The percussion family is the largest in the orchestra. Percussion instruments include any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped. It's not easy to be a percussionist because it takes a lot of practice to hit an instrument with the right amount of strength, in the right place and at the right time. Some percussion instruments are tuned and can sound different notes, like the xylophone, timpani or piano, and some are untuned with no definite pitch, like the bass drum, cymbals or castanets. Percussion instruments keep the rhythm, make special sounds and add excitement and color. Unlike most of the other players in the orchestra, a percussionist will usually play many different instruments in one piece of music. The most common percussion instruments in the orchestra include the timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, maracas, gongs, chimes, celesta, and piano.
People disagree about whether the piano is a percussion or a string instrument. You play it by hitting its 88 black and white keys with your fingers, which suggests it belongs in the percussion family. However, the keys lift hammers inside the piano that strike strings (indeed, the piano has more strings than any other string instrument), which produce its distinctive sound. Which family do you think it belongs to? Wherever it fits in, there's no disputing the fact that the piano has the largest range of any instrument in the orchestra. It is a tuned instrument, and you can play many notes at once using both your hands. Within the orchestra the piano usually supports the harmony, but it has another role as a solo instrument (an instrument that plays by itself), playing both melody and harmony.
Timpani look like big polished bowls or upside-down teakettles, which is why they're also called kettledrums. They are big copper pots with drumheads made of calfskin or plastic stretched over their tops. Timpani are tuned instruments, which means they can play different notes. The timpanist changes the pitch by stretching or loosening the drumheads, which are attached to a foot pedal. Timpani are a central part of the percussion family because they support rhythm, melody and harmony. Most orchestras have four timpani of different sizes and tuned to different pitches and they are usually played by one musician, who hits the drumheads with felt-tipped mallets or wooden sticks. The timpani player must have a very good ear because he/she usually needs to change the pitches of the drums during performances.
The xylophone originally came from Africa and Asia, but has a Greek name that means "wood sound." The modern xylophone has wooden bars or keys arranged like the keys of the piano, which the player hits with a mallet. You can change the quality of the pitch by using different kinds of mallets (hard or soft), and by hitting the wooden bars in different ways. Attached to the bottom of the wooden bars are metal tubes called resonators, where the sound vibrates. This gives the xylophone its bright bell-like sound.
There are several other instruments similar to the xylophone, which are also part of the percussion family. They include the marimba, a larger version of a xylophone with wood or plastic resonators attached to the bottom of the wooden keys, which give it a mellower, more rounded sound, and the vibraphone (known as vibes), which has both metal bars and metal resonators, with small rotating disks inside. The disks are attached to a rod, which is turned by an electric motor. When you play a sustained note on the vibes and the motor is running, the disks create vibrato, or a wiggly pitch. In addition, percussionists often play a glockenspiel (pronounced GLOCK-en-shpeel), which is a miniature xylophone with metal bars instead of wood. The percussionist uses hard mallets to play the glockenspiel, which sounds like clear tinkling bells.
Cymbals are the biggest noisemakers of the orchestra. They are two large metal discs, usually made of spun bronze. Cymbals, which are untuned, come in a range of sizes, from quite small to very large. The larger the cymbal, the lower the sound they make. Cymbals can be used for drama and excitement, to accent the rhythm or create delicate sound effects. You can play the cymbals either by hitting one cymbal against the other, or you can use sticks, mallets or brushes to hit one or both cymbals.
You've probably played a triangle yourself at one time or another. It's a small metal bar that's bent into the shape of a triangle and makes a ringing sound when you hit it. There are many sizes of triangles and each one sounds a different pitch. You play the triangle by holding it on a string and striking it with a metal beater. The size and thickness of the beater can change the sound the triangle makes.
The snare drum is a smallish drum made of wood or brass with drumheads made of calfskin or plastic stretched over both ends of a hollow cylinder. It has a set of wire-wrapped strings stretched across the bottom head (the snare), which give the snare drum its unique "rattling" sound when the drum is hit. A small switch on the side of the drum allows the player to turn the snare on or off depending on the requirements of the piece. The snare drum is an untuned drum, so it doesn't sound distinct pitches. It is often used in military music and is a central part of any marching band. Snare drums are used to keep the rhythm and make special sounds, such as drumrolls. You play the snare drum by hitting the top with drumsticks, mallets or brushes.
The bass drum, like the double bass, is the biggest member of the percussion family and therefore makes the lowest sounds. The bass drum is built like a very large snare drum, although without the snare; it is also an untuned instrument. You play the bass drum by hitting either drumhead with sticks that have large soft heads, often covered with sheepskin or felt. It can produce a lot of different sounds from roaring thunder to the softest whispers.
Have you played one of these? A tambourine is a small drum with metal jingles set into the edges. Both the drumhead and the jingles are untuned. To play it, you hold it in one hand and tap, shake or hit it, usually against your other hand.
Maracas come from Mexico. They are rattles, often made from gourds (a kind of squash), filled with dried seeds, beads or even tiny ball bearings that make them rattle. Maracas can also be made of wood or plastic; the sound they make depends on what they're made of. To play them, you hold them in your hands and shake.
The gong, also known as the tamtam, is a very large metal plate that hangs suspended from a metal pipe. It looks similar to a cymbal and is also untuned, but is much larger and has a raised center. To play it, you hit the center with a soft mallet. Depending on how hard you hit it, you can make a deafening crash or the softest flicker of sound.
Chimes are metal tubes of different lengths that are hung from a metal frame. When you strike the tubes with a mallet, they sound like the ringing bells of a church. Each chime sounds a different pitch.
These fun wooden instruments come from Spain and are used to punctuate the music with a distinctive clickety-clack. Castanets are made of two pieces of wood tied together. To play them, you hold them with your fingers and click the two pieces of wood together. In the orchestra, castanets are sometimes mounted on a piece of wood, and the percussionist plays them by hitting them with his/her hands.
The celesta looks like a tiny upright piano and sounds a lot like the glockenspiel with its delicate bell-like tone. Celestas usually have a keyboard of 49–65 keys. As with the piano, you make sound on the celesta by pressing down on a key with your finger, which lifts a hammer inside and strikes a metal bar. You can play many notes at once using both your hands.