The Percussion Family

A glockenspiel, timpani, and djembe are members of which family of instruments?

And the answer: percussion family.    

Photo credit: newpercussionist.com

A musical instrument that produces sound by being struck or scraped by a mallet, hand, or another instrument is considered to be a percussion instrument. Drums, wood blocks, anvils, and bells are all members of the percussion family.

The term percussion comes from the Latin word percussionem, which means "a striking, a blow." Percussion is the oldest group of instruments, with over a hundred types and origins from all across the world – from the angklung, which originated in Indonesia, to the zabumba, which is most notably from Brazil.

The percussion family is the most diverse in a band or orchestra. Although it is comprised of anything that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken or scraped, some percussion instruments can be pitched and require tuning. For example, a xylophone can sound several octaves of distinctive notes, yet it is played with a soft wooden mallet, making it a percussion instrument. Arguments could even be made that the piano, an instrument with pitches assigned to each of its 88 keys, is a percussion instrument due to the fact that its keys must be hit to produce sound. (Generally, though, a piano is considered to be a type of chordophone, with both stringed and percussion elements.)

In a symphony orchestra, the primary task of percussion instruments is to keep the rhythm and pulse of the ensemble, though they are also often used to provide flair and complexity to melodies. Oftentimes, one or two percussionists will rotate between a set of dozens of percussive instruments during a performance. Early classical music, such as that of Haydn and Mozart, used far fewer percussion instruments in their pieces – usually just a timpani. In the 19th century, more percussion was added to repertoires, such as cymbals, tambourine, and triangle. 20th century classical music boasts the highest use, engaging scores of varying percussion instruments.

To hear percussion in action, check out the video below.


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