Orchestral percussion

Orchestral percussion

Orchestral percussion are percussion instruments used in orchestras mainly in classical music and related styles. The term can also refer to the department or study of performance on said instruments at a music school or conservatory. Generally within such a department, students are required to study all aspects of orchestral playing; with marimba, snare drum, and timpani being the three most basic areas of study. Orchestral percussion usually does not include drum set studies.


Percussion in classical music

Percussion is arguably the most versatile of any instrument family in that it can be used in practically every genre or style of music. In an orchestral setting, percussionists are generally called on to provide different textures in the ensemble. Some percussion instruments are more commonly used than others. Timpani, for example, has been seen in Western classical music since the 17th century and became a standard orchestral instrument long before many other percussion instruments. Snare drum, [bass drum], and [crash cymbals] were adopted soon thereafter and quickly became associated with the orchestra as well.

Gong and tam-tam

Gongs and tam-tams are easily, and therefore, extremely regularly, confused with one another. A gong, generally, is a large hung cymbal with a "nipple". As such, they are usually known as nipple gongs. This nipple is a small dome in the centre of the cymbal that produces a single note when struck with a soft beater. Conversely, a tam-tam has no nipple, and so has a flat central area. When this cymbal is struck with a beater, (most usually a soft beater) it produces a myriad of sounds with no single overruling note.

One can distinguish the two by ear by following a simple method. A gong sounds like a slightly muffled church bell, producing a soft but clear note, whereas the tam-tam sounds much more like a large metal object being struck by a hard material.

Mallet instruments

Mallet percussion (also known as keyboard or tuned percussion) is the general name given to the pitched percussion family. The name is a slight misnomer, in that almost every percussion instrument is struck with some type of mallet or stick. With the exception of the marimba, almost every other keyboard instrument has been used widely in an orchestral setting.

There are many extremely common and well-known excerpts for most of the mallet instruments. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess remains the most requested xylophone excerpt at auditions, with Copland's Appalachian Spring, Kodály's Háry János Suite, and Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon being other common choices, although the list is practically endless.

The glockenspiel has become a staple of the orchestra as well, and, as such, has had many important and difficult parts written for it. Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice as well as Respighi's Pini di Roma are both extremely common excerpts on audition lists.

Another keyboard instrument used in the orchestra, as well as jazz, is the vibraphone. The most commonly requested excerpt for vibraphone at orchestral auditions is from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." The "Little Blue Devil" movement from "Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee" by Gunther Schuller is also frequently requested.


In an orchestral setting, the concert bass drum plays an integral role in the overall feel of a piece of music. In orchestral literature, the bass drum usually deals more with coloring and shading the sounds of the orchestra as opposed to providing a solid, rhythmic foundation like in marching and drumset. The bass drum is usually used to accent strong points in the music and is often combined with a cymbal crash to further accentuate the moment. In fact, the two instruments are used in conjunction so often that many parts simply contain one rhythm and the composer then indicates which instruments are to play at which points.

Though the bass drum is possibly the least frequently requested instrument at auditions, it actually takes a fair amount of skill to play correctly. Given the number of variables that can change when playing the bass drum (beater, beating location, amount/type of muffling, stroke, etc.), a well-versed percussionist is usually required in order to obtain all the possible sounds from the instrument.

Some important excerpts for the bass drum in orchestral literature include Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, Romeo and Juliet, and 1812 Overture, many of the Mahler symphonies (most notably his third), and Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz.

The snare drum is one of the most easily recognizable instruments in the entire percussion section. Also called the side drum, the snare drum is often used as a means of accenting rhythms from other families of instruments within the orchestra or as a soloistic type instrument, particularly in pieces that may have a "military" type theme or sound to them.

The snare drum works extremely well as an accentuating instrument. Tuned and played correctly, it can produce sounds ranging from quick, short, and snappy to thick, warm, whip-crack like accents. There are numerous examples in music of the snare drum being used in this fashion. One such example would be the fourth movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite Scheherazade. In this particular example, the snare drum is used to accentuate the various crescendos and "hits" played by the rest of the orchestra. It is also used to reinforce the rhythms played by the trumpets throughout the movement.

As a soloistic instrument, the snare drum has certainly found its place in classical music. A fantastic example of this use of the snare drum would be the opening of Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite. After an opening trumpet solo, the snare drum plays a rather short, military-style solo at a pianissimo dynamic marking, designed to create a march-like feel. This particular part presents a number of problems for the orchestral percussionist, but its main difficulty lies in keeping the various rudiments (flams, four stroke ruffs, etc.) consistent at such a soft dynamic level.

Another difficult Snare Drum piece in classical music is:

Bolero (perhaps the most demanding due to the exposed nature, the same two measures repeated for about 15 minutes, driving the entire orchestra to the end).

Traditional rudimental solos that show a snare drummers technique include:

The Connecticut Halftime, The Three Camps, and The Downfall of Paris

There has been a marked deviation from high sticking, traditional drumming to a forced low stick style. Various techniques of the snare drum include the moller method, the gladstone method and other lesser methods.

  • Concert toms

Auxiliary percussion

Auxiliary percussion (also known as battery percussion or accessory percussion) include instruments like the triangle, castanets, and tambourine. These instruments are often overlooked and treated as trivial or unimportant simply because, to the untrained eye (or ear), they seem easy to play. The truth is, however, that auxiliary percussion often requires the most use of extended techniques and that the parts for these instruments are frequently the most difficult. Other auxiliary percussion instruments include:

Cymbals and gongs

Crash cymbals have been used in an orchestral setting since the time of Mozart, when he adopted their sound from traditional Turkish bands to be used in his opera Abduction from the Seraglio. Since then, crash cymbals have become one of the most written for percussion instruments in classical music and they are easily one of the most recognized sounds within the orchestra.


  • Blatter, William, Instrumentation/Orchestration, Schirmer Books

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