History & Culture

Percussion Instruments: 16 Common Pitched & Unpitched Instruments

Various musical instruments played by striking, shaking, or scraping make up the percussion family. These include instruments that generate sound by causing a membrane or a solid object to vibrate. These musical instruments are crucial because they give a piece of music its rhythm and texture. In today’s article, we’ll talk about percussion instruments in a symphonic or orchestral context.

Unpitched and pitched percussion are the two primary divisions within the percussion family. The snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, and tambourine are unpitched percussion instruments that make sounds without a distinct pitch. These percussion instruments can be played on their own or in a group with other percussion instruments to produce rhythm or a beat.

Contrarily, pitched percussion instruments emit a specific pitch or note when played. These include the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, timpani, and glockenspiel.


Despite the keyboard’s layout, the piano is regarded as a percussion instrument. A string inside the piano is struck by a hammer when a key is depressed, causing the string to vibrate and produce sound. 

The piano is regarded as a percussion instrument because of the percussive sound made when the hammer strikes the string. Together with other percussion instruments like drums, cymbals, and xylophones, the piano is typically part of the percussion department in an orchestra or other ensemble. 

The piano, however, is frequently seen as a separate entity given its unique function in the music’s overall tone. Its capacity for melody, harmony, and rhythm makes it uniquely different than percussion instruments despite being included here.

Snare Drum

The snare drum is a crucial percussion instrument in an orchestra and enhances the ensemble’s overall sound by adding depth and color. A skin or synthetic head is wrapped over the top and bottom of the cylindrical snare drum, which can be constructed of wood or metal. Although brushes or mallets can also be used, drumsticks are most commonly employed to play the instrument.

Snare Drum

The player usually stands or sits behind the snare drum, which is fixed on a stand. The drum produces a clear, sharp sound that sets the piece’s rhythm. In addition, the snare drum is commonly used to accentuate key musical moments in an orchestral composition. It may be used to highlight a musical phrase’s conclusion or mark a melodic climax.

The snare drum also produces rich textures. The drummer can use buzz rolls, press rolls, and other drum rudiments to create a variety of timbres. 

For instance, to produce a loud, sharp sound, the player may utilize a rimshot, in which the stick strikes both the head and the rim of the drum. The snare wires, which are spread across the bottom of the drum, can also be used by the player to produce a buzzing, rattling sound.

Concert Bass Drum

Providing a strong and booming bottom sound is the concert bass drum, a sizable percussion instrument. A skin or synthetic head is stretched over the top of the concert bass drum, commonly composed of wood or metal. The drum is played by striking a padded mallet against the drum’s head to produce a rich, resonant sound.

Yamaha Concert Bass Drum
Yooperz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The concert bass drum is often supported by a stand or frame, with the musician positioned in front of it. The drummer frequently controls the volume and length of the sound by using a towel for dampening.

The concert bass drum frequently serves as a solid rhythmic base for the music in an orchestral composition. Particularly in slower, more epic works, the deep, resonant sound of the drum can contribute to a sense of grandeur and majesty in the music.

Dramatic musical effects are frequently produced by the concert bass drum as well. To develop tension and expectation before a musical climax, the performer can, for instance, employ a soft mallet to produce a deep, rumbling sound.


The timpani is a set of pitched drums that produces a deep, resonant sound. The timpani consists of two or more kettle drums with heads made of synthetic or animal skin. Timpani are often made from copper or fiberglass. Using a set of mallets and a variety of playing styles, the drummer creates a wide range of sounds and textures while sitting behind the drums.

Timpani Configurations
The original uploader was Flamurai at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The timpani are usually used to emphasize the ends of phrases or musical sections and produce continuous beats or rhythms in the song. The drummer may modify the drum’s pitch and produce a variety of sounds by adjusting the tension of the drumhead tuning pedals on each drum.

The timpani is utilized to produce a range of distinct sounds and textures in addition to its rhythmic function. To create a smooth, prolonged sound, the player can employ various playing methods, such as rolling the drumsticks across the drum head. The timpani can also be played staccato, which creates a harsh, percussion-like sound that emphasizes key musical passages.

