Introduction to the Percussion Family ~ Non-Pitched

The percussion family has the biggest variety of all of the instrument families.Percussion instruments make sounds when they are tapped, shaken, or scraped. Some percussion instruments make several different pitches (high and low notes) and some do not.

We are going to start learning about the percussion instruments that do not make different pitches. We call them non-pitched percussion.

If this lesson seems to long for your child, you can easily break it up into two lessons. I would suggest ending with the cymbals the first day if you decide to break it up.


Bass Drum

The bass drum is the largest non-pitched drum. Since it is so large, do you think it will have a low tone or a high tone? Why?
If you said a low tone, you are correct. This is because there is a lot of room for the vibrations to move around inside of the drum. The more room there is or the bigger the instrument… the lower the tone.
Listen and watch The Basses Extravaganza. There are a variety of sizes of bass drums in this performance, so there are a few different pitches; however, each bass drum only plays a single pitch. 

Snare Drum

The snare drum is smaller than the bass drum. Will the tone be higher or lower?
If you said, “Higher,” then you are correct. 
The drummer hits the top of the snare drum with drum sticks to make a sound. This starts the vibration inside the drum.
The snare drum also has a set of wires stretched across the bottom that create a rattling sound. These wires are the “snare” and drummers can turn these off in order to make a dull sound (with out the rattling) if they want.
Check out this amazing snare drum solo by a young man using four different snare drums. Again, the different sized snare drums will make different pitches from each other, but each one will only make one pitch. Notice that the third snare drum from our left has the snares turned on. You can hear the rattling sound when he plays the third snare.


Cymbals are two thin brass plates that are clapped together to create a bright crashing sound and to build excitement.
Cymbals are usually about one and a half feet in diameter, but there are also several smaller versions including finger cymbals.
Watch and listen to this drumline (for a marching band) showcase their skills on the cymbals. Note that they do a movement going across their necks at 44 seconds (and lasting about 2 seconds) that may bother some people. It evidently is used in A LOT of drumline cymbal routines. All of the best ones I came across include it. 

Gong and Tam-Tam

The gong and tam-tam come from Asia and are usually made from a mixture of copper and tin. The gong is often about three feet in diameter and the tam-tam is usually about five feet in diameter. 
They are played with a heavy beater covered with felt or wool. The easiest way to tell them apart is by listening to them. The gong makes a “bong” sound and the tam-tam makes a “crash”.
The names are often interchanged, because the tam-tam is actually a type of gong. I could not find much that spotlighted the gong and tam-tam online, but these two links will give you an idea. You can listen to a gong being played in a variety of ways and the sound of a tam-tam crash by following the links.


Triangles have been used since ancient times, but joined the orchestra during the Classical Era of Classical Music.
Here is a funny video that showcases the triangle in The Concerto for Triangle


The tambourine has small metal discs attached to its side. You shake the tambourine to make the discs vibrate. You can also tap it.
You can see and hear the tambourine being played during this performance of Romeo and Juliet.
In order to hear almost every percussion instrument possible, check out Rodion Schedrin’s “Carmen Suite: Changing of the Guard“.
This drumline battle is great to watch, too. There are snare drums, cymbals, bass drums, and more.
You don’t have to have expensive instruments to play non-pitched percussion instruments. The rhythm sticks I have referred to in previous lessons are part of this family as well as drums made out of trash cans and other everyday materials. In fact, there was a group of extremely talented high school students that was on Australia’s Got Talent a few years ago and did quite well. Here is the group Mac-Cussion performing an extremely entertaining routine on metal trash cans.
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