Percussion Instruments of the Orchestra – An Introduction

Todays post will explore the various percussion instruments of the orchestra. As mentioned in other posts, the percussion family is the largest instrument family consisting of hundreds of instruments. For this reason I have decided to look at the percussion instruments used in particular ensembles. The instruments presented here today are by no means a complete list. They are the most common instruments used in orchestras.  I will revisit the percussion family many times in future posts to explore the many other instruments that are not featured here today.

When composers write for the orchestra they use a large variety of drums and auxiliary percussion to achieve the effect they are looking for. Every single instrument plays a key role in conveying the feeling or mood the composer is trying create.

The next time you listen to an orchestral piece of music, listen for the crash cymbals and try to determine their purpose.

Categorizing Percussion Instruments of the Orchestra

In the following post I will discuss these instruments by introducing them in two categories, pitched and unpitched.

Pitched Percussion Instruments – Pitched percussion instruments are capable of playing a variety of notes. The music written for these instruments will be very similar to the instruments of the other instrument families.

Unpitched Percussion Instruments – Unpitched percussion instruments are not capable of producing any pitches, but have important rhythmic purposes. The sounds they make when hit vary greatly and contribute to the mood the composer is trying to create.

Pitched Percussion Instruments

As mentioned above pitched percussion instruments are capable of creating a variety of pitches. Many, but not all, of them follow the same format as the piano. Some of the most common percussion instruments in this category are:



Timpani Drums “Berliner Pauken” by Lefima GmbH – Lefima GmbH. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The timpani are also often referred to as kettle drums or informally the timps. A set of timpani drums consists of 2 to 4 drums which are tuned to different pitches depending on the notes specified by the composer. The timpani drum looks like a large bowl, which is usually made of copper or fibreglass, with a head stretched over the bowl. They are played using drum sticks called timpani sticks or timpani mallets, which are made specifically for the timpani. It is recommended that the timpani is played with  sticks made specifically for the timpani, as these drums are quite expensive and fragile.

 The timpani drums are considered pitched percussion instruments because of the ability to change the pitch of each drum using a foot pedal. Sometimes the music will require the timpanist to change the pitches throughout a piece of music, especially if there has been a key change.  Most timpani drums have a gage that will show the player what pitch the drum is tuned to without actually having to play the drum. This is beneficial when there is a need to change the pitch in the middle of a piece of music.  If the gage is not available the timpanist will tune the drums to another instrument.



Quite often people mistakenly place the piano in the string family because each note is produced by the vibration of the strings. However, the vibration of the strings is caused by hammers that hit the strings when the player presses a key. Because the strings are actually struck and not plucked, bowed, or strummed it is classified as a percussion instrument. The piano is often featured in the orchestra.



The xylophone used in the orchestra is capable of playing all the notes of the chromatic scale. It consists of wooden bars, which are each tuned to a different pitch. Some xylophones have short resonators attached to amplify the sound. Generally the shorter the bar, the higher the pitch, and the longer the bar the lower the pitch. The musician plays the xylophone by hitting the bars with a mallet. The xylophone is one of many mallet percussion instruments used in the orchestra.

It is also important to note that while the xylophone used in the orchestra is based on the chromatic scale, there are also xylophones tuned to many different scales such as the diatonic, pentatonic and heptatonic scale. Many children xylophones are tuned to the diatonic scale.



The glockenspiel is another pitched percussion instrument that is played using mallets. It is very similar to the xylophone but has metal plates or tubes instead of wood. The overall layout of the metal plates or tubes are the same, but the glockenspiel’s pitches are often higher and the instrument itself is often much smaller. The glockenspiel is also known as the bells or concert bells. Like the xylophone, the layout of the glockenspiel is very similar to the piano.



“Marimba One 4000 Series” by Marimbaone – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Marimba is yet another mallet percussion instrument that is sometimes heard in the orchestra. It also has the same layout as the glockenspiel and xylophone but has wooden bars with large resonators attached to them to amplify the sound. Professional marimba players can play at impressive speeds, making it almost impossible to see their mallets.

There are many other pitched percussion instruments that may appear in the orchestra. Modern composers use a variety of percussion instruments in their compositions. the chimes, wind chimes and celesta are a few more pitched percussion instruments that may appear in the orchestra.

Unpitched Percussion Instruments

There is a large selection of unpitched percussion instruments. More then could ever be mentioned in one blog post. The instruments below are the most common and most known unpitched percussion instruments found in the orchestra.

