Instruments | Metal | Percussion

A range of metal percussion instruments are found in the western orchestra, many of which have ancient and global origins.


The triangle comprises a slim steel bar, circular in cross-section, bent into an equilateral triangle (18 cm/7 in each side) with one corner open. It is played with a metal rod, and is suspended from a loop of string. The triangle was originally a sistrum – one of the oldest known percussion instruments. A sistrum is a ‘U’-shaped metal frame with a number of bars and prongs attached to it, which hold metal jingles, discs and rings that clatter together as the instrument is shaken. Sistra first appear in the archeological record in ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Babylonia in 2500 BC, and are found in Malaysia and Melanesia. The triangle as we know it today first appeared in Europe in the late-fourteenth century, at which time it was a triangle-shaped sistrum with rings attached.

The orchestral triangle – without rings – appeared in the nineteenth century, and was used to provide a sparkle to orchestrations such as in Franz Liszt’s (1811–86) Piano Concerto No. 1 (1853) and in ‘Anitra’s Dance’ from Peer Gynt (1876) by Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Classical composers included the triangle to create Turkish effects, but this may well have been a triangle with jingles attached, which could be shaken and struck.

Playing the Triangle

Although it is a simple instrument, the triangle is tricky to play well. It produces a range of tone colours. The purest sound is produced by striking it as close to the top corner as possible, which requires the player to take very good aim to hit a small playing zone. Playing more complex rhythms requires the use of two beaters, and care must be taken to stop the triangle twirling round on its string with each strike of the beater. It can be suspended from the player’s outstretched finger and played open and closed (damped), the damping being done by the other fingers in the hand. A roll or tremolo is played either by playing a single stroke roll with two beaters, or, more commonly, by moving the end of the beater rapidly side to side inside one corner.


The anvil is a sound effect used in orchestral music to imitate a blacksmith’s. It is perhaps most famously heard in Wagner’s Rhinegold (1876) and in the ‘Anvil Chorus’ of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813–1901) Il trovatore (1853). It can also be used for dramatic effect, such as in the chorus ‘Praise Ye the God of Iron’ in William Walton’s (1902–83) Belshazzar’s Feast (1930). It also appears in Edgard Varèse’s (1883–1965) Hyperprism (1923) and Ionisation (1931).

Real anvils can be impractical in the orchestra as they are so heavy. Effective substitutes can be made from sections of scaffold pole or railway track, which provide the same clanging sound. The anvil is played with a heavy metal mallet or hammer.

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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