In today’s lesson we are going to look at percussion instruments.
The percussion family is huge and includes many different types of instruments. Percussion instruments (often called drums) are those that produce sound by being hit, for example by hands, sticks, or beaters, or by beads that are inside the instrument (like shakers).
Some percussion instruments are categorised as non-pitched percussion – these instruments don’t make a precise note when you hit them, for example shakers and cymbals.
Other percussion instruments, like xylophones, timpani and bells, are called pitched percussion since they produce definite notes of the scale and can be used to play melodies. Pitched percussion can also include keyboard instruments like the piano and celesta, which we looked at last week: when you play them, a hammer hits a string or piece of metal, to produce sound. This means a piano is a keyboard instrument, a percussion instrument AND a string instrument! Percussion sounds can also be created by synthesisers called drum machines, like the Roland 808 and Roland 909 which are used in dance music.
Percussion instruments make up the ‘rhythm’ section in orchestras and bands, and can be described as the ‘heartbeat’ or ‘engine’ of a piece of music, that keeps a song driving forward. Let’s look at some different types of drums.
This video introduces you to lots of different instruments (pitched percussion: vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, and non-pitched percussion: bass drum, tam-tam, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, crotales and tambourine):
Another type of orchestral percussion which isn’t included in this video is the timpani, which you can see here (you need only watch the first couple of minutes):
Here are a couple of very famous drum machines, the Roland 808 and 909, which defined dance music through the 80s and 90s, and are still used a lot today, for example in house, techno, drum and bass, and trap/drill.
Here is the 808 in action – this is a very deep sounding drum machine that was used in Chicago house in the 80s, hip hop and jungle in the 90s, and is now used a lot in trap and drill (start watching from 2:58):
And here is its more aggressive sibling, the 909, which defined dance, house and techno from the 90s onwards and is still used a lot in that music today (just the first couple of minutes is fine):
Finally, here is the drum kit, which is used more in band contexts like jazz, rock and pop. The core parts of the drum kit are the bass drum, snare, toms, hi-hat, and cymbals.
Now you’ve been introduced to the different drums, have a look at the following examples and see if you can tell which type/s of drum is being used.
In this video is Mike Portnoy playing orchestral drums, a drum kit, or a drum machine?
Which type of drum does Evelyn Glennie play first in this video?
Evelyn lost her hearing at eight years old, and was completely deaf from aged 12. She uses senses other than hearing to ‘hear’ the sound, like the vibrations she can feel coming from the instrument. Despite not being able to hear what she’s playing she is one of the best percussionists in the world.
Here’s a classic 90s dance track, I Love U Baby. Dance music usually uses drum machines, one of which is particularly famous for this style of music. Can you tell if this uses the Roland 808 or the Roland 909? You may wish to check it against the examples shown earlier in the page.
Which pitched percussion instruments can you see and hear being used in this piece by Steve Reich, Music for Eighteen Musicians? Can you also name the woodwind instruments? Start at 4:34 and watch for as long as you like (at least three minutes).
This is an example of a genre called minimalism, which is a type of modern classical music. Minimalism uses lots of repetition, with very gradual changes over a long period of time.
This next snippet is from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which opens with a piece of music called Also Spoke Zarathustra by the composer Richard Strauss. Which type of orchestral percussion can you hear?
Can You Feel It by Mr Fingers is often called the first ‘deep house’ track, released in 1985. Which drum machine is being used here?
Can you name three types of non-pitched drums (not including drum-kit) used by this marching band?
Here is the Bill Evans Trio, performing Autumn Leaves. Which two percussion instruments are played here?
Which type of drum is being used in this live jam at a Muse concert? (Contains flashing images).
Which type of drum machine is being used in Doin’ it Right by Daft Punk – an 808 or 909? Again, you may wish to check the early examples near the top of the page.
In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins changed the way drums were used forever, and has one of the most famous drum fills (short solos) of all time. Can you tell which sorts of drums are being used here (beginning at 3:43)?
Which pitched percussion instrument can you hear being used in this song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – is it a) celesta, b) tambourine, or c) xylophone?
Now check your answers below?
- Mike Portnoy is a drummer famous for his huge drum kit, seen above.
- Evelyn Glennie uses a snare drum in this video.
- The Roland 909 was responsible for this classic dance sound throughout the 80s and 90s, and is still used a lot today.
- The Steve Reich piece uses marimbas, xylophones, pianos, and type of vibraphone called a metallophone. You can also hear and see clarinets and bass clarinets being used.
- Timpani are used to famous effect in Also Spoke Zarathustra.
- Again, you can hear the 909 in this house track by Mr Fingers.
- Besides the drum kit and the piano, the marching band can see heard using snares, cymbals, and bass drums.
- The two percussion instruments that are used in this jazz trio are the piano and the drum kit.
- This Muse clip is a duo featuring bass guitar and drum kit.
- The Daft Punk song features the Roland 808 – you can tell it by its deep bass and sharp hi-hat sound that is still heard a lot today in trap and drill.
- In the Air Tonight features a drum kit that is produced in a special way to make it sound more electronic. You may also have heard a drum machine being used very, very quietly in the background.
In the Air Tonight was one of the first songs to make use of ‘gated’ drums, a production technique that was discovered by accident, and went on to define the 80s. You can hear more about the mistake that went on to define a decade of music here (watch up to 3:03):
People are still using this technique in songs today – it just goes to show how important accidents and mistakes are in the creative process. Some incredible innovations were the results of mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make them!
12. Finally, Willy Wonka’s song features a celesta. A tambourine isn’t pitched percussion, and the sound is too metallic sounding to be a xylophone (which is made from wood).