone

Did you know?

The earliest vibraphone keys were made of steel, however, nowadays the keys are made of the more mellow-sounding aluminium.

Xylophone

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

This instrument consists of wooden bars underpinned by tuned resonators that are laid out like a piano keyboard and can reach a length of four octaves. The basic sound is a hard, scintillating clatter. Mahler’s Sixth introduced the xylophone into the realm of the consequential symphony. In the “Dance of Katchei Retinue” excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, the xylophone might be the ghoulish rattling of a skeleton’s bones.

Xylophone

Did you know?

The first major orchestral appearance of the xylophone was in Camille Saint-Saëns’ La Danse Macabre in 1874.

Marimba

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.

Physically, the two instruments look almost the same, except that the marimbas have larger resonators and come in long sizes with extended ranges. The other difference is that the marimba is played with softer sticks, giving it a more melodious quality. The marimba can be an attractive solo instrument, as the jazz world discovered.

Marimba

Did you know?

The best marimba bars are made from a particularly hard Honduran rosewood.

Glockenspiel

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.

The range is high and the sound produced can easily be mistaken for that of bells or chimes. Every sound the glockenspiel touches (and particularly when it doubles another instrument) becomes brighter. There is a keyboard glockenspiel, but it is less flexible and seldom encountered.

Glockenspiel

Did you know?

Glocken means “bell” in German and spiel means “play”.

Bass Drum

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

Felt as well as heard, a bass drum roll can make the ground shake under a listener’s seat. A softly-played roll, on the other hand, creates the sensation of mysterious goings-on. The bass drum has two heads and a skin kept tense by threaded rods which lie across the shell. It is so large that it is usually placed on a frame and played with a single soft beater by a standing percussionist, but it is also possible to play refined rolls as the final passage of Lutosławski’s Capriccio Notturno e Arioso reveals.

Bass Drum

Did you know?

Modern bass drums are descended from a Turkish drum called a davul.

Tam Tam

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

An ancient apparatus, it has universally spiritual connotations as a call to prayer, a summoning of the gods, a funeral rite. Gongs come in all sizes, but tam-tam usually refers to very large ones, frequently of Asian manufacture, with an indefinite pitch and a mind of their own. Once a gong is hit, the sound cannot be controlled. In practice, orchestral composers use the gong for evoking Asian ambience or simple majesty. Like the cymbal, the gong is always noticed.

Tam Tam

Did you know?

The first orchestral role for the tam-tam was in Rossini’s opera Armida in 1817.

Snare and Tenor Drum

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

Its military associations are indelible (the roll of a snare, say, accompanying a burial at sea). Where would jazz and rock’n’roll be without this two-headed drum with its “snare” made from rattlers stretched across the bottom head? The orchestral snare crisply snaps out rhythms for emphasis, at the same time being well equipped to create atmospheric sound effects especially when brushes are used as beaters. The snare came into its own with 20th-century composers such as Lutosławski, who finds unprecedented melodic finesse for the snare in combination with tenor and bass drums in Capriccio Notturno e Arioso.

Someone once said that if the snare drum is the strident sergeant barking orders, the tenor drum is the chaplain, less aggressive perhaps but no less insistent. Slightly larger than the snare, the tenor drum has a similar construction but no snares. Despite its more sombre quality, the tenor drum is ideal for conveying complex rhythmic patterns.

Snare Tenor

Did you know?

Drumheads used to be made from animal skins, however nowadays they are more commonly made of cheaper polyester.

Cymbals

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

The “crash” is really a two-plate stroke, either up and down or across, a technique that requires considerable skill and that has many uses. To let the crash ring, a player can turn the cymbals outward for theatrical as well as sonic effect. When the sound wants dampening, players press the cymbals to their clothes. Delicately crashed, the cymbals turn their sonic surroundings voluptuous.

The suspended cymbal is a single cymbal mounted on a stand and used either for a spangled rhythmic emphasis or, more interestingly, for a roll. Many different kinds of beaters can be used, and what makes the roll of a suspended cymbal unusual is a huge dynamic range that goes from a fragile shimmer to a roar. An occasional orchestral instrument, the suspended cymbal is found on every drum kit in jazz and rock, including the one Salonen uses in his Violin Concerto.

Cymbals

Did you know?

Traditionally cymbals are made of bell metal: an alloy of one part tin and four parts copper. However, many other alloys are also used.

Triangle

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

Not because a child can play it (although a child can) but because it rings in the frequency range that older listeners tend to lose. One corner of the triangle is left open to keep the instrument from having a specific pitch and to allow it to generate ethereal, scintillating overtones instead. They are the secret of its glitter. When jangled with a metal beater, the triangle raises the energy level. It is very good for suggesting dance.

Triangle

Did you know?

The first prominent orchestral appearance of the triangle is in Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1, from 1849.

Crotales

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

These finger cymbals are also called antique cymbals, and indeed they are. Archeologists have found bronze crotales from ancient Egypt. In the orchestra, crotales are arranged chromatically and either struck together like a finger cymbal or bowed to produce wafting breezes of other-worldly harmonics. Crotales are not common and orchestras have been known to economize by playing the crotales’ parts on a glockenspiel, but that is never the same.

Crotales

Did you know?

As well as individual crotales like these, they are also available as sets, typically covering an octave.

Tambourine

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.

The more sophisticated uses for the tambourine include playing it with snare drumsticks and rubbing the thumb across the head to create a roll with the jingles, which can be quite attractive at quiet volumes.

Tambourine

Did you know?

The tambourine appears in Exodus 15:20:

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