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Orchestral percussion is the collection of percussive instruments used in an orchestra. This type of percussion group arrangement is common in classical music. Many instruments can be used in orchestral percussion, and the selection largely depends on the type of music. Varieties of instruments in an orchestra include drums, melodic percussion instruments, and auxiliary percussion.
Common drum instruments in an orchestral percussion section include snare drums, bass drums, and timpani drums. The drums in an orchestral percussion section are only part of the team, as these sections generally contain a variety of melodic percussion and auxiliary instruments. Melodic percussion includes instruments like marimbas, vibraphones, and xylophones, which have tuned keys that ring out when struck by mallets. They are called melodic percussion instruments because they create a percussive sound but can also play a melody.
Though the timpani is a drum, a set of timpani drums is frequently used as a melodic element within an orchestra. Usually found in sets of four or more in an orchestra, these tuned drums are often used to create simple, booming percussive melodies. In addition to striking the head of the timpani in rhythm, the timpani player must also play the correct drum sequence to make the chosen melody. Like other instruments, a properly-prepared timpani is tuned to the correct pitch before a big performance.
A vital part of the final touches put on the feel of a piece, auxiliary instruments are those used to make percussive sounds that are incidental in the drum pattern. Though these instruments can be used in the main beat, they are most often used to accent the overall drum beat behind an orchestral piece. Types of instruments commonly included in auxiliary percussion include a wind chime tree, a cowbell, and a gong. Cymbals, triangles, and wood blocks are also common auxiliary percussion instruments.
Auxiliary instruments in an orchestral percussion section can be almost anything that makes a percussive sound. One famous piece, the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, calls for bells, chimes, and cannon fire as part of its auxiliary percussion. Though it is often thought of as a featured instrument that produces beautiful arpeggios that seem to suspend themselves in the air, in orchestras, it is frequently classified as a percussive instrument. This is because the harp will often play plucked parts that are similar in sequence to other melodic percussion instruments like the xylophone.
Frequently Asked Questions
What instruments are included in the orchestral percussion section?
The orchestral percussion section encompasses a wide variety of instruments that produce sound through striking, shaking, or scraping. This includes tuned percussion such as the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and timpani, as well as untuned percussion like snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, tambourines, and triangles. Each instrument contributes unique textures and rhythms to the orchestra's overall sound.
How does orchestral percussion contribute to the overall sound of an orchestra?
Orchestral percussion adds rhythm, color, and dynamic accents to the music. Percussion instruments can create dramatic effects, highlight rhythmic patterns, and support melodic lines. They often play a crucial role in setting the mood and atmosphere of a piece, whether it's the ominous rumble of a bass drum or the bright sparkle of a triangle. The versatility of percussion allows for a vast range of sonic possibilities within an orchestral setting.
What is the role of a timpanist in an orchestra?
The timpanist plays the timpani, also known as kettledrums, which are tuned to specific pitches and often used to reinforce the harmony. The timpanist must have a strong sense of rhythm and pitch, as well as the ability to quickly adjust the tuning of the drums during performances. They often provide rhythmic foundation and dramatic emphasis in orchestral music, making them a central figure in the percussion section.
Are there any notable composers known for their use of orchestral percussion?
Many composers are celebrated for their innovative use of orchestral percussion. Igor Stravinsky, for instance, utilized a vast array of percussion instruments in "The Rite of Spring," creating groundbreaking rhythmic complexity. Gustav Mahler and Dmitri Shostakovich also featured percussion prominently in their symphonies, using it to enhance emotional depth and intensity. Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" is another example where percussion plays a key role in driving the musical narrative.
How does one become an orchestral percussionist?
Becoming an orchestral percussionist typically requires years of dedicated study and practice. Aspiring percussionists often begin with private lessons, progress through music programs in high schools and universities, and gain experience through youth orchestras and ensembles. Mastery of multiple percussion instruments is essential, as is the ability to read complex scores and perform with precision. Many professional percussionists also hold degrees in music performance and have gone through rigorous audition processes to join an orchestra.