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What Are Percussion Instruments?
The percussion family of musical instruments consists of membranophones and idiophones. Membranophones, or drums, are instruments that make sound when a player strikes a membrane that is tightly stretched over a frame. Idiophones are instruments that produce sound when the entire instrument vibrates in response to being struck. Percussionists play their instruments with their hands or with beaters, a collective term describing drumsticks, mallets, rods, or wire brushes.
19 Types of Membranophone Percussion Instruments
Nearly every genre of music features some form of drumming, and there are innumerable types of drums across world cultures, including:
- Congas: Congas are tall, deeply-pitched hand drums that stand on the floor or on study chrome hardware.
- Bongos: Bongos are tall hand drums that are smaller than congas and produce a higher pitch.
- Timbales: Timbales are small metal-frame drums that are mounted on a stand and played with beaters. A timbale player usually has two drums, plus cowbell and perhaps a woodblock, as part of their kit.
- Mridangam: Thought to be the oldest type of drum still in use, the mridangam has two drum faces—a left face and a right face. Traditional mridangam players apply a mixture of flour and water to the left face to lower its tone when playing.
- Tabla: The tabla is the most common percussion instrument in traditional Indian music, typically paired with a sitar. Tablas consist of two drums—a "male drum" that produces a bass tone and a "female drum" that produces a tenor tone.
- Djembe: A djembe is a goblet-shaped African drum that a player holds between their knees and plays with their hands.
- Talking drum: A talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum with drum heads on either end. Talking drums get their name from the notion that they can mimic sounds of human speech.
- Ngoma: A ngoma is a barrel-shaped African drum that sits on the floor. The drummer strikes it with large wood beaters.
- Orchestral bass drum: Similar in origin to the bass drum found in a standard drum set, but much larger in diameter, the classical bass drum hangs from a frame. The percussionist strikes it with handheld mallets.
- Tenor drum: Higher-pitched than a bass drum but lower pitched than a snare drum, a tenor drum is round and of medium depth. The drummer plays it with a mallet or a drumstick.
- Side drum: The term "side drum" is used in classical music to describe a snare drum, usually with its snare disengaged. Side drums feature prominently in most contemporary classical music, whether or not they're part of a standard drum set.
- Bodhran: A bodhran is a traditional Irish drum that sometimes finds its way into orchestral music, particularly when composers hail from the British or Irish isles. A bodhran resembles a tambourine without any jingles. The player strikes it with a small beater. Most bodhrans still are made with real goat skins.
- Timpani: Also known as kettle drums, timpani sets consist of massive drums that stand on the floor in front of the player, who strikes them with felted mallets. Timpani pitches can be adjusted using a foot pedal, which loosens and tightens the drum head.
- Kick drum: Also known as a bass drum, a kick drum is a large, deep-sounding drum that sits on the floor and is played with a foot pedal.
- Snare drum: A bright, trebly drum that features metal snare wires running beneath its lower drum head. Typically, a drummer plays the snare with their non-dominant hand. Larger, body-mounted snare drums are a mainstay of marching band music.
- Floor tom: A deep, low-pitched tom-tom drum that stands on legs near the drummer's dominant hand.
- Rack toms (sometimes called a hi tom and a low tom): This pair of tom-tom drums hangs above the kick drum. They produce a higher-pitched sound than the floor tom.
- Tambourine: Tracing back to the Middle East, a tambourine can be part of a drum set, either mounted as a standalone instrument or placed atop a hi-hat. A tambourine can have a drum head or it can exclusively produce sound via its zils (or jingles), which are metal discs mounted around the tambourine frame. Some players opt for a pandeiro, which is a close relative of the traditional tambourine.
- Surdo: An unpitched Brazilian variant on the bass drum, played with handheld beaters.
24 Types of Idiophone Percussion Instruments
Idiophones produce sound when a percussionist strikes them, causing the entire instrument to vibrate. There are many enduring idiophones throughout the world of music, including:
- Cymbals: Most cymbals are curved brass discs appearing in a wide array of sizes. Drum kit cymbals include a hi-hat, ride cymbal, crash cymbal, and splash cymbal, each mounted on a cymbal stand and played with beaters. Orchestral and marching band crash cymbals appear in handheld pairs; they produce sound when a player slides one cymbal past the other. Finger cymbals, as their name implies, are small enough to be worn on the player's fingers.
- Crotales: Also known as antique cymbals, crotales are made up of a collection of small pitched cymbals and may be found in everything from classical music to 1970s progressive rock.
- Claves: Claves are wooden sticks that click together to produce an unpitched sound. They are a mainstay of salsa music.
- Temple blocks: Temple blocks are a series of pitched woodblocks popular in classical ensembles.
- Agogo: An agogo is an unpitched metal bell (or pair of bells) often featured in samba music.
- Ganzá: A ganzá is an unpitched metal rattle developed in Brazil and popular in Brazilian samba.
- Headless tambourine: This instrument is a tambourine without a membrane. It produces sound via the vibration of the frame and jingles.
- Slit drum: Also known as a log drum, the slit drum is not a membranophone despite its name. Rather, a slit drum is an idiophone made from a hollowed log.
- Udu: An udu is an untuned idiophone resembling a hollow jug.
- Cajón: Originating in Peru, a cajón (or cajón de rumba) is a hollow wooden box that usually features internal snares on one side. A player sits on the cajón and strikes it with their hands (and occasionally beaters).
- Gong: A gong is a suspended metal disc found in both Western classical and Eastern traditional music. Orchestras particularly favor a type of gong known as a tam-tam.
- Maracas: Originating in Venezuela but popular throughout Latin American music, maracas are wooden shakers with handles.
- Castanets: Castanets are handheld wood idiophones that come in pairs. They make a clicking sound when the player snaps two of them together.
- Güiro: A güiro is an idiophone made from a dried gourd. Typically, a percussionist plays güiro by rubbing wire brushes against it.
- Shekere: A shekere is a dried gourd covered with a netting of beads. Originally from West Africa and popular in Latin American traditions, it produces sound when shaken.
- Tubular bells: These bells are pitched chimes that a player strikes with beaters.
- Mbira: Better known as an African thumb piano, a mbira contains individual keys that a player presses and releases, causing them to vibrate.
- Cabasa: A cabasa is a type of African shaker made by wrapping metal chains around a wooden cylinder.
- Xylophone: A xylophone is a pitched percussion instrument made from wooden bars laid out like a piano keyboard, which the player strikes with felted mallets.
- Marimba: A marimba is a musical instrument much like a xylophone but with a greater range and resonators beneath its wood bars.
- Vibraphone: An adaptation of a xylophone, the vibraphone has metal bars and a built-in electric resonator that projects the instrument's sound. A vibraphone is essentially a plugged-in metal marimba.
- Glockenspiel: A glockenspiel is a smaller member of the xylophone and vibraphone family, containing small metal bars that produce a definite pitch with numerous overtones.
- Steel drum: A steel drum is an idiophone made from a concave metal drum. The player can attain different pitches by striking different parts of the drum.
- Cowbell: A cowbell is a hollow metal idiophone named for a similar device hung around the necks of some domestic cows.
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