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What is Auxiliary Percussion?

Auxiliary percussion encompasses the diverse array of instruments that add texture and rhythm to music, from the crisp claves to the resonant tambourine. These instruments often provide the unique accents that make a piece memorable. Curious about how these sounds shape your favorite tunes? Dive deeper with us to discover the heartbeat of auxiliary percussion in music.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Auxiliary percussion — sometimes referred to as ancillary percussion, toys, or sound effects — includes many of the smaller percussion instruments and those particularly that are not standard to the orchestra. Using the standard categories for typing percussion instruments, we can say that most auxiliary percussion instruments are either aerophones — instruments that create sound using air — or idiophones — instruments that create sound through the material they are made of, not through the application of an external sound-making tool, like a bow or a reed.

Auxiliary percussion aerophones include sirens and whistles. This set of instrument primarily adapts sounds from the “real world” to the orchestral environment. Some are based on warning sounds. Whistles may be made of plastic, wood, or metal. Some whistles are built for a single pitch, while others have multiple pitches.

The rubberboard, or frottoir, is a type of percussion instrument used in zydeco music.
The rubberboard, or frottoir, is a type of percussion instrument used in zydeco music.

The siren is a small boat warning signal in which the pitch rises and falls. There are also realistic sounding tugboat and locomotive whistles among the auxiliary percussion, which are recognizable as the sound that we write as "choo choo" in children’s books.

A wide range of bird whistles also reside in the category of auxiliary percussion. These include cuckoo, dove and pigeon, nightingale, jay and magpie, and warbler. And then there is the samba whistle, sometimes called a carnival whistle—an important element of Brazilian music and having up to three tones.

The idiophones included in auxiliary percussion are varied and we will consider three main groups. Percussion idiophones produce sound when struck with a mallet or beater. This group includes Chinese or Korean temple blocks, wooden chambers that characteristically come in sets of five, pitched from high to low; the triangle, a metal instrument in a triangle shape, suspended and struck with a metal beater; and woodblocks, hollowed blocks of wood with a slit opening, often in sets of three pitched high, medium, and low. Also included are the brake drum, a piece of an automobile that may be played with drum sticks, and the thunder sheet, which may be either beaten or shaken to produce a sound like a thunderstorm.

A second set of idiophones included in the auxiliary percussion is the scraped idiophones. This group features the ratchet, which produces a metallic clicking sound when its handle is turned; the musical saw, a pitched instrument that is held between the knees and played with a violin bow; and sandpaper blocks, blocks of wood with sandpaper attached and rubbed together to make a scraping sound.

Finally, we may turn to the shaken idiophones. In this group of auxiliary percussion, we find, first of all, rattles and shakers – solid shapes filled with loose particles that make a sound by hitting against the sides and other particles. This group also includes sleigh bells, a set of bells attached to a cloth band, and the tambourine, which can be shaken to set the metal disks jangling. Interestingly enough, if the tambourine has a head, and it is struck to produce sound, it is then considered a membranophone because the tone is produced by setting the stretched membrane vibrating.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is auxiliary percussion?

Auxiliary percussion refers to a broad category of percussion instruments that are not part of the standard drum set or primary pitched percussion like the xylophone. These instruments add unique textures and rhythms to music. They often include items like tambourines, shakers, cowbells, and woodblocks, which can be struck, shaken, or scraped to produce a variety of sounds that enhance the overall musical composition.

How is auxiliary percussion used in an orchestra?

In an orchestra, auxiliary percussion instruments serve to add color, effect, and rhythmic complexity to the music. Percussionists may switch between various instruments within a single piece, depending on the score's requirements. These instruments can punctuate musical moments, create atmospheric sounds, or drive the rhythm alongside the main percussion section. Their use is often critical in evoking specific moods or themes within a composition.

Can auxiliary percussion be the main focus in a musical piece?

While auxiliary percussion typically plays a supporting role, certain musical pieces or genres may feature these instruments prominently. For example, in Latin music, instruments like bongos and congas often take center stage, driving the rhythm and energy of the piece. Similarly, in contemporary classical or avant-garde compositions, composers might write pieces that focus on the unique sounds and capabilities of auxiliary percussion instruments.

What skills are required to play auxiliary percussion instruments?

Playing auxiliary percussion requires a diverse skill set, including precise timing, a good sense of rhythm, and the ability to quickly switch between different instruments. Musicians must also have a keen ear for the subtleties of sound each instrument produces and the dexterity to execute the various playing techniques, such as striking, shaking, or scraping, to achieve the desired musical effect.

Are there any notable composers or pieces known for their use of auxiliary percussion?

Many composers have utilized auxiliary percussion in their works to great effect. Notable examples include Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which features an extensive percussion section with various auxiliary instruments, and Steve Reich's "Clapping Music," which uses hand claps—an unconventional auxiliary percussion—to explore complex rhythms. These compositions showcase the integral role that auxiliary percussion can play in creating innovative and memorable music.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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    • The rubberboard, or frottoir, is a type of percussion instrument used in zydeco music.
      The rubberboard, or frottoir, is a type of percussion instrument used in zydeco music.