Orchestral Percussion

© 1999


The orchestral percussion section can be called upon to play anything and everything to produce the sound in the composer's mind. It's not uncommon to see outlandish instruments such as "Starter Pistol", or "Pots and Pans" notated in parts. Essentially, the classical percussionist adds color and texture to the group.

1. Keyboards

a. Xylophone

- commonly a 3 octave instrument. Bars made of Rosewood (superior sound quality) or Kelon (stands up to wet weather and high volumes). Produces a dry, clean note. Played with plastic or rubber mallets. They are written 1 octave below actual sound.

b. Marimba

- similar to a Xylophone, but more resonant, larger range (up to and including 5 octaves), and graduated bars. Has longer resonators, (tubes under the bars), than the Xylophone. Played with yarn or cord, rubber mallets.

c. Vibraphone

- same design as a xylophone, with 3 « octaves, but with brass bars. As brass is far livelier than Rosewood, they have a felt damper running along each bar from below. The felt can be engaged or disengaged, as on a piano, with a pedal. Often has a motor, which turns covers over the resonators for a vibrato effect. More commonly found in jazz than classical music. Played with yarn, cord, or rubber mallets.

d. Bells

- smaller 2 1/2 octave instrument.  They are written 2 octaves below actual sound. Constructed from thin steel or aluminium bars, which produce a clear, bright sound. Often referred to as "Glockenspiel", the German name for the instrument or orchestra bells. Played with plastic or brass mallets.

e. Tubular Chimes

- tall (6') tubes, capped at one end, made of brass, held in a stand lengthways, upright. 2 « octaves is the standard. As on the vibraphone, it has a damper pedal system. Played with rawhide or plastic mallets that look like hammers.

2. Timpani (kettledrums)

Played in groups of 2-5 individual timpano, Sizes vary, but the common ones are 20", 23", 26", 29", and 32". Copper or less commonly fiberglass bowls with a head stretched across the top. A pedal system is implemented for tuning each drum. Timpani are tuned to actual notes in the bass scale. Some have tuning gauges so that the player can estimate the interval between notes pedalled. The pedal pulls down on the counterhoop, thus increasing the tension on the head, and raising the pitch. Often played on a stool, but on occasion, standing. Calf heads are preferred for warmth of tone, but synthetic is most common. Played with felt mallets in varying designs and hardness, as well as wooden mallets.

3. Orchestral Snares

Classical and orchestral snare drums do not differ drastically from their drumset counterparts. The major differences are in the features. Shells can be made of a wide variety of materials, depending the sound required. Those include woods (maple, birch, mahogany), and metals (brass, bronze, stainless steel, copper). Sizes vary drastically, from 3" to 12" in depth, and 10" through 17" in head diameter. Die cast hoops are common. They produce a drier sound, and assist in keeping even tunings. Snares are usually combinations of stainless steel cable (coated with plastic), gut, and curly wire (as on drumset snare drums). The different snare materials help to fine tune the resonance and control that attack. Some manufacturers offer systems with multiple types of snares combined for one drum. Heads are generally thin, and minimally dampened where necessary. Played mostly with wooden sticks or wire brushes.

4. Orchestral Bass drum

Much like the drumset counterpart, the concert bass drum consists of a large wooden shell, with two heads stretched across the openings. The best bass drums are suspended by a stand with rubber straps, which allows the drum to tilt to accommodate the player, and isolates the shell for maximum resonance. Common sizes are around 36", but can be purchased between 28" and 40". Most orchestras use calfskin heads on their bass drums. The drum is played with felt or wooden mallets.

5. Cymbals

a. Suspended

- thin to medium weight cymbals, usually with a dark tone. Played on a stand, either as on the drumset, or suspended from a strap on a gooseneck stand. Sizes vary from 15" to 20". Played with soft mallets, wooden sticks, brushes, coins, and at times bowed with a bass bow.

b. Hand Cymbals

- paired cymbals, held in the hands with straps. The cymbals are played in a "clashing" fashion to produce a ringing, sustaining sound. Thin cymbals are generally referred to as "French", mediums as "Viennese", and heavier cymbals as "Germanic". Sizes range from 13" to 24", with 18" Viennese as the most commonly used. Many effects other than the crash can be produce, depending on the desired sound. A choke is produced by clashing the cymbals together, then immediately dampening them to your breast.

c. Gongs, Tam Tams

- the dark, sonorous sound of the gong can be heard in many orchestral works. Actually, what you may think of as a gong, is in actually a tam tam. A true gong is a smaller sized instrument, with a raised nipple in the center with a fixed pitch. Tam Tams are typically larger, and do not produce a musical pitch. Gongs can range around the 14" to 20" sizes, and tam tams are usually from 30" to 50". Different cultures, such a the different parts of Asia, produce different sounding cymbals, sounds, and effects. More can be learned about this topic at , , and

d.  Finger Cymbals

- small, thick, 3" pairs of cymbals which are played against each others edges to produce a bright, cutting sound.

e. Crotales

- sets of pitched cymbal-like instruments set up in keyboard fashion. Each 4" crotale is like a thick cymbal with a raised nipple on the bottom. 

6. Triangle

- a fittingly triangular instrument with an open corner. Made of metal, they can vary radically in size and thickness. Played with brass and steel beaters in varying thickness.

7. Tambourine

- 10" - 12" shallow wooden shells with cut-outs for metal (chromium 25, nickel, silver, brass, bronze, copper) jingles to be inserted with pins. A head (goat or calfskin) is stretched across the top. It is played using many different techniques. Check out for more information.

8. Concert Toms

- single headed drums played in sets of 2 to 8 or more. Sizes range from 6" to 18", and shells are made of wood. Played with wooden sticks, felt or yarn mallets, or other implements. 

9. Other common items

- orchestral percussionists carry a wide variety of equipment. A list of the most common follows: Castanets, woodblock, temple blocks, ratchets, whistles, ribbon crashers, cowbells, timbales, congas, bongos, claves, wind chimes, and hand bells. 

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