TIMPANITimpani are large bowl shaped drums with the skin on the top, and there is no bottom as the shell of the drum closes at the bottom to form the bowl shape. Timpani is the singular AND plural for the drum. They are often called the "kettle drums" because of their shape, and because they are traditionally made of copper so they tend to resemble a large old fashioned kettle. Timpani are tuned to specific pitches which fall basically within the compass of the bass clef. Notes can be written as low as D below the bass clef and as high as C# above the bass clef but this is an extreme range and it requires both a very large drum and a very small drum to achieve those notes. If your timpanist has 5 or 6 timpani then you might have those notes available. The good sounding range would be more like low G to high A on the edges of the bass stave, and this requires a fairly normal 3 or four drums to achieve. The actual fundamental of timpani is an octave lower than written, but because of the acoustic properties of the drum we perceive the notes at the written pitch.
These days there are various pedal systems built into timpani so the pitch can be altered instantaneously whilst playing. Glissandi are possible. A skilled player can even play tricky melodies by sitting on a stool and using both feet on the pedals of the drums to change notes. There are gauges on the side of the drums so that the performer can see what note the drum is set to without having to play it first to listen. The best timpani still have bowls made of copper, but fibreglass is often used to save money, and these are also quite a bit lighter which might be a factor if they are to be frequently transported. Some timpanists still prefer the sound of calfskin heads but the vast majority of timpani these days use thin plastic skins. Plastic heads are less prone to being affected by humidity etc. It is common practise to apply a little graphite powder or some other dry lubricant to the rim of the drums before putting the skins on as this helps prevent unwanted sounds being produced by friction as the notes is altered with the pedal.
The modern timpanist uses a range of mallets to produce a variety of tones. Harder ones might use heads of hardwood or cork while softer ones usually have a cork head covered in various thicknesses of felt. Three or four felt layers, or even a layer of thin lambswool might be used to create a very soft muffled tone. Unlike other drums, timpani are not struck in the middle - this completely muffles the sound. Rather they are played a couple of inches from the edge of the skin. Rolls are pretty much always produced with single strokes. Double strokes or multiple bounce type rolls don't really work very well on timpani.
Whilst there are many variations of the pedal systems used to tune timpani, they essentially fall into two types. The French pedal and the German pedal. With the French pedal system, the whole pedal is pushed down towards the floor to tighten the skin, and it will latch ratchet-like wherever you stop pushing. To release the pedal's hold and allow it to spring back to a lower tension, you push just the toe part of the pedal forwards - sometimes if the mechanism is a bit sticky you might have to reach down with the hand and pull the heel part of the pedal upwards to assist! The German pedal system has a pedal which doesn't move up and down, but pivots in the middle. You push the toe down to raise the pitch, and you push the heel down to lower the pitch. There are certainly pros and cons of each system.
SNARE DRUMThe snare drum comes in a variety of diameters and depths but most common in an orchestra is 14" by about 6 1/2 or 8" deep. The distinguishing feature of all snare drums are the "snares" that give us the name. The snares consist of a row of thin coiled wires that are pulled tightly across the bottom head of the drum. When the drum is struck, the bottom head vibrates in sympathy with the top head and the wires hit the skin very quickly for a split second causing the characteristic "crack" sound. Originally snares were made of thin strips of gut. These were often coated in shellac to make them harder and more brittle sounding. The snare is literally similar to those which were used to trap small animals. The first heads were made of calf skin but of course most are made from plastic these days. The top head or "batter" head is of a sufficient thickness to withstand being hit with the sticks, but the lower head, or "snare" head is very thin to make it more responsive on the snares, and therefore would break easily if you played on it.
Whilst the snare drum probably has its origins in the military, it is probably the most widespread in terms of its use these days. We se it on every drum kit from pumping out the back beat in a rock band, to leading the front rhythms in a jazz band often played with wire brushes. We see it used still as the primary marching drum and of course in the orchestra. In early orchestral music, the snare was only used occasionally and always to evoke a military atmosphere, and the associations are still powerful enough these days for it to fulfil that role.
For more info on the snare drum as a marching instrument and the close relatives - field drum, tenor drum - visit the Marching Page.
BASS DRUMAn orchestral bass drum should pretty much always be as large as possible. There is repertoire where a smaller drum makes for needed control, but as a general rule a minimum of 34" is suitable, and more like 40" preferred. For orchestral use, the bass drum is not tuned to a specific pitch, and the skins are tensioned low enough to avoid too distinct a tone. A low boom or rumble is the required sound. For more on tuning and playing a concert bass drum read the following article.
