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What are Percussion Instruments? - Types & History

Instructor: Catherine King
Did you know that percussion instruments include more than just drums? In this lesson, you will discover facts about various percussion instruments, their history, and the ways in which they are played. Then you can test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Percussion's Function

Picture yourself at a celebration. It could be a wedding, a birthday party, or a family reunion. There is a band playing on a small stage, and guests are meandering throughout the room. You hear a guitar, a vocalist, and maybe the strains of a violin. Guests are talking and laughing, but nobody is dancing. Now imagine the same scene, but along with the guitar and vocals, you hear a steady beat in the background that almost replicates your heartbeat. The rhythm is driving the song, and soon, you find yourself tapping your foot. You walk over to get a piece of cake, and you realize you're walking in rhythm. Guests are suddenly dancing in front of the stage. They can't help it, because the rhythmic percussion of the drums is seeping into their subconscious minds and causing them to feel the beat and react to it.

Percussion is the heartbeat of music. In addition to providing rhythm to music and keeping time, many percussion instruments also produce tones, pitches, and melodic sounds.

Instruments

A percussion instrument is defined as a musical instrument (including the drum, xylophone, and maraca) sounded by striking, shaking, or scraping. Percussion instruments are made of many different materials, such as wood, plastic, or metal, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Most of the time, when it comes to percussion instruments, people immediately think of a drum. But there are many more types of percussion instruments in the world, originating from far and wide. Shakers, sticks, blocks, bells, tambourines, maracas, castanets, and xylophones are all percussion instruments.

The cabasa (see photo) is a percussion instrument often used in Latin music made from a steel ball chain wrapped around a cylinder, with a handle sticking out of it. It is played by pressing the palm of one hand against the chain while rotating the cylinder by the handle with the other hand. It produces a metallic scraping sound.

Cabasa
cabasa

Two spoons held back to back and struck on the palm of the hand or on a leg will produce a rhythm. Spoon playing is popular in places like Newfoundland, where traditional songs and instruments have been passed on through generations.

Musical Spoons
spoons

The cowbell is just what it sounds like. It originated as a method to keep track of cows, although it is widely used as a percussion instrument as well. There are cowbells with clappers inside them and some without. The clapper-less cowbells are played by striking them with a beater or drumstick. They originally became popular with composers of Alpine music.

Cowbell
Cowbell

Even the triangle is a percussion instrument, and triangles come in a variety of tones. It's a minimalistic instrument played by striking with a beater; however, it can be played in complex as well as simple compositions.

Triangle and Beater
triangle and beater

There are many different kinds of drums as well, which are instruments consisting of a hollow shell or cylinder with a drumhead stretched over one or both ends that are beaten with the hands or with some implement (like a stick or wire brush). Some drumheads are made of animal skin, although more modern drums are made with a synthetic drumhead. There are hand drums, electric drums, big bass drums, and small bongo drums. The choices are endless!

Assorted Percussion Instruments
assortment of drums and percussion

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