Writing for percussion 3 – Keep it in the family

Percussion instruments by grouping

A great many successful percussion pieces and orchestrations work because the composer has thought about the instruments that can work well together. Treating the percussion department as a toy box to be dipped into with all the discrimination of a toddler high on Sunny Delight is usually the route to a messy, unstructured and wasteful bit of writing.

These groupings are not prescriptive, nor are they meant to be a substitute for imaginative colouring. However, thought put into the timbral palette will lead to a more satisfactory outcome.

Let’s take, for example, the following list of 26 fairly random percussion instruments. I’ve provided links to the Bell Percussion website (an invaluable source of reference for many things percussion related) for instruments that might not be so familiar to you.

Cymbals / Marimba / Glockenspiel / Steel pan / Floor tom / Thunder drum / Castanets / Triangle / Tubular bells / Anvil / Timpani / Ratchet / Shaker / Flexatone / Cowbell / Woodblock / Tambourine / Bodhrán / Tam tam / Bongos / Congas / Cabasa / Car horn / Whip / Whistle / Temple bell

At first sight, the obvious families are tuned / drums / sound effects / untuned:

Tuned: Marimba / Glockenspiel / Steel pan / Tubular bells

Drums: Floor tom / Timpani / Bodhrán / Bongos / Congas

Sound effects: Thunder drum / Anvil / Flexatone / Car horn / Whip / Whistle

Untuned: Cymbals / Castanets / Triangle / Ratchet / Shaker / Cowbell / Woodblock / Tambourine / Tam tam / Cabasa / Temple bell 

But does that really make sense? Listen to the sounds they make. Doesn’t a glockenspiel have more in common with a triangle than with a marimba? Woodblock and whip are closer than woodblock and tam tam.

So let’s think more imaginatively:

Warm sounding: Floor tom / Timpani / Bodhrán / Congas / Marimba

Bellowing: Thunder drum / Car horn / Whistle

Brittle sounding: Castanets / Woodblock / Whip / Ratchet / Bongos

Light sounding: Triangle / Shaker / Tambourine / Cabasa / Glockenspiel

Clangorous: Cymbals / Tam tam / Temple bell / Steel pan / Tubular bells / Anvil / Flexatone / Cowbell

Or even:

Ethnic / World: Steel pan / Bodhrán / Castanets / Temple bell

Sound effect: Thunder drum / Flexatone / Car horn / Whip / Ratchet / Anvil

Jazz / Latin: Floor tom / Bongos / Congas / Whistle / Shaker / Cowbell / Cabasa / Marimba

Orchestral: Glockenspiel / Tubular bells / Timpani / Cymbals / Triangle / Woodblock / Tambourine / Tam tam

Although I might seem to be undermining my point by demonstrating that there is no pre-set family tree of percussion instruments, what I’m actually doing is asking that you think imaginatively and creatively about the sounds you’re putting together. Whatever decision you make, if there is cohesion and consideration in your sound world, that will convey itself to your listeners.

Coming up is the Hornbostel-Sachs (yes, it really does have a Facebook page) listing of all instruments of all kinds – a sort of Dewey Decimal system for sound production. I only post it in order to warn you of the dangers of over-analysing. Humanity does not really advance by knowing that a piano is ‘a board zither with resonating box’ (division 314.122), in my humble opinion.

Enough of my opinion. Hopefully that’s a little bit of a teaser for the next couple of posts; one on Steve Reich and his early works, writing for homogenous groups of instruments – truly keeping it in the family.

Here’s Hornbostel-Sachs. While away a happy hour or two trying to put instruments you know into this filing system. Or working out what some of them even mean. Or saving your time and spending it more usefully, watching paint dry or trying to work out just what the point is of Cheryl Cole.

Hornbostel-Sachs classification of sound-producing instruments

1 Idiophones

1.1 Struck idiophones

1.1.1 Directly struck idiophones

1.1.2 Indirectly struck idiophones

1.2 Plucked idiophones

1.2.1 In the form of a frame

1.2.2 In the form of a comb

1.3 Friction idiophones

1.3.1 Friction sticks

1.3.2 Friction plaques

1.3.3 Friction vessels

1.4 Blown idiophones

1.4.1 Blown sticks

1.4.2 Blown plaques

1.5 Unclassified idiophones

2 Membranophones

2.1 Struck membranophones

2.1.1 Directly struck membranophones

2.1.2 Shaken membranophones

2.2 Plucked membranophones

2.3 Friction membranophones

2.3.1 Friction drums with stick

2.3.2 Friction drum with cord

2.3.3 Hand friction drums

2.4 Singing membranes (kazoos)

2.4.1 Free kazoos

2.4.2 Tube or vessel-kazoos

2.5 Unclassified membranophones

3 Chordophones

3.1 Simple chordophones or zithers

3.1.1 Bar or stick zithers

3.1.2 Tube zithers

3.1.3 Raft zithers

3.1.4 Board zithers

3.1.5 Trough zithers

3.1.6 Frame zithers

3.2 Composite chordophones

3.2.1 Lutes

3.2.2 Harps

3.2.3 Harp lutes

3.3 Unclassified chordophones

4 Aerophones

4.1 Free aerophones

4.1.1 Displacement free aerophones

4.1.2 Interruptive free aerophones

4.1.3 Plosive aerophones

4.2 Non-free aerophones (wind instruments proper)

4.2.1 Edge-blown aerophones or flutes

4.2.2 Reed aerophones

4.2.3 Trumpets

4.3 Unclassified aerophones


And to help understand some of that:

Idiophone – Idiophones produce sounds through the vibration of their entire body. Examples of idiophones:

    • Cowbell
    • Crotales
    • Marimba
    • Triangle

Membranophone – Membranophones produce sound when the membrane or head is struck. Examples of membranophones:

    • Bass drum
    • Bongos
    • Timpani
    • Tom-tom
    • The lion’s roar and the cuíca are friction instruments which are not struck like other drums, but the sound is produced by applying friction to a string or to a stick that is attached to the center of the membrane. In both cases, it is the membrane that vibrates, not the string nor the stick, thus ensuring their classification as membranophones.

Chordophone – Most instruments known as “chordophones” are defined as string instruments, but some such as these examples are percussion instruments also.

    • Hammered dulcimer
    • Cimbalom
    • Piano
    • Berimbau

Aerophone – Most instruments known as “aerophones” are defined as wind instruments such as a saxophone whereby sound is produced by a person or thing blowing air through the object. Examples of aerophones played by percussionists:

    • Samba whistle
    • Siren
    • Slide whistle
    • Whistle

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