The name ‘percussion’ comes from the Latin ‘percussio/percussus’, indicating beating or striking an object. Percussion instruments have been around longer than any other musical instrument, and are found in pretty much every culture. They can be ‘unpitched’, meaning that they produce a single sound which doesn’t sound like a particular musical note, and ‘pitched’, meaning that they produce notes with an identifiable musical pitch.
The most common use of percussion instruments is to provide a beat or a rhythm, often for dancing, and this is the role they play in most popular music today. In classical music, however, the rhythm is typically embedded in the melody, and the percussion section, which is positioned at the back of the orchestra behind the other instruments, is more usually used to provide emphasis and effect. This distinct use of percussion in an orchestral context led some in the early days of recorded and broadcast ‘popular’ music, especially rock and roll, to disdain the latter as ‘jungle music’, with an implied contempt for the Black African culture from which it was perceived to have originated, conveniently forgetting the ubiquitous nature of percussion and its use in traditional ‘White’ folk music as well. In other words, in its use of percussion classical music differs from the norm.
The most noticeable unpitched percussion instruments in the orchestra are the timpani, or kettledrums, which are the really big drums which are stood upright and make a sound like thunder. They are often joined by the snare drum, the bass drum, the cymbals and triangle. Other percussion instruments, including pitched percussion such as the glockenspiel and xylophone, also appear if a particular composer has included them in a piece, and percussionists typically play a range of instruments – sometimes in the same piece.
Although the strings of the piano are struck by hammers which are operated by pressing the keys it isn’t usually counted as a percussion instrument. Or a string instrument. Apart from the really unusual and archaic, such as the celesta and the harpsichord, it’s a bit of an orchestral outcast.