CYMBALSOrchestral crash cymbals are used in pairs and struck together. Most orchestral percussionists have more than one pair for the requirements of various repertoire. A pair of light to medium cymbals about 16" might be used for soft or fast passages, whilst bigger and heavier cymbals - for example 18" to 24" would be used for slower and "grander" sections. Obviously smaller cymbals afford greater control and are more cutting and responsive, although not as powerful and full sounding. It seems that amongst orchestral percussionists it is a point of pride to use bigger cymbals, even sometimes to the point of inappropriateness.
On occasion you might see cymbals with wooden handles attached with bolts and felts throughout the middle - this is to be avoided at all costs as it makes control difficult, tends to dull the sound, and may even lead to cracking of the cymbals due to too solid a hold on the middle. The more correct and common method is to have loops of soft leather strap as handles. These may or may not come with leather or lambswool pads to protect the hands from the hard metal. The obvious technique is to place the hands through the straps, which is appropriate in a marching band where cymbal "flourishes" may be required. For purely musical considerations though more control and a better sound can be obtained by removing any pads, and gripping the straps between the thumb and index finger such that the palm and knuckles are hard against the bell of the cymbals.
Before the 19th century one cymbal would usually be attached to the bass drum, and one performer would play both cymbals and drum. This practice was maintained in marching bands for a while but began to be abandoned in orchestras in the first half of the 19th century, in favour of separate musicians.
SUSPENDED CYMBALLike crash cymbals, suspended cymbal tend to be used in a variety of sizes for various situations. A medium to light 16" crash might be used for lighter music and quick crescendos, while an 18" or even 20" cymbal might be used for more grandiose music as long as it is not overly heavy.
"Suspended" doesn't mean anything special by today's standard. We are used to seeing cymbals on stands on every drum kit in every corner shop - and that is all a suspended cymbal is - a cymbal on a stand. In earlier times, mostly cymbals were used in pairs as crash cymbals so a single cymbal on a stand needed to be specified.
In the orchestra, suspended cymbals are used for shimmering tremolos and in particular, dramatic crescendos. A pair of wound xylophone/marimba mallets might be used, or felt timpani mallets. Medium wound mallets are preferred as they are designed for playing on a hard surface. Felt covered timpani mallets can sound ok if they are the softer sort, but the felt tends to thin and wear away with continued use - after all you are bashing it between hard metal and hard cork or similar. On the timps these mallets are fine as the timpani skin gives quite a bit on contact. The other type of felt mallet with a solid compressed felt head is better, but too soft will eventually turn to soft fluff, and too hard makes a smooth roll difficult to obtain. The wound mallets don't tend to suffer from these problems.
TUBULAR BELLSTubular bells come in 1 and 1/2 octave sets from middle c up to f, and basically do the job in an orchestra of imitating the sound of church bells. The tubular bells are also commonly referred to as "chimes" or "orchestral chimes", and sometimes even improperly referred to as "bells", although this might seem a reasonable name considering their sound. A note to all composers out there: Avoid confusion, and call them "tubular bells" - "bells" more correctly refers to either glockenspiel (although its best to use that name for that instrument) or French-bells. Even the word chimes - although in common usage for tubular bells - can often mean a different instrument entirely - chime bars.
Tubular bells are similar in construction to the wind chimes you might see hanging in a garden. For more on great windchimes of this variety, visit www.wind-chimes-free-shipping.com.
XYLOPHONEFor the important basic information about xylophones - read here about xylophones as a solo instrument.
As an orchestral instrument, the xylophone still retains a very prominent position. The incredibly bright and cutting sound make it ideal for injecting energy into the higher register of the orchestra. While as a solo instrument, the marimba has pretty much replaced the xylophone, in the orchestra the marimba is not so popular as its sound doesn't have the ability to penetrate like that of the xylophone.
Xylophones may also be used in marching bands.
VIBRAPHONEFor the important basic information about the vibraphone - read here about the vibraphone as a solo instrument.
As an orchestral instrument, the vibraphone has not yet gained a great deal of popularity. Most composers when they want a tuned metallic percussion sound will immediately turn to the instruments with greater history in the orchestral setting. This might be the very high pitched glockenspiel, the similar but higher pitched French bells or perhaps even the celeste. Whilst modern composers are starting to realize the great potential of the vibraphone as an orchestral instrument, the orchestral percussionist will very rarely be called upon to play one. As the vibraphone was only invented in the 1940s (making it the youngest percussion keyboard), the more commonly played older repertoire never uses the instrument.
