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What Is a Percussion Ensemble?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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A percussion ensemble is a group of musicians who play only percussion instruments. These ensembles focus primarily on the rhythmic aspect of music rather than melody, although some percussion instruments are considered melodic. Many different types of these ensembles are found worldwide.

Members of a percussion ensemble typically play instruments such as triangles, cowbells, xylophones, chimes, windchimes, vibraphones and various types of drums, the most common of which are the snare and bass. More contemporary pieces may call for nontraditional items that can be percussed to make a sound, such as bowls or trash can lids. In many instances, percussionists in a percussion ensemble must perform on multiple percussion instruments within the same composition. For example, the composer may have one player play both the triangle and cowbell, typically switching back and forth between the instruments as the music progresses.

Those who play in a percussion ensemble are not required to memorize their parts in most cases. The fact that one player may be assigned to cover multiple instruments, however, often means that players do this naturally, as players may have to move around significantly to properly perform on each instrument. Percussion ensemble players are able to do this easily because they understand how the part for each instrument fits into the overall tapestry of the composition, not unlike an organist who sees the right hand, left hand and foot pedal lines as independent parts of a larger whole. If a piece is too long or difficult to memorize, players place multiple copies of the sheet music on different stands strategically placed among the instruments, making it unnecessary to move the sheet music around during the performance.

The wide array of instruments available to percussionists means that there are a plethora of different orchestrations available in the composer's percussion ensemble palette. Percussion ensembles fall roughly into four major categories, which include traditional, contemporary, world and marching.

Traditional percussion ensembles play primarily classical percussion works. These works generally are for anywhere from two to twenty players. They may follow well-known classical forms, having multiple movements.

Contemporary percussion ensembles expand on the work of traditional percussion ensembles. These ensembles push the boundaries, experimenting with different sounds and rhythmic combinations. They are more likely to use non-traditional instruments.

World percussion ensembles concentrate on preserving authentic percussion sounds from many different countries. For example, they may play pieces that feature instruments common to South America like the claves or the metallophones common to the Indonesian region. These groups want to promote percussion music as its own art, but they also are strong advocates for unity and cultural appreciation.

Marching percussion ensembles usually are used in parades and formal ceremonies. They feature instruments such as the snare, toms, bass drums and xylophones. Although these groups are more limited in terms of the instruments they can use due to the fact everything played must be carried, they often produce elaborate showmanship, producing complex choreographed movements and sequences.

The dynamic range of a percussion ensemble varies considerably based on the writing of the composer and number of performers in the group. A large marching corp, for example, which may boast as many as 200 members and rarely perform indoors because it may produce a volume so intense that members of the group have to wear earplugs to protect their hearing as they play. Smaller groups have an easier time getting down to a true piano, or soft dynamic, but they lack the numbers to match the volume of the large ensembles. The sound in smaller groups, however, still can be loud enough for players to take precautions for their hearing and the hearing of their audience.

Percussion ensembles have been used for thousands of years in some form. The earliest ensembles were designed to communicate messages from village to village, often in times of celebration or war. These groups did not necessarily have formal sequences, but certain drums often communicated specific concepts such as the need for aid or the fact a wedding was happening. Often percussionists in these groups played in tandem with aerophone players who played early types of horns.

Even though percussion ensembles have been used for communication in some form since ancient times, in formal music, percussionists played a fairly minimal role until around the 19th century. It was not until this point that composers were able to experiment more freely with sound and form and began to leave tonality behind. The abandonment of tonality meant that percussionists no longer had to remain in the background of ensembles and could be featured as virtuosos in their own right.

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