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Musical Elements

Performing Media | Percussion

Peter Kun Frary


Musical instruments which are struck, rubbed, scraped or shook are called percussion instruments. Percussion instruments have an ancient legacy, developing soon after singing. If you count hand claps and foot stomping, percussion is certainly as old as singing. Percussion is also the largest and most diversified category of instruments, with hundreds of different instruments in regular use.

Ethnomusicologists classify percussion instruments in two categories according to how sound is produced: membranophone and idiophone.

Taiko Drum | Honolulu, Hawaii


Musical instruments known as membranophones produce sound when their membrane or skin is struck with a stick, hand or foot. The membrane vibrates and subsequently resonates within a chamber. Membranes are typically made of animal skin or plastic stretched tightly across a frame or resonating chamber. Common membranophones include drums such as taiko, snare, conga and bongos.

Membranophones come in many sizes | Small taiko drums produce sounds in the upper register while larger drums produce deep tones.

Kodo: O-Daiko (8:24) | Taiko drumming

O-Daiko | Tokugawa Era (19th c.) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | The o-daiko (also, o-taiko) is a barrel drum (membranophone) played in Japanese temples and orchestras.


Musical instruments known as idiophones produce sound via vibration of the entire body of the instrument. Common Idiophones include claves, rattles, cymbals and the marimba. Here's an example of the claves, a common implement of Latin percussion:

Definite and Indefinite Pitch Percussion

While the broad classifications of membranophone and idiophone are useful for anthropologists and ethnomusicologists cataloging musical artifacts, most performing musicians think of percussion instruments in terms of the type of sound produced, i.e., definite pitch percussion and indefinite pitch percussion.

Definite pitch percussion instruments produce musical tones with an identifiable pitch and, thus, are able to play melodies, and some, harmony. Examples of definite pitch percussion include the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, timpani, chimes, celesta and glockenspiel. Here's the sound of a definite pitch percussion instrument, the Spacedrum (handpan):

Spacedrum (3:03) | Yuki Koshimoto | The Spacedrum (handpan) is a definite pitch idiophone.

Here's the sound of a common definite pitch percussion instrument, the marimba:

Ponteio (1:45) | Celso Machado | Berklee Marimba Ensemble

Indefinite pitch percussion instruments produce sounds without an identifiable pitch. There is timbre, duration, intensity and a sense of highness or lowness of the sound but not an exact pitch.

Examples of indefinite pitch instruments include snare and bass drums, congas, bongos, cymbals and rattles. Here's the sound of indefinite pitch percussion instruments:

Ogoun Badagris (5:21) | Christopher Rouse | Berklee Percussion Ensemble

Percussion (16:50) | David Corkhill introduces percussion instruments.

Fandango 13 | Michael Burritt | Eastman Percussion Ensemble | Mixture of indefinite and definite pitch percussion instruments.

United States Navy Band | Honolulu, Hawaii | Percussion section


percussion instruments, membranophone, definite pitch percussion, indefinite pitch percussion, idiophone, keyboard instruments

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved