history

percussion instruments


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.

piano

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 composers.

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 the sound.

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.