A well-known composition incorporating timpani is Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” which uses them to produce a bombastic, victorious sound in the opening fanfare.


Two different types of percussion instruments, suspended and crash cymbals, are utilized to create a wide range of sounds and textures.

The suspended cymbal is a metal plate mounted on a stand. A shimmering, prolonged sound is produced when the player strikes the cymbal with a stick(s) or mallet(s). This sound can be used to create a variety of various sounds. Suspended cymbals are frequently employed in orchestral music to emphasize specific musical passages, to build tension or anticipation, or both.

Suspended Cymbal
Mikeh0303 at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Crash cymbals are unpitched percussion instruments made up of two circular metal plates held on a stand. The player uses the leather grips to hold the cymbals before crashing the two together, creating a harsh, explosive sound to emphasize musical climaxes and downbeats. Crash cymbals are frequently utilized in orchestral pieces to indicate the start or finish of a musical passage or to highlight a dramatic moment.

Both suspended cymbals and crash cymbals are powerful percussion instruments in an orchestra because they offer a variety of sounds and textures that can be employed to improve the ensemble’s overall sound. However, to properly utilize the potential of these instruments, the players must possess a keen sense of timing and rhythm and the capacity to create various unique sounds and dynamics.


The triangle is a little metal percussion instrument used in orchestras that makes a brilliant, metallic sound. The triangle is made of a steel rod bent into a triangle but has one corner left unfilled. The triangle is held in place by a loop at one corner, and the musician beats the triangle with a metal beater, typically steel or brass.

Triangle musical instrument
AnonymousUnknown author, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of being a melodic or rhythmic instrument, the triangle is frequently utilized in symphonic music as an accent or punctuation. In addition, the triangle sound is used to accentuate specific musical passages and give the ensemble’s overall sound a hint of glitter or sheen.

The musician must be able to manipulate the instrument’s dynamics, producing quiet, delicate, loud, and forceful accents as needed by the music.


The tambourine is a percussion instrument with an edge of metal jingles and a circular hardwood or plastic frame. The tambourine is held in one hand while being shaken or struck with the other to create a rhythmic sound.

LP Worship Tambourine

The adaptable tambourine can be utilized in orchestral music to give texture and rhythm. It frequently performs alongside other percussion instruments like the snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals, as well as orchestral instruments like strings and woodwinds.

The tambourine is frequently employed to emphasize the beat or rhythm of the music, bringing a vibrant, percussive aspect to the ensemble’s overall sound. 


The maracas are a pair of tiny, hand-held shakers used as percussion instruments. Usually made of wood or plastic, the shakers contain beads or seeds that rattle when shaken, giving out a rattling sound.

Axel Heymann, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Orchestral music frequently uses maracas to add a lively, rhythmic accent. Along with other percussion instruments like the congas, bongos, and timbales and other instruments from the orchestra, like brass and woodwinds, they are frequently used in percussion ensembles.

A quick, percussive sound is produced when the maracas are typically shaken vigorously in sync with the song, bringing excitement and energy to the ensemble’s overall sound.


The gong is a sizable percussion instrument with a flat, round metal plate that, when struck, emits a rich, resonant sound. The gong usually hangs from a frame or platform, and the sound is produced by hitting it with a mallet or cushioned hammer.

Singing Bowls and Gongs

In symphonic music, the gong is frequently utilized to produce dramatic or ceremonial effects. It can be played in various ways, such as striking the gong repeatedly to create a rolling, booming sound or striking it once with great force.

The gong is frequently employed in orchestral pieces to signal the start or finish of a musical passage or to emphasize a certain musical point. In addition, the gong’s sound is frequently employed in music to enhance grandeur or majesty, build suspense or anticipation, or all of the above.


The percussion instrument known as a castanet comprises two tiny, hand-held wooden shells or discs connected by a thread or cord. Castanets are struck together by the musician while holding one in each hand to create a rhythmic clicking or clacking sound.

