An orchestra is a large group of instrumentalists led by a conductor. They typically have four sections which include strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
Most people associate orchestras with classical music, meaning many people don’t listen to them. However, that’s not true. The biggest platform for orchestras to be heard in the modern world is in films.
Whether it be in concert or film, every instrument plays its part in adding to the composition. One of the most important sections that add to suspenseful moments is the percussion section. Percussion instruments are essential for giving the orchestra some rhythmic backing.
There are several types of percussion instruments in the orchestra and each one serves a unique purpose.
Snare drums are one of the main instruments of the percussion section. They’re typically 14 inches in size and are placed on a snare stand at the height of your hips. They’re called snare drums because they have a group of metal wires attached to the bottom head that causes the drums to rattle. These snare wires can be turned off so that the drum produces a solid earthy sound.
Snare drums can be made of different shell materials to get unique tones. Metal snares are loud and cracking while wood snares are warm. Every snare has that distinct sound, but the shell variety adds subtle differences. They also come in different sizes that range from 12 inches to 14 inches. The smaller the snare, the higher the pitch.
In terms of tuning, orchestral snares are generally tuned somewhere from low to medium. This is the case in most orchestras. However, a composer might call for a tight snare sound.
The purpose of a snare in the orchestra is to create suspense and flair with things like drum rolls and quick rhythms. Faster rhythms are easier to play with two sticks on a tight surface.
Bass drums support the lower end of the sound spectrum in an orchestra and provide ‘oomph’ from the percussion section. A typical bass drum would be a large drum mounted onto a structure in front of the player and he’d be able to play both sides of it. However, most percussionists just play on one side.
Concert bass drums range from 18 to 26 inches. The bigger the size, the lower and more boomy the sound. A percussionist will use mallets to play the bass drum instead of sticks. If you used a stick, you’d get a sharp attacking tone instead of the resonating boom that most composers want. So, a thicker mallet with a wool tip does the job very well.
Concert bass drum notes are more spaced out in compositions than snare notes, meaning you don’t hear them as frequently. Their resonant sound and low thud make them a great tool for keeping rhythms as well as emphasizing strong sections.
Cymbals provide all the clashing effects sounds in the percussion section. Similar to the ones on a drum kit, some of them are suspended on hardware stands and can be played by a drum stick.
There are a few types of cymbals used in orchestras with the most popular ones having straps. These strapped cymbals are meant to be held in your hands and then clashed together to make a solid impact.
Another type that is fairly common is a gong. Gongs are massive and can range from 30 inches to 40 inches. They’re often used in Eastern compositions.
There are no limits to the types of cymbals used in orchestras, meaning hi-hats, chinas, splashes, and crashes are all fair game.
Timpanis are massive percussive instruments that are also known as kettle drums. A standard setup would have the percussionist sitting in the middle of 4 of them. They are played with mallets and can be tuned to produce different pitches and tones.
Each timpani has a pedal that gets pushed to change its pitch. The percussionist usually has to tune the 4 timpanis to certain tones that are required in the song. If the tones are out of key, the timpanis are going to sound quite off from the composition.
Typically, an orchestra will have a dedicated timpani player. These drums can get complex as you sometimes have to change the pitches in the middle of songs.
You will often hear timpanis in film scores as they produce a huge cinematic sound when played hard and aggressively.
Some of the smaller instruments in the percussion section would be ones that are placed on small stands. This would include bells, tambourines, whistles, cowbells, wood blocks, vibroslaps, shakers, and cabasas.
Bells are used to enhance some music styles such as such as festive compositions. Tambourines are crescent-shaped and produce aggressive jingle sounds. Whistles, cowbells, and woodblocks are all used for certain rhythmic and tonal effects.
A vibroslap is an instrument that has a ball connected to a rod. When you hit the rod, some metal parts slap together and make a rattling sound. Surprisingly, vibroslaps are used more often than you think they would be.
A cabasa is a group of metal beads that you turn to produce a rattling sound that is a bit heavier than a shaker.
All these small percussion instruments make a huge impact and are vitally important in bringing percussion parts to life in a score.
Many percussion instruments originate from Africa. These instruments have a distinct African tone, giving them their own category in this list. Orchestras often pull inspiration from different cultures, meaning you’re going to need some instruments that reflect those cultures. Some African instruments would include kalimbas, marimbas, and djembes.
