The percussionist Evelyn Glennie (b. 1965) owns over a thousand
percussion instruments. As an orchestral musician, Glennie
is a virtuoso player of all the percussion instruments of
the conventional symphony orchestra, but as an explorer, an
experimenter and an inventor in the world of sound, she searches
for the musical potential in just about anything that can
be struck, scraped, or rattled. She even plays the simtak,
a car muffler she plays with triangle beaters. A few years
ago, the composer Django Bates (b. 1960) saw Glennie in concert
at the Hollywood Bowl and was so impressed by her virtuosity
and by her extraordinary array of instruments that he composed
a piece especially for her, entitled My Dream Kitchen.
Percussion plays an essential, but rarely a central role
in western symphonic music. In comparison with other musical
traditions-the Latin American, Chinese or African, for instance-percussion
plays a relatively minor part in western music as a whole.
The Baroque, Classical and Romantic traditions, which created
the orchestra as we know it, are all based on melody and harmony.
Western rhythms tend to be simple and consistent, rather than
complex and variable. The make-up of the conventional symphony
orchestra reflects this. Out of one hundred or more players,
there is rarely any need for more than four percussionists,
and often fewer than four are required.
Standard orchestral percussion generally includes timpani,
snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, gong,
tam-tam, chimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, vibraphone,
and temple blocks.
The word timpani is plural. A timpano is a single kettledrum,
but because timpani usually come in pairs or in groups, timpani
is the term most often used for the large, cauldron-shaped
(hence kettle) drums that create the deep thunder of the percussion
section. In medieval times and during the Renaissance, timpani
often accompanied trumpets in fanfares and ceremonial music.
They were first incorporated into the orchestra by Haydn (1732-1809)
and Beethoven (1770-1827). Timpani are tuned to particular
pitches-this used to be done with levers at the rim, but more
recent timpani have tuning pedals. Timpanists use two sticks,
which range from hard wooden mallets to sticks with felt-
or sponge-covered heads.
The snare drum is a shallow, cylindrical drum of indefinite
pitch. Its military origins are clear in its hard precision,
and the brilliance of the drum's natural tone is enhanced
by wires (snares), which are stretched across the bottom head
against the parchment skin-these make a sharp, snapping sound
when the drum is struck. Orchestral snare drums are usually
played with sticks, though brushes are often used, and drummers
sometimes mute the drum's tone by tucking a handkerchief under
The orchestral bass drum has no snare, and is of indefinite
pitch. Usually thirty-six inches across, the bass drum is
often suspended on a stand with rubber straps so that its
deep resonance remains unaffected by contact with the floor
or with supporting furniture. The head is usually calf-skin,
and the drum is played with wooden or felt mallets.
The tambourine is of Middle Eastern origin, and was brought
to Europe during the period when Spain was part of the Muslim
Empire (8th-15th century). It is a small, shallow drum, usually
hand-held, with a single head and sets of circular metal discs,
or 'jingles' inserted into the frame. The tambourine is held
in one hand and beaten with the other. It is usually associated
with dance and festivity.
The triangle is a single rod, bent into a triangular shape
with an open corner. It is usually made of steel, though other
metals are used. Triangles vary in size and thickness, according
to required tone and pitch, and they are played with brass
or steel beaters. Triangles are used chiefly for dramatic
effect, to intensify excitement.
Cymbals are concave metal plates. They are usually made of
brass and come in many sizes. Cymbals have been around for
thousands of years, and were often associated with religious
and other ceremonies. They entered the orchestra in the eighteenth
century. Orchestral cymbals are usually suspended on strings
and are struck with a variety of sticks, soft mallets, brushes
and other objects-including coins. They are clashed together
for intense dramatic effect, and they can also be played with
a violin bow.