Snare Drum

Snare Drum

The snare drum is one of the most popular percussion instruments. In the orchestra it is most often played alone but it is also a key component of the drum set. The snare drum has a very unique sound that is recognized from its role in military music or marches. When composer write for the snare drum they have the option to turn the snares on or to turn them off. When the snares are turned on the drum creates a cracking sound, but when they are turned off(or disengaged) the drum has a very similar sound to a tom-tom (which is also apart of the drum set). The snare drum is played using a standard set of drum sticks which are most often made of wood. Sometimes the music may ask the player to use brushes instead of stick to achieve a particular sound.

There are many features of the snare drum that are very recognizable. One of these features is a roll, which is created by allowing to drum sticks to bounce off the drum at a very quick speed.

Bass Drum

Bass Drum

The bass drum is a large drum that produces a low sound when hit. The bass drum used in the orchestra is also known as the concert bass drum or orchestral bass drum. It is played using a special bass drum mallet which is usually covered with felt.

The bass drums role is to often keep a steady beat. I like to think of the bass drum as the heart beat of the ensemble. Even if you listen to music that uses a drum set, you will here the bass drum of the drum set keeping the beat.


Crash CymbalsThe cymbals are known for the loud crashing sound that is made when they are hit together. Two cymbals that are hit together are known as crash cymbals. Composers will include them when a dramatic sound or crash is required. The use of crash cymbals can be extremely effective.

Suspended Cymbal
“2006-07-06 crash paiste 16” by Stephan Czuratis (Jazz-face) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

The suspended cymbal is also very common. The suspended cymbal is one cymbal suspended on a stand. It is played with mallets. A suspended cymbal roll is created by quickly alternating the mallets while hitting the cymbal. Quite often a cymbal roll is also accompanied by a crescendo (indicates that the music should gradually get louder). To create varying effects players will play a cymbal in different places to get different sounds. players may also experiment with different sticks and mallets.

The Triangle
“Triangle 001” by Anon – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons –

The triangle is made of a bar of metal which is bent into a triangle shape with a gap at one corner. It has been a common percussion instrument in the orchestra since the middle of the eighteenth century. the player holds the triangle by attaching a loop to one corner for holding it while striking it with a metal mallet. Although the triangle is a very simple instrument, when it is struck it can be heard over the orchestra.

The Tambourine


The tambourine is a round percussion instrument often made of wood or plastic with pairs of small metal discs. Quite often they also have a membrane that covers one side of the instrument which can be struck with the hand or a stick. They have been a part of the orchestra for a very long time.

More Percussion Instruments then We could ever List

The percussion instruments discussed above is a very small selection of the instruments that belong to the percussion family. Beyond the most common instruments are auxiliary percussion and percussion instruments of different cultures. All of these instruments have found their way into the orchestra, as well as, many other ensembles.

In the future I will revisit the percussion family to explore the many percussion instruments that were not discussed in this post. These are simply the most common percussion instruments of the orchestra. Please feel free to leave a comment below with any questions you may have. I also invite you to add to this list if you know more common instrument of orchestra.

Other posts related to percussion instruments:



8 thoughts on “Percussion Instruments of the Orchestra – An Introduction

  1. My son plays the percussions in the school band. He loves it and has incorporated music into his chosen career path that he wishes to pursue when he goes to college. He loves performing and is researching places to go. Where do you think might be the best places to study music if you are a senior in high school getting ready to launch into this field?

    1. That is a very good question and their are many great music schools available. I guess it depends on how far he is willing to go and how much he is able to spend. I am a little biased as I attended Memorial University of Newfoundland’s School of Music in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. It is the largest and most comprehensive music school in Atlantic Canada. If he is looking for an authentic experience then I highly recommend checking out their program. The school is fairly small so theirs lots of room for one on one instruction. I am sure their are some really great choices where you are too. I would do lots of research and ask questions, starting with his music teacher. They would know about all the good music schools and programs in your area.

      Thanks for stopping by Stephanie!

  2. Finally I found a website with all the information that I was looking for.
    You have some great information here! I am just learning about percussion instruments of the orchestra, so I learned a lot.
    You saved my day.

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing! I am not very musically inclined to put it mildly, but my hubby is. I am hoping my children will pick up his talent.
    I was just wondering what age you think it would be best to start introducing instruments to children and what age it is best to start lessons. My kids are only 2 and 4 yrs old now so I assume I will have to wait quite a long time?

    1. You can start them whenever you think they are ready. They won’t learn note reading until they can actually read but there are many programs available for small children. I know here in Canada we have “Music for Young Children” that is specifically for toddlers. I have not looked into it just because I am a music teacher so I have taken the task on myself, although as she gets older I may place her in formal lessons. I bet your 4 year old is ready but you could always do simple activities with your 2 year old. Check out my past posts about music and toddlers to get some ideas. Music and Toddlers: A Pathway to Development and Musical Instruments for Toddlers: Encouraging Development Through Music

      Thanks for commenting and the fantastic question!

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