Instruments are classified according to their methods of tone production.  These categories are referred to as families.  The brass family of instruments (such as trumpets and trombone) are performed by buzzing into a mouthpiece, while woodwind instruments (including saxophone and clarinet) are primarily played by blowing air across a wooden reed.

Percussion instruments produce a tone by being struck, shaken, or scraped.  Percussion instruments can be non-pitched (such as snare drum and cymbals) or pitched (such as xylophone and vibraphone). Instruments in the percussion family are usually played with sticks, mallets, or bare hands.

Categorizing Percussion Instruments

While most people simply categorize percussion instruments as pitched or non-pitched, other means of classification are often utilized due to the vast number of instruments.  Most percussion instruments fall into one of three categories: membranophones, idiophones, and electrophones. 

Membranophones

Membranophones are instruments that have a stretched membrane (or head).  The membrane is struck, causing it to resonate.  The membranes were originally made from animal skin, but are now commonly manufactured using plastic or other synthetic materials.

A few examples of membranophones are discussed below.

  • Single- or double-headed cylinders – This type of drum is the same diameter on both top and bottom.  Drums with a bottom (resonant) head will have more sustain.

  • Tom-toms (or toms) – These drums are found on drum sets.  They are usually graduated in size.  The larger drums will produce a lower fundamental tone.  Tom-toms on drum sets are usually double-headed.  Toms-toms used for concert band (concert toms) are generally single-headed.

  • Bass drum – This drum is larger in diameter than most other drums.  It produces a low fundamental tone.  Bass drums that are incorporated into a drum set are played with a foot pedal.  They are usually double-headed, although the front head may have a hole (for less sustain and/or microphone placement).  Drum set bass drums usually are 18-24” in diameter.

    Concert bass drums (as used in concert bands and symphony orchestras) are double-headed and played with a large mallet.  36” is an average diameter for this application.

    Marching bass drums are smaller than orchestral bass drums since they must be carried.  The diameter of marching bass drums usually ranges from 14-32”.

  • Snare drum – This drum is usually 13-14” in diameter.  The shell depth is shallow in comparison to other drums.  Most snare drums range from 3-6 ½” in depth.  All snare drums are double-headed.  The bottom of the has snares (usually made from coiled metal strands) tightened across the drumhead. These give the drum its characteristic, metallic sound.

    Marching snare drums – These drums are deeper than other snare drums.  The depth usually is 11 or 12”.  They can use similar drumheads to standard snare drums, although many marching snares are designed for a high-tensioned Kevlar head.  This allows for greater projection.

  • Hand drums – These drums are traditionally made of wood, but they may also have a fiberglass construction.  The drumheads for these instruments were originally made from rawhide.  Synthetic heads are a common alternative.  A few hand drum examples are listed below.

  • Congas – These single-headed drums are formed from staved pieces of wood or fiberglass, giving them their thin, barrel-like appearance.  The head is stretched over the shell.  Congas are played with various types of hand strokes, each producing a different sound.  A single drum can be played, but they are often seen in pairs. Additional conga drums may be added.  Congas can be heard in traditional Latin American and contemporary pop music.  Do It Again by Steely Dan prominently features the conga drums.

  • Bongos – These are small hand drums which produce a distinct, high-pitched tone.  Two drums are usually joined together at the shell.  This allows them to be held between the knees when the performer is in a seated position. Bongos can also be mounted on a stand.  Similar to congas, bongos can be found both Latin American and contemporary music.  Madonna’s La Isla Bonita is an example of a pop song that uses bongos.

  • Timpani (kettle drums) – This type of drum is comprised of a large drumhead stretched over a copper or fiberglass bowl.  The diameter ranges from 20-32”.  A pedal-activated tuning system is incorporated, allowing each drum to have a definite pitch.  Timpani can be heard in orchestral music.  The pop song by The Dream Academy, Life in a Northern Town, features the timpani.

Idiophones

Idiophones are instruments that resonate in their entirety to create a sound.  For example, a pair of crash cymbals (as played in orchestras and marching bands) would be an example of idiophones, since the entire instrument vibrates to form the sound. 

Idiophones can be separated into smaller classifications, including directly-struck ideophones and indirectly-struck idiophones.  Simply stated, directly-struck ideophones are hit with a hand or another implement, while indirectly-struck idiophones are shaken or scraped.  Stamped idiophones are another subset that do not fall specifically into either of those categories.

Directly Struck Idiophones
(Instruments that are struck)

Clapped idiophones (also referred to as concussion instruments) – These are usually two-piece instruments that are struck together. For example, hand claps are a clapped idiophone.  One hand is struck against the other hand.  No mallet, stick, or other implement is required.

Other examples of clapped idiophones are listed below.