Gongs too come in many sizes, and have an ancient, often
ceremonial past. The dark, sonorous sound of the gong is often
used to create an exotic effect or mood-the word, like the
instrument itself, is of Chinese origin. True orchestral gongs
are between fourteen and twenty inches across, and have a
fixed pitch. Larger gongs, thirty to fifty inches across,
are known as tam-tams. The huge, complex resonance of the
tam-tam does not have a fixed pitch.
The glockenspiel is an array of tuned metal bars, which play
two to three chromatic octaves. In the orchestra, the glockenspiel
is played horizontally, using pairs of small hammers. It makes
a brittle, bell-like sound. The instrument was introduced
into the orchestra by Handel (1685-1759), and was used to
great effect by Mozart (1756-91) in Die Zauberflöte.
Celesta Similar in many ways to the glockenspiel, the celesta
was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel (1815-1890). It is
a series of steel plates suspended over wooden resonators,
and operated with a keyboard-like the piano, which is also
a percussion instrument. When keys are depressed, wooden hammers
strike the plates, creating an ethereal, bell-like chime.
The celesta covers four chromatic octaves.
Chimes, or tubular bells, are tall metal tubes, capped at
one end and held upright in a stand. The tubes range from
one to two and a half inches in diameter and from four to
six feet in length. The chimes are struck with a mallet and
sound like church bells when played-the longer the tube, the
lower the pitch. The brilliance of the sound can be muted
with a damper, which is operated by a foot pedal.
The orchestral xylophone is a horizontal keyboard array of
tuned wooden bars (usually rosewood), which are struck with
small, hard or soft hammers. It usually covers four chromatic
octaves. Originally an African instrument, the wooden percussion
keyboard was first used in Europe in the sixteenth century,
and was called a wooden clatter. It was first used orchestrally
in Danse Macabre and Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns
The vibraphone is another horizontal array of tuned metal
bars, laid out like a piano keyboard. The player strikes the
bars with padded hammers. Beneath the bars, resonators are
fitted with lids, which constantly open and close electrically.
This gives the vibraphone its characteristic pulsating tone.
It was first employed popularly as a jazz instrument. Berg
(1885-1935) used the vibraphone in his opera Lulu (1937),
and it has since been explored by Vaughan Williams (1872-1958),
Britten (1913-1976), Boulez (b. 1925) and many others.
Temple blocks were introduced into dance bands in the 1920s,
and gradually found their way into the symphony orchestra.
They are tuned, hollow blocks of wood, ideally camphor, each
cut with a wide slit, and mounted in an array of five. They
range in size according to pitch, from a few inches to over
a foot across. They make a characteristically dry 'popping'
sound when struck sharply with drumsticks. William Walton
(1902-1983) was one of the first orchestral composers to use
temple blocks, in his Scapino Overture (1940), and many modern
composers have continued to exploit the unique tonal qualities
of temple blocks.
During the twentieth century, orchestral composers started
to take a greater interest in percussion and brought percussion
instruments to the center of the concert stage. In 1911, Stravinsky
caused a scandal in Paris when the ballet The Rite of Spring
was performed. The ferocious rhythmic drive of the piece,
and his use of 'primitive' instruments like the crotales (arrays
of small, thick cymbals) and the ancient Central American
guiro (a gourd, notched to create a ridged surface, and scraped
with a stick), were regarded as a violation of musical decency.
In 1931, Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) composed his Ionisation
solely for percussion. Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta
(1936) by Bartók (1891-1945) brought percussion into the foreground
as an equal collaborator with the strings. Elliott Carter
(b. 1908) featured the timpani in a central role in his 2
Pieces for Kettledrums (1950), Boulez explored the possibilities
of the vibraphone in his Le Marteau sans Maitre (1954), and
in 1967 Luciano Berio (b. 1925) composed Circles with marimba
as a leading player. John Cage (1912-1992), Karlheinz Stockhausen
(b. 1928) and Steve Reich (b. 1936) have continued to explore
and create new possibilities for instruments that are struck,
rattled and scraped.