Orchestral music frequently uses castanets to add a lively, percussion-heavy flavor. They often appear alongside other percussion instruments, including tambourines, snare drums, and cymbals, as well as other orchestral instruments like guitars, mandolins, and flamenco dancers.

Castanets are typically played by slapping them together in rhythm with the song while holding them between the thumb and finger of each hand. By changing the force and pace of their hand movements, the player can alter the speed and volume of the clicking or clacking sound.

Chimes (Tubular Bells)

Chimes, often referred to as tubular bells, are a type of percussion instrument made up of several metal tubes suspended from a frame or stand and have varied lengths. The tubes, usually constructed of brass or bronze, are placed on a chromatic scale, with the longest creating the lowest note and the shortest producing the highest note.

A padded or hard mallet is often used to strike the tubes of the chimes, creating a loud, resonant sound that can last for a very long time. By employing various playing tactics, such as striking the tubes at multiple points or applying varying amounts of force, the player can produce a range of distinct sounds and textures.

The chimes are frequently utilized in orchestral compositions to give depth and character to the ensemble’s overall sound by producing a shimmering, ethereal tone.


A percussion instrument called a xylophone is made up of several wooden bars arranged in a chromatic scale, much like the keys of a piano. To create a clear, crisp sound, mallets are used to strike the bars.

Xylophone VST Plugins

Orchestral music frequently uses the xylophone to add a melodic element. It is commonly used to play quick, complex passages or to give the other instruments in the ensemble a different texture.

When playing the xylophone, the musician typically employs two mallets and strikes the bars with varying degrees of force to produce a variety of dynamics and articulations. Also, the player can create various sounds and textures by using multiple areas of the mallets.


Like the xylophone in sound, the marimba is a percussion instrument with larger hardwood bars that produce a deeper and richer tone. The marimba comprises a series of wooden bars placed in a chromatic scale and pounded with mallets to make a sound.

Best Marimba Solos

The marimba frequently works with other percussion instruments like the snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals and other orchestral instruments like strings and woodwinds to add a melodic aspect to orchestral music.

The marimba player typically uses two or four mallets to play the instrument, enabling them to produce intricate and complicated rhythms and melodies. The player can also generate a variety of sounds and textures by using different portions of the mallets and dampening or rolling the bars to achieve various effects.


Similar to the xylophone and marimba in sound, the vibraphone (or vibes) is a percussion instrument with metal bars and a distinctive, resonant sound produced by motor-driven rotating disks. The vibraphone is a musical instrument that makes sound by striking a set of metal bars arranged in a chromatic scale with mallets.

Nadja von Massow, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, vibraphonists use two or four mallets. The Burton grip is typically employed when four mallets are involved.


A series of small, tuned metal bars make up the glockenspiel, a percussion instrument hammered with mallets to produce a bright, ringing sound. The glockenspiel is frequently combined with other percussion instruments like the snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals to provide a shimmering, melodic aspect to orchestral music.

flamurai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Notable works with the glockenspiel include Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” which employs it to provide a mystical, glittering sound in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”


The celesta is a percussion instrument made up of a keyboard and many metal plates hammered with hammers to make a sound. Although the celesta resembles a piano in appearance, it has a considerably softer, more delicate tone.

Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The celesta often produces a shimmering, ethereal tone that gives symphonic music depth and texture. It’s frequently employed to provide the music with a whiff of nostalgia or sorrow or to evoke a feeling of magic or fantasy.

To create a quiet, bell-like sound, the celesta player often plays the keyboard with both hands while employing a mild touch. The tempo and intensity of the player’s playing can be changed to produce a wide range of distinct sounds and textures.

Nick Cesarz

Nick is a drummer, percussionist, and blogger from Milwaukee, WI. He toured extensively with Vinyl Theatre, opening up for acts like twenty one pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and more. Now no longer touring, his passion lies in gear and playing the kit as much as time allows.

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