What Is the Percussion Family?

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  • Written By: Lumara Lee
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Drums are the most common members of the percussion family, but there are many other kinds of percussion instruments. Triangles, cowbells, wood blocks, claves, and cymbals are struck with sticks, while maracas and gourds are shaken to produce sound. The piano may be classified as a keyboard instrument, but it is also in the percussion family because strings are struck to sound the notes when keys are depressed.

Common objects can be turned into percussion instruments. If an object makes a noise when it is scraped, hit, or shaken, it can be considered a member of the percussion family. For example, a jar filled with shells or pebbles becomes a rattle when it is shaken to produce sound, and a hollow log beaten with a club becomes a drum. Babies often bang toys against furniture, enjoying the sounds of their playful percussion.

Some instruments in the percussion family besides the piano can produce different notes. Tuned percussion instruments include the steel drum, hand bells, timpani, glockenspiel, and xylophone. Most percussion instruments aren’t tuned, and can only play one note.

Castanets and finger cymbals are worn on the fingers and struck together to produce a rhythm. A person playing these smallest members of the percussion family is then free to dance. Tambourines and rattles are shaken to produce sound, and these instruments are also small enough for some performers to play a rhythm while dancing.


Drums are available in many varieties. Hand drums, also known as frame drums, are among the oldest percussion instruments. They have been widely used by many different cultures. The hand drum played an important role in Native American ceremonies, while the Irish developed the bodhran to beat out the rhythm of jigs and reels.

Hand drums are held in one hand and struck with either a beater or the other hand to make a sound. The original frame drums were made of animal skin stretched over a shallow wooden frame. These are still in use today, but hand drums with synthetic skins are also available. Animal skins stretch in humid conditions, interfering with sound, while synthetic heads maintain their tone regardless of the weather.

Many serious percussionists play drum sets. Also known as drum kits or trap sets, a basic kit contains a snare drum played with a pair of drumsticks, cymbals struck with a drumstick, and a bass drum. The bass drum is operated with a foot pedal, leaving the hands free to play other instruments.


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