16 Types Of Percussion Instruments (Differences Explained!)

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  • Learn about the different types of percussion
  • What makes each instrument different from the others?
  • Listen to examples of the various percussion instruments
  • Also, discover the key differences between the ride and crash cymbal here!

While the drums might be the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when speaking about percussion, the percussion family is surprisingly large and diverse.

Not only does the percussion family include many different kinds of drums but also instruments such as bells, triangles, the xylophone, and more. 

While this list is not exhaustive, the most common percussion instruments are

  1. Timpani
  2. Xylophone
  3. Cymbals
  4. Triangle
  5. Snare Drum
  6. Steelpan
  7. Bass Drum
  8. Bongo Drum
  9. Tambourine
  10. Castanets
  11. Maracas
  12. Woodblock
  13. Gongs
  14. Chimes
  15. Celesta
  16. Piano

In this article, we will discuss the different types of percussion instruments, including the features and differences of each. 

What Is A Percussion Instrument?

A percussion instrument is any instrument that makes a certain sound when shaken, hit, or scraped. Playing percussion instruments requires great skill.

For example, striking with the correct force in the right place to make a certain note.

Percussion instruments add rhythm and variety to musical compositions. They are also important for keeping the beat.

Types Of Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments vary in form and tone, but they all have the same function of making a sound when struck, scraped, or shaken.

The following percussion instruments range from the well-known to the obscure, with some used only in certain countries and cultures.

1. Timpani

Also known as kettledrums due to their unique shape, timpani are made of large copper bowls with calfskin or plastic stretched tight over the bowl’s mouth.

The pitch is controlled by tightening or loosening the drumheads, which are attached to the foot pedal. The size of the timpani also affects the sound and pitch. 

A specialized drum stick known as a timpani mallet or timpani stick is used to strike the drum.

As with any percussion instrument that requires a mallet or stick, it’s important only to use the mallet recommended for the specific percussion instrument to keep from damaging the instrument. 

The percussionist who plays the timpani is called a timpanist. In an orchestral setting, the timpanist usually has four timpani of different sizes and is tuned to different pitches. 

2. Xylophone

Despite originating in Africa and Asia, the Xylophone is widely used worldwide and goes by many names. Its common name comes from Greek and means “wood sound.” 

The modern Xylophone has parallel wooden bars known as keys and is arranged similarly to a piano.

Under the bars are resonators – metal tubes where the sound vibrates – that give the xylophone its signature sound.

The percussionist strikes the keys with a specialized mallet to produce sound, and the sound can be changed by using either a hard or soft mallet. 

Instruments similar to the Xylophone include:

  • Marimba: Larger version of the Xylophone, with resonators attached to the bottom of the keys, resulting in a sound different than that of a traditional xylophone.
  • Vibraphone: Uses metal bars with metal resonators, inside of which are rotating disks that are turned by an electric motor. 
  • Glockenspiel: German for “set of bells” due to its signature sound, the glockenspiel is a miniature Xylophone with metal keys made of either aluminum or steel. Hard mallets are used to produce a sound like tinkling bells.

3. Cymbals

These large bronze disks are some of the loudest percussion instruments, played either by striking them hard together or with sticks, mallets, or brushes to produce different sounds. 

Cymbals cannot be tuned, so the pitch is controlled using cymbals of different sizes. Larger cymbals make low, loud sounds, while smaller cymbals have a higher pitch. 

4. Triangle

Often overlooked, the Triangle is a single metal rod bent into the shape of a triangle and suspended by a small string from the top.

The triangle adds a delicate accent to musical compositions. 

Sound is produced by striking the triangle with a metal stick – sometimes with a rubber or plastic tip at the end.

This stick is called a beater. The size, shape, and material of the beater’s tip can all affect the sound the triangle makes when struck. 

5. Snare Drum

Another very important member of the percussion family is the snare drum. This instrument is the backbone for many musical styles, ranging from orchestras to pop, rock, metal and more.