MARIMBAThe marimba has only started to become used in orchestras in the last 500 years or so, even though its origins are far older than most other orchestral instruments. It has in particular become popular for use creating certain atmospheres in film scores, or even as a primary percussive texture by modern orchestral composers such as John Adams.
For information about the marimba, read about it in the solo instrument section here.
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GLOCKENSPIELThe glockenspiel - or "Glock" for short - is also sometimes referred to in orchestral scores as "bells". This is not incorrect, and might even be considered appropriate because of the origins of the glockenspiel. The instrument started its development in Germany where it originally was in fact a small set of actual bells which were struck by hand. Over time, two main developments were made. Firstly the transition from these small bells to rectangular metal bars which were easier to tune, and secondly, the development of a mechanical set of hammers for the bars which the performer activated via a piano-like keyboard. These early versions of the instrument used bars or bells which were a little bigger and lower pitched than the modern glockenspiel. This bigger mechanical keyboard version still exists today in a more refined version as what we know as the "Celeste" or Celesta". The celeste is not covered here as these days it is usually played by a pianist rather than a percussionist. The modern glockenspiel is struck with small headed mallets that are usually quite hard. Hard compound rubber would be the softest, and harder plastics and brass mallet heads are more commonly used for a very bright and cutting sound. The use of these hard, hand held mallets is a relatively recent development which has enabled the instrument to have the even smaller higher notes that we are familiar with today. For some great info about the history of the glockenspiel I highly recommend the link below: tubular bells, or the French bells which are often interchanged with the glockenspiel due to its similar sound. Lets just stick to calling it the glockenspiel!!
BELLS or FRENCH BELLS
CHIMES or CHIME BARS
TAM-TAM or GONG"Tam-Tam" is really taken from an African slang which means something like "a drum of indefinite pitch". Somehow this has been turned around a bit in western common usage, and we take it to be more like "a gong of indefinite pitch". This is somewhat of a given anyway, as strictly speaking a gong actually does have a specific pitch, or at least a very strongly defined fundamental note with limited extra harmonic content. The shape often includes a rounded raised nodule in the middle much like the bell of a cymbal. Actual gongs of definite pitch as used commonly in China are not so common in the Western world, and are certainly of limited use in a symphony orchestra. The end result, is that the vast majority of the time when we see either "gong" or "tam-tam" in an orchestral score we are really talking about the same thing. This is a gong WITHOUT the nodule and of indefinite pitch with a much broader range of harmonics - usually quite large - at least 30" in diameter and preferably much bigger. Some composers differentiate between gong and tam-tam, and what is usually meant in these cases by "gong" is rather similar to the tam tam, but with less harmonic content. ie. more of a single note, although usually quite low and of non-specific pitch.
WIND GONGWind gongs have their origins in China, and are becoming more popular in a variety of settings. They are also of indefinite pitch. They come in a large range of sizes from small ones about 6" in diameter which can sound quite a bit like opera gongs, to much bigger ones of 32" or more which can sound quite similar to an orchestral Tam Tam if not struck too hard. It seems to me that the metals used to make wind gongs tend to be a bit lighter than those in a tam-tam and my guess is that there is some aluminium in the mix, although that is a guess. A primary difference is that wind gongs do not have the outside edges bent towards the back at 90 degrees like gongs and tam tams - instead the metal is tapered such that the thickest part is in the middle, and it gradually gets thinner towards the outside. It is this tapered shape which gives rise to the characteristic "flare" in sound that makes the wind gong unique. If you don't fully activate the wind gong - ie don't hit it hard enough - you only really get the fundamental frequencies which is why it can sound similar to the tam tam. If you hit it harder though, the sound will suddenly "flare" out to include a whole bunch of complex higher harmonics. The bigger the wind gong, the less responsive - ie it takes more effort to activate the flare, and it also happens more slowly or gradually. Rolling crescendos are particularly effective on wind gongs as the flare cuts in during the crescendo to make it really take off with a "woosh!" like sound. The player needs to know exactly how loud the roll is before the flare cuts in so they can make sure they don't allow it to happen before the peak of the crescendo.
TAMBOURINEFind tambourine bargains here.
