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What Is Orchestral Percussion?

A triangle is a common auxiliary percussion instrument in an orchestra.
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  • Written By: H. Bliss
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2014
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Orchestral percussion is the collection of percussive instruments used in an orchestra. This type of percussion group arrangement is common in classical music. Many instruments can be used in orchestral percussion, and the selection largely depends on the type of music. Varieties of instruments in an orchestra include drums, melodic percussion instruments, and auxiliary percussion.

Common drum instruments in an orchestral percussion section include snare drums, bass drums, and timpani drums. The drums in an orchestral percussion section are only part of the team, as these sections generally contain a variety of melodic percussion and auxiliary instruments. Melodic percussion includes instruments like marimbas, vibraphones, and xylophones, which have tuned keys that ring out when struck by mallets. They are called melodic percussion instruments because they create a percussive sound but can also play a melody.

Though the timpani is a drum, a set of timpani drums is frequently used as a melodic element within an orchestra. Usually found in sets of four or more in an orchestra, these tuned drums are often used to create simple, booming percussive melodies. In addition to striking the head of the timpani in rhythm, the timpani player must also play the correct drum sequence to make the chosen melody. Like other instruments, a properly-prepared timpani is tuned to the correct pitch before a big performance.

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A vital part of the final touches put on the feel of a piece, auxiliary instruments are those used to make percussive sounds that are incidental in the drum pattern. Though these instruments can be used in the main beat, they are most often used to accent the overall drum beat behind an orchestral piece. Types of instruments commonly included in auxiliary percussion include a wind chime tree, a cowbell, and a gong. Cymbals, triangles, and wood blocks are also common auxiliary percussion instruments.

Auxiliary instruments in an orchestral percussion section can be almost anything that makes a percussive sound. One famous piece, the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, calls for bells, chimes, and cannon fire as part of its auxiliary percussion. Though it is often thought of as a featured instrument that produces beautiful arpeggios that seem to suspend themselves in the air, in orchestras, it is frequently classified as a percussive instrument. This is because the harp will often play plucked parts that are similar in sequence to other melodic percussion instruments like the xylophone.

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