What Are the Different Types of Pitched Percussion?

Judith Smith Sullivan

There are many types of pitched percussion. The term simply means that the percussion instrument is tuned to a certain musical note. Technically, the piano is a pitched percussion instrument. Pitched percussion typically found in orchestras and bands are mallet percussion instruments, timpani, chimes, the celeste, crotales, and wood blocks. Although not typically used in orchestras, steel drums are also a type of pitched percussion.

The marimba is a pitched percussion instrument that uses a mallet.
The marimba is a pitched percussion instrument that uses a mallet.

A percussion instrument is any instrument that is struck to produce a sound. The piano actually uses felt lined hammers to strike the strings to create a sound. Since each string is tuned to a certain note, the piano is a pitched percussion instrument.

Pitched percussion may be featured in orchestras.
Pitched percussion may be featured in orchestras.

Mallet instruments, also called keyboard percussion, are also pitched percussion instruments. The most common of these are the marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel, also known as orchestra bells. Each of these instruments has tone bars organized in a keyboard style, meaning they are arranged like a piano keyboard. Like the piano's black keys and white keys, which group the black keys in twos and threes on a higher plane than the white keys, mallet percussion instruments are also arranged in two planes. The tone bars on mallet percussion are all the same color, but part of the bars are placed on a higher plane and grouped in twos and threes.

The timpani is another type of pitched percussion instrument. Also called the kettle drum, timpani are bowl shaped drums which have a skin stretched over the top. The skin is struck with a large, soft mallet, and the bowl causes the sound to reverberate. Typically, an orchestra has three or four timpani drums.

The size and shape of the bowl, as well as the tightness of the skin, affect the pitch of timpani. Some timpani have pedals which are connected to the skin so that timpani players can adjust the pitch of their drums more quickly. In many cases, the players must change the pitch in the middle of a piece of music, which is difficult and requires significant practice.

Chimes are long, cylindrical metal tubes. The length of the tube determines the pitch of the instrument. They are hung from a stand and struck with a mallet. The pitch is piercing, and typically, only used as an accent instrument in musical arrangements.

A celeste is a keyboard instrument that is shaped like a small piano. Inside, felt lined hammers strike metal bars. This produces a bell-like sound that is often described as "tinkling." Crotales are also a type of bells, but they are struck individually with mallets. They are shaped like tiny cymbals and mounted on a bracket.

Woodblocks are mounted in a line and struck with mallets. They are hollow and tuned to a set of notes. Since the wood is prone to a cracking, only soft mallets made of rubber or wrapped in yarn are used.

Steel drums are cylindrical drums, originally made from metal barrels. The head of the drum is concave with many indentions, each of which, has a different pitch. The barrel is typically cut to a shorter height, in some cases only a few inches high. Streel drums are used as a solo instrument and also in musical groups called steel bands.

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