WINDCHIMESWindchimes like the ones shown on the right are very often used as an orchestral instrument to create that dreamy or washy sound. They are basically constructed from a row of short and very high-pitched alloy chimes of no specific pitch that can be activated by running the back of a finger or drumstick etc from one end to the other. The sideways movement gets each chime striking the one next to it to start it sounding. The chimes can be hollow tube or a solid rod - the solid kind tend to more expensive, but because of the greater weight they tend to swing less after the initial stroke and don't continue activating each other. In other words its easier to get a single controlled sound. This type of windchime instrument is also quite commonly used in a Latin music band or similar.
WHIPA whip is exactly what it sounds! We talk about "cracking a whip" and the sound we are after in orchestral music when a "whip" is called for, is that piercing "Crack!" sound. Obviously it is impractical to use an actual whip made from leather thongs or similar in a musical context, so the sound is simulated quite accurately by slapping the flats of two bits of wood together. Here you can see my preferred version of the whip, which is simply two planks about 40cm long with a hinge joining them at one end. You can see the playing technique in the photo. Some whips of this variety have handles on the outside of the planks to make it more difficult to accidentally catch your fingers between the planks - ouch!. There is another kind of whip, which some people call an automatic whip or a spring whip, and its use is more similar to an actual authentic whip in terms of the playing action. This kind of whip consists of a wood plank with a handle cut at one end. There is a second slightly smaller plank joined at the handle end via a hinge which has a firm spring to keep the planks together. This kind of whip is operated with one hand - you whip it through the air and the separated planks get sprung together as the movement stops. The advantage is that its quicker to grab and play a note and you can do it with one hand. The disadvantages are that its more difficult to be exact with the timing, and rapid rhythms are very difficult to execute.
ANVILThere is literally no difference between the anvil a blacksmith would use to hammer out a horseshoe on, and the anvil a percussionist would use in an orchestra. Sometimes having such a huge and heavy chunk of metal is not practical, so some sort of substitute is used, like a piece of iron plate or length of steel tube etc. As long as the basic high energy "clang" is achieved, that's all that matters. Most percussionists would use a smaller hammer than a real blacksmith as they might be required to play quite fast rhythmic passages. Smaller hammers don't always get such a powerful and fat sound though, so its always a good idea to have at least one bigger hammer in the toolkit for when the notes are not so fast, but the full sound is important.
THUNDERSHEETA thundersheet is, as the name implies, designed to imitate the sound of thunder. Essentially it is nothing more than a large sheet of thin metal suspended from one end, and allowed to hang vertically. One can play the thundersheet by striking it or rolling on it with mallets or just by grabbing it with both hands and shaking or bending it. Each thundersheet behaves a little differently depending on its composition, dimensions and suspension. The percussionist can usually experiment for a few minutes to get a good idea of the best methods of achieving the required effects. There are a few things people do to modify thundersheets to improve their playability. For some more information about this, follow the link below.
TRIANGLEIn an orchestral setting, the triangle is usually suspended with some thin cotton or fishing line running under the top corner. For the orchestral triangle player, its all about trying to get the cleanest and purest tone. The triangle used is made of a high carbon steel to produce a clearer sound than those traditionally used in Brazilian music. (See triangle as a Latin instrument.) Whilst different triangles behave slightly differently, most of the time the purest tone can be achieved by striking the triangle on the side opposite the open corner about one third of the way down from the top. Sometimes a roll is achieved by inserting the steel beater inside the triangle and using a circular motion to hit all three sides. More often, the performer will be a bit more fussy and use a pair of triangle beaters to roll with one hand on either side of the triangle - usually the right hand (or strong hand) is playing on the better side of the triangle. This is shown in the picture to the right.
The orchestral percussionist will usually have the triangle mounted with a special holder on it's own stand. The important part, is that the string holding the triangle has suspension points that are about an inch wide. This prevents the triangle twisting on it's string when hit which makes striking it consistently very difficult. The left hand picture shows the detail of a convenient mounting system for a triangle using a bulldog clip. The clip can clip onto any other stand in the percussionist's set up - usually the music stand, and provides nice wide mounting points. Sometimes the performer is called upon to dampen the triangle with their hand, but mostly it is left to ring on. Modern composers often require more than one triangle to get a variety of sounds, or just to be more specific about the sound they want - for example, its not uncommon to see "small triangle" written on the percussionist's part.
WOOD BLOCKS or TEMPLE BLOCKS