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Even if you don’t play the drums the importance of percussion instruments and drums in orchestras and symphonies is undeniable.
Drums maintain the rhythm and they can be as quiet as a heartbeat or as intense as the roll of thunder. There are different types of drums in an orchestra, and not only do they produce their own unique sound but they also serve different purposes.
So, what are the types of drums used in an orchestra?
While drums are percussion instruments, not all percussion instruments are drums. The most common types of drums used in an orchestra are the timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, and bass drum as well as concert toms and the tambourine.
If you want to learn more about the instruments that are part of the orchestral percussion and the drums that are most commonly used in an orchestra then keep on reading!
What Is Orchestral Percussion?
To put it very simply orchestral percussion is the assembly of percussive instruments used in an orchestra that most often plays classical, and instrumental music.
As we will explore later on there is a large number of instruments that are part of the percussion family, which includes the drums, mallet instruments, cymbals, and gongs as well as auxiliary percussion.
Many of the musical instruments used in an orchestra come from different parts of the world and percussion instruments are no different.
The timpani is the percussion instrument with the longest tradition and was used by the people of the middle east, bass drums, snare drums but also the cymbals and triangles were brought from Turkey.
Gongs originated in east Asia while Africa has also brought a wide range of African drums and percussion instruments like the marimba, xylophone, shakers, and rattles among others.
It’s also worth pointing out that the orchestra wasn’t always the same. Thanks to these percussion instruments and composers like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Wagner, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Manuel de Falla among others, percussion instruments became a major part of the orchestra.
You can definitely hear the dramatic role the timpani play in the Symphony Fantastique by Berlioz!
What Instruments Are Part Of The Orchestral Percussion?
Before we talk specifically about the types of drums used in an orchestra I think it’s worth going through the different instruments that are part of the orchestral percussion.
I think this approach will help create a more clear distinction between drums and percussion instruments.
Mallet instruments are a group of pitched percussion instruments and with their metal or wooden bars, they actually resemble a piano keyboard.
The most common mallet instrument is the xylophone which has wooden bars and originated in Asia and Africa. There are other similar instruments to the xylophone, like the glockenspiel which has metal bars.
You might also have heard of the marimba which is a larger version of the xylophone and it produces much softer tones. Vibraphone is a more modern instrument and it has metal bars and resonators that are motor driven, it has better sustain and it’s great at producing the vibrato
Depending on the sound you want these instruments to make you will have to use different types of mallets that are made from various materials.
Cymbals And Gongs
My knowledge of drums used to be quite limited especially compared to guitars and other stringed instruments, so much so that I used to think that cymbals were just a type of drum.
To an extent, I wasn’t too far of since cymbals are percussion instruments like drums, and drum kits usually incorporate cymbals, however, they are not drums.
Cymbals and gongs are probably the noisiest instruments in an orchestra.
Cymbals are round plates made from different alloys and sometimes they are used in pairs that are placed or hit against each other. While we consider cymbals an integral part of an orchestra and classical music it wasn’t always so.
These instruments were originally used in Assyria, Egypt, and Israel, and they were only introduced to the orchestra in 18th century Europe by Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Similarly, gongs have a complicated history that most likely started in East and South Asia. Nowadays the western orchestra uses the flat Chinese gong.
Gongs look a lot like cymbals just larger, and they usually have a small dome in the center that produces a single note when struck. Then there are also gongs or tam-tams as they are called that don’t have a small dome in the center, they are flat instead and these can produce a bigger range of sounds.
Drums are obviously part of orchestral percussion and their construction is what differentiates them from the rest of the percussion instruments here.
Unlike cymbals or gongs which are flat discs or xylophones which are wooden bars, drums have a hollow usually cylindrical body. One or both ends of a drum are covered with a drumhead which is a tightly stretched membrane.
The drummer uses their hands or a stick or wire brush to beat against the membrane and create the familiar drum sound.
There are six main types of drums used in an orchestra that includes timpani, snare, tenor, and bass drums, as well as concert toms and the tambourine.
We will talk more in depth about all these types of drums later on, but I do want to mention that while these drums are the main types used in a western orchestra, there is a multitude of different types and sizes of drums that are used in other countries or for specific orchestral performances.
Unlike the auxiliary percussion, percussion instruments I’ve mentioned above are all quite familiar to most of us, but that doesn’t mean auxiliary percussion is not just as important.