Kalimbas are also referred to as thumb pianos. They’re melodic percussion instruments that produce a tin-like sound. You hold them in your hand and flick the metal rods with your thumbs to create notes.
Marimbas are large xylophones that are made entirely of wood. They have an earthy tone and perfectly reflect the African sound.
Djembes are similar to bongos. However, they’re a lot bigger and you play them by sitting and placing them between your legs and hitting them with your hands. They have a warm tone and produce an earthy accented sound when you hit the rim of the head.
The most used pitched percussion instruments in orchestras are xylophones and glockenspiels. They’re two very similar instruments that are played the same way. However, they have some big differences.
Firstly, glockenspiels are a lot smaller and produce a higher frequency of sounds. All the notes of the glockenspiel are high notes, so it’s often used to play melodies. The xylophone has a lower register and can be used to play chords. Many orchestral percussionists will hold two mallets in each hand to play the xylophone.
Glockenspiels produce a screeching metal tone whereas xylophones sound a bit warmer. Both these instruments have their place and you’ll find that they’re often placed right next to each other in an orchestral percussion section.
Modern day compositions often call for sounds that can’t be created by acoustic instruments. This is where electronics come in. Percussionists in an orchestra will have sample pads which are percussive pads that you can hit to play electronic sounds.
Sample pads such as the Roland SPD-SX provide a huge amount of electronic features that can benefit the orchestra whether it be synth sounds or huge reverb effects.
The sample pads are also useful for when the percussion section is lacking resources. You can play timpanis, xylophones, and everything in between. It’s a great alternative. However, it won’t sound as authentic as the real things.
How Important Is Orchestral Percussion?
Orchestral percussion arguably isn’t as important as the melodic instruments in the orchestra. The melodic instruments create the tunes and provide all the musical sounds, giving you a composition to listen to. However, orchestral percussion comes in to play when intensity needs to be added.
Imagine a drummer playing in a rock band and how he’ll start to play harder as the song builds. It’s the same with orchestral percussion. The only difference is that there will be more than one musician playing the percussion parts.
Some songs absolutely require percussion parts. Think of the Imperial March from Star Wars. It has a snare part that drives the marching feel of the whole piece. If the snare was missing, the piece wouldn’t sound as intense and perhaps lose its effectiveness.
Difference Between Drummers and Percussionists?
The biggest difference between drummers and orchestral percussionists is that drummers only play one instrument. A percussionist has a station and it’s his job to run around that station during a performance to play all the parts written out for him. He’ll need to play a few tambourine notes and then jump over to the bass drum to hit some accents.
Another huge difference is that drummers don’t read notation while percussionists in an orchestra do. When playing orchestral music, everything is written out in a score. The score keeps everyone together and makes sure that they play the same thing every performance. Percussionists need to be excellent notation readers as they have to read all kinds of notes and rests. You’ll often see a percussionist waiting for a hundred bars before he plays his next note. It’s noble work!
Some orchestras have a drum kit player. This is a fairly modern trend and not something you’ll see too often. However, the drum kit will add some flair to a song. Percussionists and drum kit players working together can sound very effective.
Drummers would only be able to play in orchestra percussion sections if they had excellent reading abilities. Otherwise, they will probably get lost in the scores.
Orchestral Percussion as a Profession
You may be wondering how professional orchestral percussionists make a living. Drum kit players will play in different bands that gig in clubs, pubs, and big stages whereas orchestras have a lot more people involved. Because orchestras are so large, they have to play in concert halls or outside venues.
Many musicians will be part of one orchestra as their full-time job. They’ll go to rehearsals every day and then play shows with the group wherever they’re planned. Some orchestras have set weekly gigs, providing stability to all the musicians involved.
Other orchestra musicians will act as freelancers and get hired for different projects. This is often the case with musicians that record film scores.
Orchestras are a lot more common in some countries than others. So, if you’re thinking of being a full-time orchestra musician, you’d have to be in a place where the scene is booming.
Every instrument in the percussion section requires a great amount of skill with your hands. Percussionists often get given a hard time by fellow band members. However, percussion can be hugely important and is in fact a lot of fun to play. If you’re thinking of joining an orchestra, maybe percussion is something you could do.