  1. Claves – These are two cylindrical pieces of wood which are struck together.  Claves are often heard in music from Latin American countries. 
  2. Crash cymbals (pair) – A these cymbals, as played in orchestras and marching bands, are played by striking one cymbal against the other.  Crash cymbals can be heard in many musical pieces, including Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain.
  3. Slapstick – This instrument consists of two flat pieces of wood, connected with a hinge.  The intent is to reproduce the sound of a whip being cracked.  It can often be heard in performances of Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson.
  4. Castanets – These shell-shaped pieces of wood are usually tied together with a piece of string.  They are sometimes attached to a handle or mounted on a frame (known as a castanet machine).
  5. Finger cymbals – This pair of idiophones resemble miniature crash cymbals.  They are small enough to be attached to the performer’s thumb and first finger.  They are often played by belly dancers.

Percussion idiophones (struck idiophones) – These idiophones are struck by a hand or other implement.  The instrument vibrates to produce the sound.  The striking implement can change the overall quality and aggressiveness of the sound.

A few examples of these instruments are listed below.

  1. Suspended cymbal – A suspended cymbal is a single cymbal that can be struck with any number of implements, including drumsticks, brushes, and soft mallets. Suspended cymbals can be heard in numerous genres, such as jazz, rock, and classical music.
  2. Triangle – This instrument is named due to its shape.  It is struck with a metal striker.  The diameter of the striker can change the timbre of the instrument.  Many orchestral pieces have triangle parts.  It is also found in pop music.  The triangle is prominently featured in Peter Gabriel’s song, In Your Eyes.
  3. Cowbell – This metal instrument is usually played with sticks or a large wooden beater.  Cowbells are available in many sizes.  The larger the cowbell, the lower the tone will be.  Cowbells can be found in Latin American and pop music.  Rock of Ages by Def Leppard is a good example of a cowbell integrated into a rock drum beat.
  4. Wooden-bar instruments – These pitched percussion instruments include xylophones and marimbas.  These instruments can be found in classical and contemporary music.  Dave Samuels can be heard playing marimba on many Spyro Gyra tunes, including Shaker Song and Morning Dance.
  5. Metal-bar instruments – These pitched percussion instruments include concert bells and vibraphone.  They are featured in many classical and jazz pieces.  Lionel Hampton can be heard playing vibraphone on his famous jazz piece (cowritten with Benny Goodman), Flying Home.  These instruments can be classified as both idiophones and metallophones (metal pitched instruments).
Lionel Hampton playing the vibraphone

Indirectly-struck Idiophones
(Instruments that are shaken or scraped)

Shaken Idiophones – These instruments produce sound when shaken.  They are usually shaken in time with the music, producing rhythms.  They can also be shaken for an extended period of time, creating a percussion roll.

Examples of shaken idiophones are listed below.

  1. Tambourine – This instrument contains metal jingles that produce a sound when shaken.  The player can also tap the rim of the instrument, transferring the vibrations and activating the jingles.  The tambourine is found in many musical compositions ranging from Trepak from the Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky) to Day Tripper (The Beatles).

    Note: Some tambourines consist of the rim and jingles only.  Other tambourines have a head stretched over the rim.  Tambourines with a head can be classified as both a shaken idiophone and a membranophone. 
  • Shaker – This is an object which is partially filled with tiny objects such as beans or metal beads.  Shakers are often cylindrical or egg-shaped.  The instrument is shaken in a repetitive forward-and-backward motion to create a steady rhythm.  In comparison to tambourines, shakers create a less aggressive sound.  Many contemporary songs have shakers mixed in with the rest of the instruments.
  • Maracas – This instrument is similar to a shaker, but has a handle.  Maracas usually come in pairs.  They are heard in Latin American music as well as some contemporary songs.
  • Sleigh bells (also known as jingle bells) – These small bells are usually bundled together around a large handle.  Sleigh bells are found in many winter holiday/Christmas songs.  Sleigh bells can be heard at the beginning of Jingle Bell Rock (Bobby Helms).
  • Caxixi – This is a woven, bell-shaped instrument with a hard bottom.  The bottom can be made using a coconut shell, gourd, or other solid material.  It is usually filled with seeds, giving it a shaker-like sound when shaken from side to side.  Accented sounds can be obtained from shaking toward the bottom of the instrument.  The percussionist can coordinate these two motions to create a variety of patterns.  The caxixi is found in traditional Brazilian music.

    Scraped Idiophones – These instruments produce sound when scraped.  Short (staccato) and long (legato) sounds can be utilized in the performance of these instruments.

Scraped Idiophones – These instruments produce sound when scraped.  Short (staccato) and long (legato) sounds can be utilized in the performance of these instruments. A few examples of scraped idiophones are listed below.

