Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

The percussion instruments are the largest and oldest selection in the orchestra. A percussion instrument is an instrument that you play by striking, scraping, or rubbing by hand. These instruments maintain the rhythm, make distinctive sounds, and add excitement and zest to the band. It consists of instruments such as tambourine, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, and bass drums. It also includes keyboard instruments like the xylophone, celesta, piano, etc. Read this article to know more about the types of percussion instruments played in a typical orchestra. We’re here to help you.

Types of Percussion Instruments

You can divide percussion instruments into two broad categories: pitched instruments that create notes with an identifiable pitch, and instruments that are unpitched and create notes without an identifiable pitch.

The common types of percussion instruments include:

1. Xylophone 

Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

A xylophone consists of wooden bars struck by mallets. However, most modern xylophone has bars made of various synthetic materials like fiberglass for a louder sound. It can be as small as 2½ octaves to 3½ or 4 octaves for concert xylophones.

A xylophone is a transposing instrument with a high pitch range and flat timbre. Each bar acts like an idiophone that you can tune to a pitch of a musical scale. Metal resonators are attached to the bottom of the bars to give the xylophone a bright bell-like sound.

You play by hitting it with mallets made of wood, rubber, poly ball, or acrylic. You can change the pitch by using different hard or soft mallets or by hitting the bars differently.

Similar instruments include marimba and glockenspiel that causes smaller and higher pitches.

2. Timpani

Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

Timpani, also known as kettledrums, is a type of drum that falls under the membranophone category. It consists of a drumhead stretched over a large copper bowl, affixed to a hoop. Most timpani also has six to eight tension rods placed regularly around the circumference. Timpani come in many sizes ranging from a diameter of 84 centimetres to less than 30 centimetres.

To play it, you need to strike the head with a timpani stick or mallet. Timpani is a tuned instrument and can play different notes, which you can change by stretching or loosening the drumheads.

The quality of the drum largely depends on the shape of the bowl. For brighter tones, you will need a hemispheric bowl. On the other hand, a parabolic bowl will produce darker tones.

Timpani is a fundamental part of the percussion family as they support rhythm, resonance, and harmony. Military bands, marching bands, concert bands, and orchestras use multiple timpani in their ensembles.

3. Bass Drums 

Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

Arguably one of the biggest members of an orchestra, Bass drums are common for numerous musical genres. A bass drum is cylindrical in shape with a calfskin struck head at both ends. You can play it by hitting the drumhead with drumsticks or pedals and produce different sounds from loud boom to whispers. You can also adjust the tension either by threaded taps or by strings.

A bass drum can be of many different types and sizes. You will find three major types of bass drums.

The first is a concert bass drum, the largest drum of the orchestra. Second, a pitched bass drum is used by marching bands and military drum corps. Finally, kick drums, which are standard for drum kits.

4. Snare Drums

Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

A snare drum or side drum is s a cylindrical shaped drum that makes a powerful, staccato sound. There are many types of snare drums depending on the dimension and style of percussion including the kit snare, marching snare, and piccolo snare.  It is the most popular drum used in concert bands, parades, marching bands, drum corps, drum lines, and orchestras.

The snare drum is consists of two plastic heads along with snares located at the bottom head. Typically you play snare drums by hitting the top head with mallet or drum sticks. You can produce a different sound by hitting it differently or with a brush. You can also tighten the drum head and adjust the tension to produce different sounds. There is a metal rim around the batter head, which you can use to sound a loud rim shot with the drumstick.

The pitch will differ for different snares because of the construction qualities of the drum such as, dimensions, tightness of the head, and brand.

You can also read: Types of Snare Drums

5. Cymbals

Types of Percussion Instruments in Orchestra

Cymbals are the loudest instruments of the orchestra. They consist of thin, round plates made of different metals. Cymbals are untuned and of indefinite pitch. You can play the cymbals by hitting them with sticks, mallets, brushes, or you can hit one cymbal against the other. You can use cymbals to accent the rhythm and create refined sound effects.

There are many different types and sizes of a cymbal. Larger cymbals have a longer sustain but make lower sounds. The weight of the cymbal is also relevant to the sound they make. Thicker cymbals have more cut and better stick articulation and thus a louder volume. Thin cymbals, on the other hand, have a lower pitch, fuller sound, and faster response.

Cymbals are prevalent in many musical ensembles like an orchestra, marching bands, jazz bands, heavy metal bands, and more. Standard drum kits also incorporate at least a ride, crash, and a set of hi-hat cymbals.

6. Tambourine

A tambourine is a small drum consisting of a frame and drumhead with pair of metal jingles attached to the edges. Although mostly circular, tambourines can be of many shapes. You play it by holding it in one hand and hitting, tapping, or shaking it against your other hand. It is commonly used in an orchestra, classical bands, pop, and rock bands as well.

7. Triangles

The triangle is simply a metal bar held by a loop of wire. To play it, you struck it with a metal beater. It produces a high-pitched ringing tone when hit. The pitch can vary depending on the size, thickness, and construction of the triangle.

8. Piano

The piano is a musical instrument that you play using a keyboard by pressing the keys. When you press a key on the piano’s keyboard, a padded hammer strikes the strings making them vibrate at their resonant frequency, producing sound. When you release the key, a damper ends the sound. You can sustain the note even when the keys are released by using pedals.

It is generally used in classical and jazz music for solo and band performances.


There are other percussion instruments like maracas, gongs, chimes and castanets.

Percussion instruments are the backbone of an orchestra and are usually paired with bass. You can find many types of percussion instruments depending on the size of the band.

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