Exploring Music's Complexities

Exploring the Role of Percussion Instruments

Exploring the Role of Percussion Instruments


For a composition to be effective it must contain two of music’s basic elements – tone color (timbre) and dynamics.   These two elements contribute to the feeling of motion and movement in music.  Musical instruments provide the tone colors.  The combination of rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, tone color and instruments form music.  This post explores the important role percussion instruments play in music.

In today’s societies all genre of music incorporate drums to keep a rhythm.  They continue to provide for a range of emotional experiences from stirring the spirit during conflicts, grief, and sorrow to accentuating feelings of joy and happiness.

There are two types of percussion instruments – tuned and un-tuned.  To begin, a tuned percussion instrument can be used to play melodies.  An un-tuned percussion instrument doesn’t produce a pitch but rather produces a noise.  Examples of tuned instruments are xylophones, vibraphones, and the glockenspiel.  The un-tuned percussions include the cymbals, gongs, bass, snare, and drum sets.  Round drums such as the orchestral timpani may be tuned to produce notes (1).  As you read try to identify these instruments in the tracks provided.

Use of Drums

Upon review , it becomes clear that percussion has always played an important role in music. Primitive music was more rhythm than melody.  These instruments provided a constant rhythmic beat that pulsated the blood and moved the spirit more than soft melodies.   This observation is supported by historical documents describing the use of untuned percussion instruments such as cymbals, kettledrums, tambourines, and tenor drums by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews and Romans (2,3).

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Hearts Remembering

John Powell describes untuned percussion instruments as those that simply produce noise rather than notes.  Like the ancients, rock, pop, and jazz bands use drums and cymbals almost continuously to provide a rhythmic drive.  This works because the “noise” doesn’t compete with the harmonies of the song (1).

American Classics

 The Minstrel Boy

World On A String

 Beneath the Wings of Mount Kenya

In early Western cultures, instruments such as the timpani or kettledrum were used primarily by the military. The beats of the drums were used to note rank and to stir the spirit.  They also served as morale boosters, to provide notification of community events, and to give warnings of impending danger (2).  Over time, trumpets were added to the kettledrums to accompany royalty.  Despite the fact that drums are no longer used on the battlefields, they still are important instruments in military ceremonies.

When trumpets were admitted to the orchestra kettledrums followed.  Handel used them in his “Water Music” and Bach and Haydn and Mozart also incorporated them in their compositions.  However, it took Beethoven to make serious use of the tympani.  In his First Symphony the tympani plays a bass part to a melody of violins and flutes.   In the Fourth symphony he used the tympani to play a theme of two notes, which was repeated by the other instruments.    The Fifth symphony contained a tympani solo effect in the scherzo movement.  The final innovation was accomplished in the Eighth symphony when Beethoven had the tympani play in unison with bassoons.

In addition to the use of percussion in the military, archeologists have discovered that drums were an important part of religious ceremonies.  In ancient villages drum remnants can be found in places of religious ceremonies.  Drum artifacts have been found buried around ancient Buddhist templates in Sri Lanka.

What Makes for a Successful Percussion Performance?

In his article entitled See the Music:  The Role of Gestures in Percussion Performance, Dr. Chad Floyd, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Percussion Studies at Campbellsville University, points out that while technical mastery of skills are needed they are not enough (4).  To be successful, performers must provide the listener “an individualized interpretation of the musical directions offered by the printed score.”

This is no mean task given the obstacles of note durations and articulations.  If all notes sound the same when performed the percussionist must provide a visual representation of his/her conceptualization of the music being played.  Strategically place gestures encourage the listener to become an active participant (4, 5, 6).

Dr. Floyd suggests three successive steps the performer must take to “See the Music.”  The first is to see the notated music on the score during rehearsals.   The next step requires the performer to figure out how the music should be represented visually during a performance.  Finally, during the performance, the performer projects his conceptualizations in order to allow the audience to “see the music” and become engaged (4).  For a comprehensive look at “See the Music” visit his website at http://www.chadfloyd.com /bio.  All music referenced in this post is available at http://www.wonderofsound.com.


1.  Powell, John.  How Music Works.  Chapter 3 Notes and Noises.  Little, Brown and Company.  New York, NY. p 20. 2010.

2.  Role of Drums in Music.  http://funkysonglyrics.com/Musical-instruments/drums/Role-of-drums-in-Music.hym Retrieved Nov 1, 2013.

3.  http://www.articlesbase.com/music-articles/the-importance-of-drums-in-classical-music-289451.html

4.  Floyd, Chad.  Seeing the Music.  http://www.chadfloyd.com/bio/.  Retrieved November 1, 2013.

5.  The Drums. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://anthony-thedrums.blogspot.com/

6.  Retrieved November 1, 2013 from http://www.nemc.com/resources/articles/see-the-music-the-role-of-gestures-in-percussion-performance_6

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