Introduction | Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments are a diverse and interesting family. Every human culture plays them, and they are among the oldest instruments known to man. Percussion instruments are indispensable to practically every genre and style of music.

In many cultures, the leader of a musical ensemble plays a percussion instrument to give signals to the other performers, such as when to stop, and to maintain the music’s rhythm. Percussion has religious and spiritual significance. Advertisers ‘drum up business’, an expression that goes back to travelling actors playing drums to attract an audience for their performances.

The percussion family incorporates some of the very largest and smallest instruments, from the Japanese o-daiko or fat drum, which is a huge 240 cm (96 in) diameter and 240 cm (96 in) long, down to tiny ankle bells worn by dancers. Percussion instruments can be very simple to make, such as a dried bean-pod shaker, or they can require complex and expensive engineering processes like western church bells. Percussionists often train for years to become master performers on their instruments.

What is Percussion?

All percussion instruments are struck to make them sound. They can be hit, shaken and scraped, or made to vibrate by friction. They are struck with the hands or with beaters, or struck against one another like a pair of cymbals. Percussion beaters or sticks come in an enormous variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes the beater may be part of the instrument – like the clapper on a bell – or hidden inside the instrument – like the hammers of a celesta. Percussionists in an orchestra or theatre-pit band may also find themselves playing a host of other instruments and sound effects.

Drums, or membranophones, are struck on the membrane or skin. This is stretched over a hollow body that acts as a resonator and amplifier. Drums are classified according to the shape of their body. All other percussion instruments are idiophones – literally, instruments that sound of themselves. These include instruments like the triangle, which is made of a sonorous material that vibrates when struck. Idiophones can also have resonators to project their sound.


Unlike other instruments, both drums and idiophones can be both tuned and untuned. The acoustic construction of the instrument will determine whether or not it can play a specific pitch. Like all instruments, the sound of a percussion instrument is a combination of the fundamental frequency and a series of overtones or harmonics that the ear hears as a homogenous sound. If the overtones are in a harmonic relationship with the fundamental tone, then the ear hears this as a pitched note, as in a tuned percussion instrument like the steel pan or the xylophone. In an untuned percussion instrument like the tambourine, the overtones are not in a harmonic relationship and the ear hears this as noise. Untuned instruments of different sizes may be constructed to make higher or lower sounds, like the tom toms on a drum...

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


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