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What Are the Different Types of Marching Band Percussion?

Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

Marching band percussion consists of drums, cymbals and other mallet percussion instruments, such as the glockenspiel and the occasional timpani (kettle drum). Drums of the marching band percussion unit commonly consist of the snare, the tenor and the bass drum. For the most part, the drums are all worn on the drummer's body, suspended from a brace or a support that places the drum's weight on the wearer's shoulders and back. The tenor drum is a multi-unit drum that is available in several sizes to best suit the marching band percussion unit's needs. While the glockenspiel and timpani are not as widely used as they once were, several large marching bands continue to use these instruments.

Percussion instruments are used primarily to provide a beat for the rest of the marching band to follow. The marching band percussion also provides and sets the tempo for each piece of music that is played by the band. This is especially important with a marching band where not only the count of the music must be considered, but where the count of the march must also be cognitively recognized and monitored by the musicians. Many of the crowd-pleasing numbers as well as the cheers shouted as the team scores are backed by music from the marching band percussion players.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Many times, when marching in a parade, the marching band percussion is used to mark the rhythm of the march. This can be through the use of the snare, tenor or bass drum alone, or in conjunction with the cymbals. Occasionally, the drummers will simply rap their drumsticks together to sound a marching rhythm. During large shows such as a homecoming football game, the marching band percussion unit may be joined by a stationary percussion unit known as the front ensemble. This front ensemble may contain a full drum set or drum kit, as well as a kettle drum.

Parts of the marching band percussion unit that are placed in the front ensemble are done so, in part, due to the difficulty or impossibility of the player marching while playing the instrument. Thus, a full drum kit or a kettle drum must be played from a stationary position. One exception for this is during some parades when these large instruments can be played from a moving trailer pulled along with the rest of the marching band. Special visual effects created by the marching band percussion players, such as cymbal flips and exaggerated drumstick height, are intended to thrill the onlookers and add a visual element and appeal to the musical selection.

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Discussion Comments


I have noticed a lot more bands having front ensembles even though I have usually heard them called pit percussion. I think having the extra instruments adds a lot to a marching band show.

Timpanis are a very important part of most songs. There is no other instrument that has that same sort of sound and not having it present can make some songs kind of boring. Besides that, a lot of the pit percussion is stuff like marimbas and xylophones. These instruments are important, because they can actually play individual notes whereas snare drums can just make a couple of different sounds. Besides those things, the front percussionists can play smaller things like shakers that also add a lot to songs.

Even though a lot of the pit percussionists are just stationary at their instruments during the show, I have still seen times where they can run around and add to the visuals of a performance.


When I was in band in high school and college the drums played what was called a cadence during parades or whenever we were just marching from one place to another. In more serious situations like a military band or during a Memorial Day parade or something, there might just be a drummer playing regular beats, but I think most often bands use cadences.

We always had unique cadences that changed every year. I think it would be very challenging to write one. If you are familiar with percussion it might not be too hard to write something for the percussion sections, but doing a cadence involves a lot more. It has to be something that is flashy and will keep the audience interested, but it also has to be something that still has a solid beat. If it doesn't, then the rest of the band will have a hard time keeping in step to it.


@Izzy78 - A glockenspiel is sort of like a xylophone except it sounds different. When they are part of a marching band, they usually just sit like a snare drum in front of the person.

As far as drums getting more attention than the rest of the band, I think I would agree. Besides what you mentioned, I think part of it, too, is that the percussion has more opportunities to be flashy, whereas there is only so much someone playing a wind instrument can do.

Percussion, at least at the college level, has gotten to the point where some people watch the band specifically to see what the drums do. I have seen some pretty wild acts with drummers throwing their sticks through the air at each other like they were juggling and another show where they played each others drums at the same time.


This might be a silly question, but what is a glockenspiel? I have watched a lot of marching band shows in my life, but I have never heard of that.

I think the percussion is usually the best part of any marching band show. Besides driving the band along, they usually have some sort of featured set partway through the performance. I don't remember the drum solos being as common when I was younger, but as of late I have noticed them a lot more. They have even gotten to the point where they are the focus of movies.

It seems like whenever a band makes some sort of appearance on TV or something it is always the percussion section that gets the most attention. I guess because even people who don't really like marching band music can relate to hearing percussion.

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