Percussion instruments produce sound when struck by hand or with an object. Often considered the heartbeat of music, percussion provides rhythm, keeps time, and can produce a variety of tones, pitches, and melodic sounds. Percussion is found in almost all types and genres of music, usually playing a fundamental role. Encompassing a wide array of instruments, it typically includes anything that does not fit into the category of string, woodwind, brass, or keyboard. With countless variations, percussion instruments are made of more materials and come in more shapes and sizes than can be listed.
There are two groups belonging to the percussion family: idiophones and membranophones. Idiophones are typically made of a solid material that, when struck, vibrates as a whole to produce sound, like a bell or singing bowl. There are also shaken idiophones, which are vessels filled with a rattling material, like maracas. Most percussion instruments that are not drums are considered idiophones. Membranophones produce sound through the vibration of a stretched membrane over a frame, also known as a drum.
Drums, in particular, have ceremonial and symbolic associations all over the world, in addition to musical function. In many cultures, drums have specific purposes during ceremonies and spiritual practices, both historically and in the present. Drums have also been used as a form of early long-distance communication and during battles as a way to communicate with soldiers.
There are very few certainties about percussion instruments throughout history and no one can say for sure how many instruments the percussion family contains, particularly since almost anything can be turned into a percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are believed to be the oldest musical instruments in existence, followed by the human voice. Without a doubt, they are found in every culture in the world and have existed for thousands of years.
The first example of a drum was found in an archeological dig in China, dated 5500 BCE—a wooden shell covered by stretched alligator skin. Around this same period, drums similar to membranophones were found on many continents. These drums were composed of animal skin stretched over an opening in the ground and held taut by several players, each striking the drum. These ground drums were found in Africa, Australia, and North America.
Percussion instruments in Indian classical music have the earliest known documentation, with an entire chapter on idiophones in Natyashastra, a Sanskrit text dated 200 BCE. The tabla is one of the earliest instruments that saw widespread use, with carvings of it in Indian temples dated 500 BCE. Other percussion instruments began to show some consistency by the early 10th century, as many tribes in Africa were using djembe drums, maracas were used in Latin America, karimbas in Asia and seed rattles in Australia. In the 15th century, percussion instruments began showing up in orchestras, first in Asia and then in the Middle East and Europe.
The term ‘percussion instrument’ emerged in the 17th century, around the same time that European orchestras started to incorporate percussion sections, particularly the timpani and triangle. Widespread use of percussion instruments in classical music began in the 20th century. Modern percussion instruments in Western music, like the drum kit, also emerged in the 20th century, first in military bands during World War I, and later popularized by American jazz bands.
Idiophones are a diverse group of instruments. Broadly, they fall into three categories: concussion, percussion, and shaken. Concussion idiophones consist of two objects struck together to produce a sound, percussion idiophones are an object capable of vibration struck with an object that isn’t, and shaken idiophones are vessels filled with a rattling material that can be played or worn. Although there are three main categories, there are near countless varieties and types of idiophones. Anything that can produce a sound for the purpose of making music and isn’t a drum is an idiophone. Below are examples of instruments in each category.
Membranophones, or drums, are divided into categories based on material and the way the sound is produced. The four main types are kettledrums, tubular drums, rattle drums, and friction drums. Kettledrums have a metal body while tubular drums typically have a body made of wood. Friction drums produce sound when they are rubbed and rattle drums when they are rattled. The membranes of drums are fixed to the body or shell, permanently or temporarily, and either type can usually be adjusted for pitch. In all types of drums, the shell or body acts as the resonator for the vibrations of the membrane. The greater the diameter and size of the body, the deeper the sound, and the greater its tension, the higher the pitch. Below are examples of drums in each category.
In addition to idiophones and membranophones, there are uncommon, or found, percussion instruments. These usually consist of an object that is not considered to be a musical instrument of any kind and are therefore unable to be placed in a traditional category. For example, modern musicians and composers have been known to use anvils, brake drums (from a motor vehicle), garbage cans, metal pipes, and oil barrels as percussion instruments. One of the earliest known uses of a found percussion instrument was the use of a cannon during an orchestral piece in the 19th century.
There are countless techniques for playing a percussion instrument, particularly idiophones as they vary greatly in material and style. The most common techniques for playing membranophones are hands, sticks, and mallets. When played by hand, the shape made by the hand, the part of the hand that strikes the drum, and where on the drum the strike takes place all determine the type of sound produced. Techniques vary by culture, region, type of drum and even person.
Certain popular hand drums, like djembe and tabla, have very specific techniques for playing. The djembe has three sounds that are achieved through specific hand and drum positions, while the tabla has one of the most complex techniques with ten unique strokes that must be learned.
In modern music, the technique for sticks and mallets are more standardized. In European and western music, percussion music is noted on a musical staff, both pitched and unpitched. Drumsticks vary in shape and material but are more commonly made of wood. Mallets can be wrapped or unwrapped and made of various materials. Each of these techniques produces a unique sound depending on how they are used and on which instrument.
There are two classes of percussion instruments, pitched and unpitched. Pitched instruments can be tuned to produce one or more pitches. This can be achieved by adjusting the surface tension of a membranophone or through air volume displaced. Drums with adjustable membranes can be tightened or loosened to produce different pitches and drums with permanently fixed membranes can be heated to change pitch.
In the case of mallet percussion instruments like the glockenspiel or xylophone, pitch is determined by the density and composition of their various components. Different pitches can be achieved by striking mallet percussion instruments in different places. Unpitched percussion instruments produce sounds of indefinite pitch and are typically used to maintain rhythm and remain separate from the melody or harmony of the music. Unpitched percussion instruments include stare drums, cymbals, and most idiophones.
The world of percussion has been home to a great number of renowned experts, both in history and the current day. Below are some of the most talented and well-known modern-day percussionists from around the world.