Guide To Orchestral Scoring In Studio One – Part 1 Intro & Basics: Percussion

Part 1 Intro & Basics Continued

5. Section Review: Percussion

Percussion instruments have been around since the dawn of humanity. They are the eldest of all instrument families (save, arguably, for the human voice). Some of the earliest specimens in the form of shaped rocks have been dated to around 165,000 years ago. In modern times, the instruments have matured somewhat from their geological ancestors, yet the basic principal remains unchanged. These can be tuned or untuned, are sounded by being struck, scraped, shaken or rubbed.

The contemporary composer has a staggering myriad of options to consider when scoring for percussion. Not only is the percussion family the most diverse and populous family of instruments that we have, the percussion section of the orchestra is also the most likely to include unusual or nonstandard instruments. It is even common to improvise new instruments on an ad-hoc basis in order to achieve a particular sound. While there are certain percussion instruments that are commonly found in orchestral music, one never knows what will be found there from one composer, from one orchestra, from one region and from one era to the next. The task of indexing percussion instruments (even those commonly found in orchestral music) is a gargantuan undertaking for even the most ambitious reference volumes. We will therefore focus on a handful of instruments that have become standard in this section for the last three centuries or so.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, composers started to write for instruments then commonly used in Turkish military music such as the snare drum, triangle and cymbals. The end of the eighteenth century saw the widespread adoption of the timpani which had evolved from earlier military drums. These are the most ubiquitous percussion instruments of the modern orchestra, and should become a familiar part of any orchestral composers’ palette, and such we will discuss these instruments in some detail later.

With the rise of exoticism and nationalistic art music in the late eighteenth century, ethnic percussion instruments such as the castanets, tambourine, gong and tubular bells came into widespread use also. Many composers either originated from or became interested in simulating the music of Africa, South & Central America and the far east. The percussion instruments of these regions are very distinctive sounding, thus they were exceedingly useful in imitating the music of these exotic places.


The timpani are large skin drums played as a pair or a set. Each drum is fitted with a foot pedal that allows the player to change pitch quickly and easily, and even perform glissandi. The most conventional use of the timpani during the classical period was to strengthen the tonic and dominant notes of a passage and to add power and cacophony to climactic points and cadences (usually in tutti).

The timpani are extraordinarily versatile- as well as individual notes; rolls are very effective for creating atmosphere. Glissandi are easy to perform within the range of the mechanical pedal, and the dynamic range is extremely great.


Cymbals are large brass discs that can be played either as a pair (one in either hand) or individually (suspended).

  • Two cymbals manually clanged together loudly are used to add emphasis to climactic points, cadences, or changes of section. When played softly, the same technique is often used to mark the beat.
  • Tremolo is achieved on a suspended cymbal in orchestral music by rapidly striking it with a soft mallet. This, when combined with a gradual crescendo, produces a very effective way of building tension immediately before a climactic or dramatic moment in the music.
  • Cymbals can be swished across one another to produce a hissing effect. This special effect produces a tone that is rich in high harmonics, and thus can sound harsh and piercing.

Many genres of contemporary popular music use the cymbals in similar ways, so this should be rather familiar to anyone who has a knowledge of rock and pop music.


Most likely of Turkish origin, this is one of the eldest unpitched percussion instruments in the orchestra. It has a high, metallic sound that cuts through even a dense texture. In orchestral music, it is mostly used to mark time, emphasize particular rhythms, or when played tremolo, give luminescence to a large chord.

Snare Drum

A small drum with steel wires stretched over the bottom skin, the snare drum has a long history in orchestral music. The crack of the snares give a crisp, sharp sound that is excellent for playing concise rhythmic patterns. In late romantic music, the snare drum was sometimes played on the off-beat to keep time (especially in dance music such as waltzes and mazurkas) Marking the backbeat (2 & 4) with the snare drum as is omnipresent in contemporary popular music, is very rare in conventional orchestral music. Ostinati and discrete rhythmic patterns are more common. Military uses of the drum typically involved repeated figures, triplets, rolls and flams (grace notes). These have persevered through the centuries and are particularly useful for passages that allude to this type of military music.

Bass Drum

A large drum played with soft mallets or wooden drumsticks, this drum has an extremely low and deep sound. It is capable of playing at the extremes of both loud and soft. The bass drum is often used to add emphasis to strong beats and important points in the music. When used in this way, it is often doubled with the crash cymbals. At low volumes, and especially when rolls are used, the bass drum excels simulating distant thunder, or evoking a feeling of dread.