If you blow it, it's woodwind or brass. If you bow it, it's
string. If you hit it, it's percussion. There are lots of different
kinds of percussion instruments, and they make lots of different
sounds. In most cases you hit them with sticks or hammers (special
wooden hammers, that is, not things you use to drive in nails). But
there are also other possibilities, like tapping them with
fingertips or knuckles, or banging them together.
Maybe the ones we think of first are the drums, and there are even
lots of different kinds of those, differing in size and shape. Most
of them are hollow cylinders that have a skin stretched over the
top-normally a piece of plastic these days, rather than treated
animal skin. Big orchestras usually include a set of drums called
'timpani', which are shaped more like great big bowls, made of
copper. These can produce fairly clear notes, depending on their
size and how tight their skins are. Other drums make more of a thud
or a crack, and you can't say what the note is. They can be almost
as big as the player (bass drum) or small enough to hold in one
hand (tambourine, which has metal jangles round the rim).
Other percussion instruments are made of wood or metal. No prizes
for guessing which in the case of the woodblock. No prizes, either,
for saying what cymbals are made of. Or the little triangle, which
makes a small but penetrating ting.
Then there's another group of percussion instruments that have a
whole array of 'keys' to be hit, each making a different note-the
xylophone, for instance, where the keys are made of wood. The
glockenspiel and the vibraphone have metal keys.
And then there are bells-especially tubular bells, which are
long metal tubes that ring out when struck with a hammer.
There's really no end. Music by Beethoven, for instance, doesn't
make much use of percussion instruments, except for the timpani,
but that's very different for composers today.
The piano is classical music's default instrument. Far more has
been composed for it than for any other instrument, by nearly all
the great composers of the last three centuries. Yet still people
find new possibilities in it, performers as well as
This might seem strange, because the piano is much more like a
machine than most instruments. The pianist presses down the 'keys',
white and black, and each key makes a little wooden hammer hit a
particular length of stretched wire. These wires are tuned to the
right notes-a job that needs an expert, a 'piano tuner'. Then the
vibration of the wire, amplified by the piano's wooden frame, makes
These days a lot of pianos are electronic. Instead of hammers and
wires they have circuits that produce the sound, and it may be
quite difficult to tell you're not hearing an old-fashioned piano.
Even so, classical pianists always prefer the older kind, because
of the subtle effects they can get by how they touch the
keys-gently or sharply-and also by using the piano's pedals. All
pianos have at least two pedals. One of these-the most useful-keeps
the wires vibrating and so prolongs the sound.