6 Types of Drums Used in an Orchestra

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Orchestral percussion usually doesn’t require a drum set but we see one in several compositions. The popularity of drums in orchestras dates back to the earliest of times.

People have been using different types of drums in an orchestra to maintain the rhythm, produce unique sounds, and add excitement to the performance ever since.

Let’s discuss the anatomy, origin, and function of different drums used in an orchestra.

1. Timpani

No orchestral percussion is complete without a timpani!

Timpani resembles big polished bowls or upside-down teakettles in appearance and thereby, they’re often called ‘kettledrums’.

These drums look like large copper pots featuring drumheads typically made of calfskin or sometimes simply plastic stretched over their tops.

The best thing about timpani is that they are tuned instruments, meaning you can use them to produce different sounds to play different notes.

Drummers can loosen or stretch the drumheads attached to the foot pedal to change the pitch while playing in an orchestra. The weight of a single timpani drum can be as much as 140 pounds!

Timpani drums are an important member of the orchestral percussion family because they support the rhythm, melody, and harmony of the music.

Most orchestras feature a set of four timpani where each is of different size and set to a unique pitch.

Typically, one musician plays them by hitting the drumheads with mallets or wooden sticks.

Great timpani players all have one thing in common – good ears. This is because they often need to change the pitch of the drum multiple times during a single performance.

2. Snare Drum

The snare drum is one of the orchestral percussion instruments that you can easily spot from a distance.

Also known as simply the snare, a snare drum is a small drum made of wood or brass. The drumhead is made of either calfskin or plastic stretched over the ends of a hollow cylinder.

The unique rattling sound of a snare drum comes from a set of wire-wrapped strings stretched across the snare, bottom head.

Drummers can turn the snare on or off to meet the requirements of the musical piece using the small switch located on the side of the drum.

As an untuned drum, it doesn’t allow the drummers to play with distinctive pitches. It is used to accent the rhythm and for playing special sounds in an orchestra, particularly in pieces with a military or marching band theme.

A snare drum is played by hitting the drumheads with drumsticks, mallets, or brushes.

When played and tuned correctly, it can produce sounds ranging from quick and short to warm and thick tunes.

It is usually used in orchestra to support and accentuate the rhythms played by the trumpets throughout the performance.

This drum is typically used in a rock and roll setting, however, the rhythms are distinct to how one would play this drum in an orchestral setting.

3. Bass Drum

drum, bass drum, bass

A bass drum is perhaps the biggest instrument in the orchestral percussion family that can make loud and soft sounds.

The built of this drum resembles that of a large snare drum minus the snare. Unlike a snare drum, a bass drum turned to its side and struck laterally.

It is played by striking the drumheads with soft-headed sticks that usually have a covering of sheepskin or felt.

Expert drummers use this drum to produce a variety of sounds, including both loud thunderous notes to soft whisper-like sounds.

In orchestra, a bass drum plays a crucial role in creating the overall feel of the performance. As per the orchestral literature, this drum is typically used to support, color, and shade the orchestral sounds rather than to provide a solid foundation for rhythm as it does in marching bands.

Drummers use this drum to accentuate the strong points of musical composition and combine it with cymbals to improve the overall beat.

Considering the list of variables that are subject to change during the playing of a bass drum, including beater, stroke, beating location, and muffling, the drummers require a certain level of skill to play this drum in an orchestral setting.

This drum is actually the same drum used in a rock and roll set up however unlike rock and roll it is hit with your hand as opposed to your foot.

4. Tambourine

A tambourine is a small drum with a wooden or plastic frame featuring a set of metal jingles at the edges.

Both the drumhead and the jingles are unturned and so, the variety of pitches to be produced by the drum is pretty limited.

Drummers are required to hold the drum in one hand and tap, shake or hit it with the other hand to produce the desired sounds.

5. Xylophone

Xylophones are percussion instruments that also produce melody and harmony.

They are set up like a piano where the white keys are closer to the player and the black keys are positioned a level up and a little bit farther away from the player.

Though it is set up like a piano you play this instrument with mallets.

Its diameter ranges from 3-5 feet long depending on the size of the instrument and how many octaves it contains. Due to its size and composition, it produces loud yet wooden bell-like sounds.

When playing in an orchestral setting, xylophone players typically consider the feel of the musical piece as well as the time when it was composed to produce the desired sounds with a concert tom.

6. Gong

Gongs are an uncommon type of cymbal that is somewhat different to other types of cymbals. The main difference is that these produce a very distinct low-pitched ‘trashy’ and robust’ sound. This is distinct from other cymbals that can produce high-pitched twinkling sounds.

Gong drums are used to produce loud sounds with low pitches. In orchestral percussion, drummers use these drums to signal the start or end of certain sections.

More orchestra instruments

So, this was a list of popular drums used in an orchestra. How many of these did you already know of?

In modern orchestral percussion, players use different combinations of these drums with other percussion instruments to produce heartfelt musical pieces.

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