  1. Guiro – This instrument was originally formed from a gourd.  The guiro maker would hollow out the gourd and cut ridges into the surface.  The player would use a stick or other implement to scrape across the ridges, creating a unique percussive sound.  Modern guiros are manufactured using wood or fiberglass, making them less susceptible to to breakage.  The guiro is highly prevalent in traditional music from Latin America.  The guiro can be heard in the hit songs Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones) and Under the Boardwalk (The Drifters).
  2. Washboard – This repurposed instrument actually was a washing board: a wooden-framed board with metal accordion-style ridges.  Prior to washing machines, people would soak their clothes before scrubbing them against the soaped-up ridges.  Percussionists will scrape the metal ridges with a hard object, such as a thimble or bottle opener.  The washboard is a staple instrument of zydeco music.
  3. Rasp – This instrument consists of a piece of wood with ridged carved into the surface.  The ridges are taller than those found on a guiro.  When a striking implement (usually a small wooden stick) is scraped across the ridges, a frog-like sound is produced.  For this reason, rasps are often carved into the shape of a frog.  This instrument is occasionally used for special effects.
  4. Ratchet – This instrument has thin, wooden gears that produce a clicking sound when turned.  One ratchet design incorporates a crank-style handle.  The other design features a handle that is held, while the ratchet is swung in a circular fashion.  Ratchets are found in musicals and percussion ensemble pieces.

Stamped Idiophones – This category is comprised of instrument which strike an immovable surface.  A few examples are listed below.

  1. Marching machine (also known as troop blocks) – This instrument replicates the sound of a marching unit.  Large wooden dowels are affixed to a frame through the use of string.  The instrument is lowered onto a fixed surface, such as a table or floor, to create a march-like effect.
  2. Foot stomp – The performer’s foot (or both feet) can be stomped on the floor.  In this case, the performer’s feet are considered stamped idiophones.  Foot stomps can be heard in Queen’s hit song, We Will Rock You.
Marching Machine

Electrophones

Electrophones are instruments which produce sounds through electronic processes.  When one hears the phrase, “electronic instrument,” he or she may think of an electric piano-style keyboard.  This instrument is configured and played in a similar fashion to an acoustic piano, but the instrument’s sounds are created internally though electronic means.  Similarly, electronic percussion instruments are played using traditional means (sticks, mallets, or bare hands), but the sounds are produced via the unit’s electronic circuitry.

Electronic percussion instruments are often used in Broadway shows, allowing for a lower performance volume.  Floor space is also conserved, since many percussion sounds can be accessed from the same unit.  Marching bands also add these instruments to the pit (sidelines).  This allows the band to transport fewer pieces of equipment while accessing a wide array of sounds. 

A few examples of electronic percussion instruments are described below.

  1. Electronic drum set – This instrument consists of electronically-triggered pads with striking surfaces formed from rubber, mesh, or other synthetic materials.  There are specially-designed pads replicating the bass drum and cymbals.  The sounds can be analog (electronically created) or digital (pre-recorded samples of real percussion instruments).  The user can usually manipulate the sounds in terms of pitch, reverb, and sustain.

    Electronic drum sets allow drummers to switch sounds.  One preset setting may sound like a jazz kit, while another could sound reminiscent of a heavy metal drum set.  Numerous percussion sounds, such as Latin percussion and auxiliary percussion instruments, are typically included in the electronic drum set’s sounds.

    Many electronic drum pads have a separate sound assigned to the rim.  The performer may assign the typical drum sound to the head of the pad while assigning an auxiliary sound (such as a cowbell) to the rim.  The cymbal pads often have multiple triggers, allowing the drummer to attain the appropriate sounds when hitting the bell, edge, and top surface of the pad.  The hi-hat trigger allows the unit to have a different sound for open and closed hi-hat hits. 
  • Electronic mallet percussion – These instruments have the same layout as other pitched percussion instruments.  Some have internal sounds while others need an external sound source.  The sounds can closely replicate instruments such as vibraphones, marimbas, concert bells, and xylophones.  The percussionist can also access many other instrumental sounds such as guitars, keyboards, and drums.  The MalletKat (Kat Percussion) and Mallet Station (Pearl Corporation) are two examples of electronic mallet percussion instruments.
  • Electronic hand percussion – This type of instrument is specially designed to be played with the performer’s hands, similar to a conga, bongo, or tabla drum.  Kat Percussion and Roland offer instruments in this category.
  • Electronic percussion pad – This kind of instrument usually has anywhere from one to eight playing surfaces within a single unit.  Each pad can be programmed to a separate sound.  Drummers often use these types of pads as an addition to an acoustic drum set.  This is a convenient (and space-saving way) to add various percussion sounds to the drum kit.  The Roland Octapad is the most popular model of percussion pad.
  • Drum triggers – These are electronic sensors that are affixed to drums.  They pick up the vibration of the drum, transferring it into an electric signal.  That signal is sent to a sound module which plays the assigned sound.  The triggered sound can be used in place of the drum sound.  Microphones may also be placed on the drums, allowing the acoustic drum sound and triggered sound to be blended together. 
Yamaha Electronic Drums

Is piano a percussion instrument?

Percussion instruments produce tone though striking. Since the hammers of the piano strike the tuned strings inside the body of the instrument, it can be considered a percussion instrument.  However, the piano is usually not considered a member of the percussion family of instruments. 

Conclusion

Hopefully, the information in this article will make you more aware of the various types of percussion instruments. Listen to the music you hear throughout your day. You may be surprised at how many types of percussion instruments are found in music!

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