20 Interesting Facts About Percussion
It’s important to define percussive instruments in two ways. This page includes percussion with distinct tuning such as Tubular Bells, and those without, like the Snare Drum or Bongos. Let’s be super clear though; drums like Snare Drum and Cymbals have pitch. It’s just less obvious and cannot be easily changed during a performance.
Tuned percussion includes some prevalent instruments like the Piano. Piano is the most popular instrument in the world and has its own section for this reason. Let’s find some facts about others on the list, some of which you may not be familiar with.
This is a small rack of carefully selected, vertical bamboo shoots. They can be variously tuned from player to player and are sounded by shaking the horizontal beam at the bottom of the rack. They vary in size and complexity and charmingly resemble the church organ.
Taken from Sudanese culture, Angklung first began in Indonesia for cultural and religious purposes. It spread into different parts of the Far East, such as Malaysia and Thailand.
Watching it being played, particularly in a large group of players is a wonderful spectacle.
2. No Spiel Here!
Finding its origin in Indonesia, the Glockenspiel meaning ‘play bells’ in German was brought to Europe in the mid 17th century.
In its modern form, consisting of steel metal bars played with a pair of mallets, the sound is unmistakable. The Glockenspiel is widely used in a huge range of genres, from Tchaikovsky’s Ballet Sleeping Beauty to the essential element of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
One of the best ways of describing the sound of the Glockenspiel is by listening to Mozart’s Magic Flute, used as the sound of the bird catcher.
3. This Chimes We Me
Hand chimes are a beautiful, single tone percussion piece.
They are played by hand and use a lever to strike a metal, square frame.
As with Tubular Bells, each chime is tuned differently, and can be played side by side with great skill.
The Marimba is a larger and fuller version of the Xylophone, and is the national instrument of many countries in Central America.
Modern versions include metal resonator tubes under the wooden bars, creating a distinct sound.
Unlike the lightly weighted and convenient hand chime, this instrument is no easy thing to move. Not the best weapon of a traveling musician, unless you’re super devoted.
This is the category of musical instruments where metal parts are struck (such as the Glockenspiel and Vibraphone), unlike the Xylophone and Marimba with their wooden bars. No guitarists, this does not include you.
6. Black Is Steel
This must be the most fun section of this article. For those of you lucky enough to have enjoyed a live performance of steel bands, you will know what I mean. Given the obvious name, not much needs to be said about the construction of this simple instrument. Steel Pans were invented in the late 18th century by African slaves in Trinidad and Tobago as a cheap and wonderful way of celebrating.
7. A Tubular Bell Tale (That We Don’t Want To Be Sued For)
A recording studio on the south coast of England was forced to buy a set of Tubular Bells when a famous artist (who shall not be named) insisted, implying it was absolutely necessary for his artistic credibility.
After this demanding request, the studio purchased a set and placed it with frustration in the live room. As it happens, the artist had nothing to do with the Tubular Bells throughout his stay at the studios. He may not have even realised they were there, given his pre history involving dangerous substances.
Many things have been said about this artist, such as his peculiar taste for live bats on stage. We’re willing to say that this story, like many others, is nowhere near the truth.
8. Would You Like Some Earmuffs?
The Timpani are enormous drums, with a tone that can be altered with the use of a foot pedal.
Musical pieces like Mars by Holst or Philip Glass’s Concerto Fantasy For Two Timpanists and Orchestra are a great start.
Studies have shown that during concert performance Timpani performers are exposed to volumes around 90dB. For perspective, any prolonged volume over 70dB can cause damage to the ears. Ouch!
9. Are You Getting The Vibe-raphone?
The Vibraphone is an instrument similar to the Xylophone, but has metal bars rather than wood.
The Vibraphone is hugely popular in Jazz, whose greatest players include British musician Victor Feldman.
Probably the most commonly played and understood instrument in this list, the Xylophone finds its way into a wide range of educational activities.
To give an international example, children in Senegal use the Xylophone as part of their coming of age ceremonies.
This instrument is also another example of the strength of African and Asian influence on worldwide music, through great percussion.
11. Drum Dance
Let’s single out the bass drum by looking at American-style marching bands, where players tend to carry one large drum at a time. For the marching band, the bass drum is normally carried sideways with drum skins on either side, for double handed striking.
There are different sizes and most marching bands will have around 5, giving a variety of tones. These musicians look quite overwhelmed at times by the sheer size of the bass drum, particularly when also performing a complicated routine. Can we say dance?
12. What A Couple
The Bongo is a small open-bottomed drum from Cuba. It’s impossible to imagine a hippy without a pair!
Bongos are two drums fixed together, the smaller ‘hembra’ is named with feminine connotations, the other ‘macho’ has male connotations. Consequently, macho never properly listens and hembra never forgets when macho goes out of tune!
13. Satisfied Conga-gation
The Conga is firmly related to the Bongo drum, and has a larger, longer body.
It’s impossible to imagine a conga without the image of Hawaiian-shirted Andy Kaufman appearing.
Like the Bongo, the Conga is a huge part of many genres including amazing soul and rock music. Take Santana’s famous performance at Woodstock, where Congas have a central role on stage.
Have you ever had a gong bath? This is a popular form of musical therapy which utilises the low frequencies of a gong for debatable benefits. Scientific studies confirm the effects of different frequencies on the human body, describing both positive and negative effects.
Many would say that gong therapy relies on the placebo effect, others would say that it genuinely affects your DNA. Whatever the case, this powerful instrument has an effect. Perhaps similar to when you play your favourite piece of music nice and loud.
The Maraca was created in American Aboriginal culture, both in South and North America. We often associate it with Latin genres, giving us that joyful percussion groove. Also, anyone can play this instrument with a joyful effect!
16. Don’t Snare At Me
The Snare Drum may be the king of this repertoire. Of European origin, the Snare was primarily used in military practices. In many respects it sounds like a gun-shot.
Let’s look at Scottish pipe bands who use Snares tuned to a higher pitch than others. Their drummers are quite precise in strikes and rolls, using a deeper bodied drum with a strong shell and tough heads. This all makes sense when you hear that powerful noise.
17. Tim Time
If you’re into salsa music, you may hear the high-pitched and enthusiastic sound of Timbales. These are pairs of open bottomed drums in metal shells, similar to tom toms but cranked nice and tight to reach that joyful tone.
18. Da Gem Be Djembe
The Djembe is a beautiful and recognisable drum from West Africa. Traditionally it used goat skin (the tougher the better) and was loud enough to form communication between tribes.
It’s full of history, easy to use and makes a nice ornament. To add nuance to this section, it’s also popular in development training and team building strategy in the west. Imagine sitting in a large drum circle with friends or colleagues, coming together in rhythmic-cooperation.
19. I Need Some Plaster And A Naked Man
Another member of the percussive bass section, tam-tams have a broad range of epic sounds, using a variety of mallets.
The British film makers The Rank Organisation had a famous film opening graphic of a man striking a gong. In actual fact, the instrument he struck was made of plaster and paper, only present for visual effect. The noise you hear is a recording of the tam-tam.
20. You’re Meant to End With A Great Joke
What is the name given to a group playing all these fine instruments together? Answer: A ‘Percussion Ensemble’. The largest ever percussion ensemble occurred in China, with 2,398 people playing upturned plastic cups. Sorry for the double disappointment.
That's the end of our Percussion Facts... So what now?
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