A big number of instruments that can’t fit into the above categories are included in this sub-classification among them the most well-known is probably the triangle, the castanets, maracas, cowbell, hi-hats, and chimes.
These obscure or less-known auxiliary percussion instruments are actually really important since they can be used to accent the overall drum beat behind an orchestral piece and create special sound effects.
What Are The Types Of Drums Used In An Orchestra?
Now that we cleared the air out and we have a better idea of the various percussion instruments that are part of an orchestra, it’s time we took a deeper look at the drums.
Timpani aren’t just eye-catching because of their size, but also because of how shiny and polished they look. At first glance, they look like giant pots or copper kettles, hence their other common name “kettle drums”.
Like most drums, timpani have a drumhead typically made of calfskin or plastic stretched over their bowl-like copper body and they stand on the floor.
What’s fascinating about timpani is the fact that they are tuned instruments and you can tune them to play different notes. The pitch usually needs to be changed during performances and this can be done by stretching or loosening the drumheads, using the foot pedal.
Timpanists usually have a set up of four and sometimes more kettle drums of various sizes and tuned to different pitches.The timpanists use a mallet or wooden stick to play the kettle drum and produce its booming, full, and resonating sound.
Their role, for the most part, is to support the rhythm, melody, and harmony. In a sense, you can say that the timpani provide the underlying heartbeat.
2. Snare Drum
The snare drum is a distinct percussion instrument and it’s a much smaller drum that is part of an orchestra, its body is placed on a stand and it is made of brass or wood and the drumheads on both ends are usually made of calfskin.
The bottom drumhead which is called the resonant head is thinner than the top and you will notice a set of curled, metal wires stretched across the bottom skin. These wires are what create the “rattling” sound when the snare drum is played. You can actually use the small switch on the side of the drum to turn the snare wires off or on.
Compared to the timpani the snare drum can’t be tuned and it’s used to keep the rhythm and to make drumrolls, by using mallets, various sticks, or brushes, depending on the sound requirements. It’s often associated with the military since it’s often used in marching band themes.
4. Bass Drum
The classical bass drum is quite impressive which comes as no surprise since it’s the biggest instrument in the percussion family. The bass drum hangs from a frame, and the musician strikes it with mallets or soft sticks that are usually covered with sheepskin or felt.
Seeing the large size of this instrument it’s easy to assume it’s there to produce thunderous and loud sounds. While that is true, the bass drum can also produce soft sounds that you can barely hear.
The bass drum is one of my favorite drums not only because of how huge it is but because of its ability to transform the music the orchestra is playing, by adding depth and making the intense moments even more epic.
3. Tenor Drum
The tenor drum is of medium depth compared to the more shallow snare drum. In a sense, the tenor drum stands somewhere in the middle between the bass drum and the snare drum, being higher pitched than the former and lower-pitched than the latter.
Early tenor drums were popular in Medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music, but this percussion instrument is also noticed in scores by 20th-century composers.
The tenor drum is usually tuned tightly and its sound although low pitched is quite similar to the snare drum.
5. Concert Toms
Concert toms are a set of four single-headed individual tom drums, and while concert toms or tom drums are mostly used in contemporary music, and were mostly popularized during the 50s up to the 80s they are still worth mentioning.
Even though some consider it an auxiliary percussion I wanted to include concert toms because they can still be used as part of an orchestra.
When it comes to sound concert toms can be tuned and they produce a punchy sound since they have more attack and less resonance.
Last but not least we have the tambourine which is a small drum that has metal jingles, pellet bells, or snares set into the edges.
Unlike the other drums of the orchestra, the tambourine is played with bare hands by shaking it, taping it, or hitting it against your other hand.
Somewhat similar to a tambourine is the Irish bodhran which is larger and without jingles at the side. The percussionist holds the bodhran vertically and hits the drum with a small beater.
Both percussion instruments and their different variations are part of the drum category and they are used in the orchestra when needed.
Drums are an integral part of the orchestra and it’s important to mention that many of these percussion instruments originated from other cultures and countries like Turkey, Asia, and Africa.
It’s also important to make a distinction between percussion instruments and drums. While they are both used in orchestras they are not exactly the same.
So, if you want to strictly know what types of drums are used in an orchestra then our list should help clear up some of the confusion!