It’s formed into a hollow cylinder shape with two drum heads attached on both sides. The inside contains nylon, metal, silk, and plastic materials. These are called the “snares.” They are wires which wrap around the head of the drum giving the instrument its sound.

The wires can be loosened or tightened. As it is an untuned drum, it cannot produce different pitches.

6. Steelpan

Also known as a pan or steel drum, the Steelpan is a bowl-shaped drum capable of different pitches depending on where it is struck.

It usually sits on top of a stand and is played by striking the steel drum with mallets. 

The steelpan is synonymous in its usage in Trinidad and Tobago, as it is an important component of these nations’ cultural music. 

7. Bass Drum

Now, for the largest and deepest sounding member of the percussion family, the bass drum. The bass drum can be seen at the bottom of a drum kit, providing low-end support and rhythm.

It is triggered by a” beater” attached to a petal. 

There is also more than one type of bass drum. Another kind is played with a large mallet covered with sheepskin or felt. This type of bass drum is usually played in an orchestral or marching band setting.

8. Bongo Drum

Known for their tight, hollow sound, the bongo drums originated from Africa and Cuba.

They are usually seen as an attached set of small round drums covered with calfskin or plastic. While the bongos can be played with a drumstick, they are more often played by striking with the hands.

The drum shells and bridge – which attach the two bongos – are usually made of wood. Bongos are an important component of  Latin American and African music.

9. Tambourine

This fun, handheld percussion instrument is a small drum, hollow at one end, with round metal cymbals – also called jingles – attached to the sides.

It is played by shaking it or striking it against one’s body, usually the palm of the hand or hip. 

10. Castanets

An important percussion instrument in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese music, Castanets are also known as clackers or palillos.

They originally come from Spain and are attached to the fingers by a small string, played by holding them by the fingers and rhythmically clacking them together.

They are one of the most fun percussion instruments and are usually made of wood.

If used in an orchestra, Castanets are often mounted on a stand and played by the percussionist striking them with their hands. 

11. Maracas

Another fun and popular percussion instrument on our list are the maracas.

Maracas are hollow rattles usually painted in bright colors and patterns filled with dried seeds or beads. Maracas are from Mexico and were traditionally made from dried gourds but are more often made of plastic or wood.

12. Woodblock

As its name suggests, the Woodblock is a small, hollow rectangle played by striking with a specialized mallet.

The sound is affected by the material and force of the mallet, with hard mallets making loud, sharper sounds than softer mallets with a felt or cloth head. 

13. Gong

This instantly recognizable and dramatic percussion instrument is also known as a tam-tam. It is a large, round metal plate – mostly flat – suspended from a metal pipe.

While it may look like a large cymbal, the gong is usually flatter, larger, and has a raised center. 

The gong is played by striking it with a soft mallet. The harder you strike it, the louder the sound. 

14. Chimes

With their delicate sound likened to the sound of tinkling bells, the chimes are hollow metal tubes suspended by strings from a rod and struck by a mallet.

The sound depends on the force with which the chimes are struck, as well as if the material of the mallet is soft or hard.

15. Celesta

Often described as a cross between a Glockenspiel and a Piano, the celesta looks like a small upright piano with 49 – 65 metal keys.

The sound is produced by striking the keys with the fingers, which trigger a hammer inside each key. This produces a delicate, bell-like sound.

16. Piano

There is a lot of debate surrounding the piano about whether this popular instrument belongs to the string or the percussion family.

While it has keys that are struck with the pianist’s fingers – suggesting the percussion component – the sound is produced by hammers striking the strings inside the piano – giving credence to those who argue it is a string instrument.

The piano has many more strings than any other string instrument. 

Despite what instrument family the piano belongs in, there’s no denying that the piano has the most diverse range of any instrument.

While the piano is common in an orchestral setting, with the orchestra providing harmony, the piano is considered a solo instrument, too, since the pianist can play both melody and harmony simultaneously.