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An introduction to the non-drum percussion instruments that are most commonly found in the Western band and orchestra.


Any musical instrument that gets its basic sound from something other than a vibrating string ( chordophones ), vibrating air column ( aerophones ), or electric signals ( electrophones ), is considered a percussion instrument, and the musician who specializes in playing this large variety of instruments is a percussionist . Percussion instruments are further classified as being either membranophones (drums) or idiophones . This is an introduction to the idiophones most commonly found in Western bands and orchestras.

Instruments are classified according to how their sound is produced. The Greek idios , meaning “one’s own”, refers to the fact that in idiophones, it is usually the body of the instrument itself that is producing the original vibrations (as opposed to chordophones, for example, in which the instrument’s body is just a resonator for the strings). In some idiophones (xylophones, for example), there is a whole series of potentially-vibrating pieces, but the main idea is still the same: the instrument (or piece of the instrument) is hung or held in some way so that it can vibrate freely when it is played.

Idiophones are further classified according to the action that causes the vibration. Idiophones are very common in music traditions throughout the world, and some categories (such as stamped or plucked idiophones) don't even have a representative in the typical Western ensemble. The categories that are represented in the typical band or orchestra include percussion , concussion , shaken , and scraped idiophones. Each of these categories includes many, many instruments from many musical traditions around the world. For each of these categories, you will find a list below of the instruments most commonly found in orchestras and bands.

Percussion idiophones

Percussion idiophones are hit with slender, hard wooden sticks, or with beaters or mallets. Beaters and mallets have a long handle with a head that hits the instrument. They come in a great variety of sizes and materials. The head may be of hard wood or plastic, for example, or may be wrapped in a softer material. The type of mallet used affects the timbre of the sound produced, so the percussionist will choose specific mallets or beaters based on the sound wanted for a particular piece.

  • Struck bells - produce a clear, ringing bell sound when hit. The type of bell most commonly found in an orchestra or band is a set of tubular bells . Each bell is a long thin metal tube tuned to a specific pitch . The tubes are all hung on a rack, usually arranged in two rows in the same pattern as a piano keyboard (with the natural notes in one row and the flat and sharp notes in the other). Because there is a bell for each note of the chromatic scale , tubular bells, like xylophones and glockenspiels, are idiophones that can play melodies. Bells have been a regular part of the orchestra since the 1900's.
  • Gongs - When struck, usually with a soft beater, a gong produces a more complex, and often longer-lasting sound than the clearer sound of a struck bell. Gongs come in many sizes and shapes, but the typical orchestral gong is large and round and is used sparingly for special effects or for an exotic flavor.
  • Xylophones - consist of large numbers of bars of wood, with each bar tuned to produce a specific note when struck. The bars of a standard xylophone are arranged in two rows, using the same pattern (with natural notes in the first row, and sharps and flats in the second ) as a piano keyboard. Two instruments in this family are commonly found in orchestras and bands: the orchestral xylophone and the marimba , which sounds an octave lower, and has a mellower sound than the bright timbre of the orchestral xylophone. Both have a set of resonating tubes to make the instrument loud enough to be heard. Each wooden bar has a tube beneath it that is just the right length to resonate at the pitch that that bar produces. In a vibraphone (often simply called vibes ), each resonator tube has a rotating fan in it. This produces a vibrato effect that is particular popular in jazz bands.
  • Metallophones - Are very silmilar to xylophones, except that the tuned bars are made of metal. The glockenspiel , often found in marching bands, is the most common metallophone in the Western tradition.
  • Wood blocks - are similar to xylophones in that the part of the instrument that vibrates is a block of wood. The wood block is larger and hollower than the bar in a xylophone, however, so it gets a louder, more penetrating sound. Wood blocks often come in multiple sizes (two-tone blocks are very common), but they are not considered tuned percussion and don't play melodies as xylophones do.
  • Triangle - is simply a thin bar of metal bent to form a triangle shape (which does not affect its sound; it is simply easier to hang in that shape). It is struck with a metal beater. Triangles come in different sizes, with different tones, but are not tuned idiophones. The triangle is a very traditional part of the orchestra percussion, commonly found in scores since the Classical period.

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Source:  OpenStax, A parent's guide to band. OpenStax CNX. Jun 25, 2007 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10428/1.1
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