How do percussion instruments work?

By | April 7, 2021


Drums are the typical percussion instrument. They work by hitting the head – the top of the drum, made of stretched natural or imitation leather or ‘skin’ – and with this sound resonate through a cylindrical wooden frame.

Some drums play specific locations. Timpani, or kettle drums, have their places adjusted by tightening or loosening heads. Other drums, such as rototomers, have a permanently assigned pitch.

Drums such as snare drums or other drums are played more for the quality of the sound than their specific pitch. They will sound higher or lower than each other, but they ‘are not made to reason with a slope that can be easily identified on a chromatic scale. These drums are played for sound quality, which can be dry and short (if the drum is small with a pointed head) or boom-y and eco-y (if the drum is small with a looser head that vibrates longer and slower).


The word ‘keyboard’ is often used to refer to piano-like instruments, but when it comes to percussion, this also means instruments such as xylophones and marimba. These keyboards are similar to piano keyboards but are played by being beaten with malls. The keys are made of stacks of metal or wood that are arranged from large to small: the small keys play higher notes while the larger keys play lower notes.

Some keyboards, such as clocks, are made of a type of metal that has plenty of resonance and volume on its own when struck, so the instrument consists of only the metal keys on a frame. Xylophones, marimba bass and vibraphones, however, need a little extra resonance, so each key has a resonant tube under it that amplifies the sound with an echo. Like the keys, the pipes are arranged by size.

Auxiliary cycling

After the two main schools stand for, there are still dozens of other complementary – or ‘extra’ percussion instruments that we have not talked about, and they all work in unique ways. You can have metal cymbals (circular mats that are turned off and make noise when they are folded or at malls) or different types of shakers that consist of different types of sealed, hollow containers, partially filled with something like beads, which make noise by hitting into the container when shaken.

Other common aids may include bells, whistles, sandpaper blocks (they are rubbed together), hollow wooden blocks (they are beaten), or really, anything that can be shaken or beaten to produce an interesting sound. In addition to the traditional percussion instruments, many composers will specifically ask for special pieces of ‘found percussion on’ made of household objects!