A percussion instrument is any object which produces a sound by being hit with an implement, shaken, rubbed, scraped, or by any other action which sets the object into vibration. The term usually applies to an object used in a rhythmic context or with musical intent.
The word "percussion" has evolved from Latin terms: "percussio" (which translates as "to beat, strike" in the musical sense, rather than the violent action), and "percussus" (which is a noun meaning "a beating"). As a noun in contemporary English it is described at percussion as "the collision of two bodies to produce a sound". The usage of the term is not unique to music but has application in medicine and weaponry, as in percussion cap, but all known and common uses of the word, "percussion", appear to share a similar lineage beginning with the original Latin: "percussus". In a musical context then, the term "percussion instruments" may have been coined originally to describe a family of instruments including drums, rattles, metal plates, or wooden blocks which musicians would beat or strike (as in a collision) to produce sound.
Anthropologists and historians often speculate that percussion instruments were the first musical devices ever created. The human voice was probably the first musical instrument, but percussion instruments such as hands and feet, then sticks, rocks, and logs were almost certainly the next steps in the evolution of music.
The earliest percussion instruments were our hands and feet, then "found" objects such as sticks, logs, and hips. As human communities developed tools for hunting and eventually agriculture, their skill and technology enabled them to craft more complex instruments. For example, a simple log may have been carved to produce louder tones (a log drum) and instruments may have been combined to produce multiple tones (as in a 'set' of log drums).
Percussion instruments are sometimes classified as being "pitched" or "unpitched." While valid, this classification is widely seen as inadequate. Rather, it may be more informative to describe percussion instruments in regards to one or more of the following four paradigms:
"Idiophones produce sounds through the vibration of their entire body." Examples of idiophones:
Examples of membranophones:
For example, some percussion instruments (such as the marimba and timpani) produce an obvious fundamental pitch and can therefore play melody and serve harmonic functions in music. Other instruments (such as crash cymbals and snare drums) produce sounds with such complex overtones and a wide range of prominent frequencies that no pitch is discernible.
Examples of percussion instruments with definite pitch:
Examples of percussion instruments with indefinite pitch:
For example, it is safe to argue that most people would not consider an anvil, a brake drum (the circular hub on modern vehicles which houses the brakes), or a fifty-five gallon oil barrel to be musical instruments, yet these objects are used regularly by composers and percussionists of modern music.
One might assign various percussion instruments to one of the following categories:
John Cage, Harry Partch, Edgard Varèse, and Peter Schickele, all noted composers, created entire pieces of music using unconventional instruments. Beginning in the early 20th century, perhaps with Ionisation by Edgard Varèse which used air-raid sirens (among other things), composers began to require percussionists to invent or "find" objects to produce the desired sounds and textures. By late 20th century, such instruments had become common in modern percussion ensemble music and popular productions, such as the off-Broadway show, Stomp.
Percussion is commonly referred to as "the backbone" or "the heartbeat" of a musical ensemble, often working in close collaboration with bass instruments, when present. In jazz and other popular music ensembles, the bassist and the drummer are often referred to as the rhythm section. Most classical pieces written for full orchestra since the time of Haydn and Mozart are orchestrated to place emphasis on the strings, woodwinds, and brass. However, often at least one pair of timpani is included, though they rarely play continuously. Rather, they serve to provide additional accents when needed. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other percussion instruments (like the triangle or cymbals) have been used, again relatively sparingly in general. The use of percussion instruments became more frequent in the twentieth century classical music.
In almost every style of music, percussion plays a pivotal role. In military marching bands and pipes and drums, it is the beat of the bass drum that keeps the soldiers in step and at a regular speed, and it is the snare that provides that crisp, decisive air to the tune of a regiment. In classic jazz, one almost immediately thinks of the distinctive rhythm of the hi-hats or the ride cymbal when the word "swing" is spoken. In more recent popular music culture, it is almost impossible to name three or four rock, hip-hop, rap, funk or even soul charts or songs that do not have some sort of percussive beat keeping the tune in time.
Because of the diversity of percussive instruments, it is not uncommon to find large musical ensembles composed entirely of percussion. Rhythm, melody and harmony are all apparent and alive in these musical groups, and in live performance they are quite a sight to see.