Snare Drum

The snare drum is a two headed instrument: that is it has skins on both sides. Stretched across the bottom skin is a snare, which comprises a number of twisted wires or gut that sit up against the skin, which "buzz" against the skin when the drum is struck. These can number from two to nearer 20. The orchestral snare usually sits on a stand, and is played with two hard wooden sticks. The performer can produce a variety of effects striking a snare drum, the most common being single alternate hand strokes, tremolos or rolls both open and closed, flams, double strike, drag, and ruff, among others. The snare drum can be played with the snare under tension against the skin, or "Snare On", or the snare can have the tension released, lowering the snare away from the skin, called "Snare Off." The composer should note the following:

Snares on or off should be clearly marked before the passage to be played is commenced. Performers regularly release the snare when not playing, to minimise any chance the snare will buzz of its own accord, in tune with sympathetic harmonies generated by other orchestral instruments. It is the author's experience as an orchestral player that Brass in particular can create harmonics that cause the snare to buzz. The snare drum comes in a variety of sizes, from a narrow 4inch piccolo snare, to a deep military version that could up to about 36 inches.

As for the Tympani, any instructions to the snare drum performer should be clearly marked, and specific effects required should be on the initial page of the part, so the performer is prepared. The composer should also clearly specify if the snare drum to be played is constructed with a wire or gut snare, if that is his specific intent.

Tenor Drum

The Tenor Drum, also commonly referred to as a Military Drum, has a deep body, with a skin on either end, and no snare. It produces a deep hollow sound, and with the absence of a snare, produces a muffled tone, played either single stroke, or roll. More indicative of martial music, it is also highly effective in the orchestra, with just one example being a somber role as a emotive color in funereal music.

Bass Drum

The Bass Drum is one of the most commonly used of percussion instruments. It comes in various sizes from 20 inches up to 2 metres in diameter, but occurs commonly in 36inch, and 40 inch sizes. Unlike the Tenor Drum, the Bass Drum is like a giant snare, minus the snare, and is usually mounted on a stand sideways, or suspended in a frame, with the skins facing horizontally. It is generally struck in a glancing fashion, unless the composer indicates otherwise. The Bass Drum, using just 2 examples, can add considerable weight to an orchestra when used to emphasise a loud tutti, or added power when played as a roll in a sustained passage requiring an extra element of low tension. 


The most commonly used types of cymbals used in an orchestra are Crash, and suspended, but in a modern orchestra, there are many additional forms, including Finger Cymbals, Chinese Cymbal, and the Gong. Crash Cymbals come in pairs, and are played held vertically by the performer, with one cymbal in each hand. The player then 'crashes' the cymbals into each other in various ways to produce a desired sound. A professional percussionist has good control over the amount of effort needed to balance a cymbal crash with the rest of the orchestra dynamically, and the Crash Cymbals can also be played as a roll or tremolo, with the performer making the initial crash, then 'rolling' the edges of the cymbals over each other, finishing with a flourish of 'throwing' the cymbals outwards, giving each cymbal the maximum possible chance of any cymbal ring lasting as long as possible. Crash Cymbals are usually somewhere between  15 and 30 inches in diameter, and an orchestral percussionist may have a collection in varying sizes, according to the tone he wishes to produce, or as specifically marked by the composer on the percussion part. Conversely, Finger Cymbals are tiny in comparison, being 1 1/2 inches in diameter, and producing a delicate tinkling tone. A Chinese Cymbal has more deeply rolled edges, and the crown of the cymbal is more of a plateau than a defined shape. The Gong is usually suspended vertically in a frame, or suspended by a cord, held in the one of the performer's hands as he strikes the cymbal with a beater held in the other. There is one other commonly found Cymbal in the orchestra, being the Suspended Cymbal, which is fixed horizontally mounted on a stand. The performer plays this cymbal with a mallet, or pair of mallets for a roll, in various places on the cymbal, producing a variety of sounds.


The Triangle is as the name implies, being a length of steel or cast iron rod shaped as a Triangle. The player holds it in one hand suspended from a short cord, or metal handle loosely shaped around the Triangle, and with a small length of steel rod, called the triangle beater, hits it with the other. The triangle can also be played as a roll, with the player rattling the beater around inside the shape of the Triangle, much like a call to lunch so often featured in older films. The Triangle can also be mounted in a frame, and although the lasting resonance of the Triangle is reduced using this method, the performer can also use 2 beaters using this mounting device, freeing he or she to perform more complex rhythm passages.


There so many variations in bell size and tone as to be impratical in listing here, but commonly used bells can vary in size from tiny pellet bells, to Carillon or ship's bells. These are generally struck with a beater or mallet, or as a collection mounted on some sort of handheld frame, shaken. Examples include the Cow Bell (struck), Sleigh Bells (shaken), Bell Tree (struck), Agogo Bells (struck as a pair of cone shapes mounted on a U shaped loop, held in the performer's hand), Bell Plate (struck), and Cup Bells (struck), to name but a few. One can include Wind Chimes here, as a series of  varying length  hollow tubes suspended in a frame, and 'brushed' by the performer as just 1 example of played technique.

Anvils, Brake Drums, and Railway Line

The sound of an anvil is a familiar one in orchestral music, but similar sounds can also be produced by other percussion devices. The Automobile Brake Drum is a common substitute, as transporting a heavy blacksmith's anvil to concert performances outside of the 'home' location can be problematic, but as the tones are different enough, the composer may wish to specify a 'true' anvil if that is his or her intent. Another alternative is a section of railway line of fairly heavy guage, about 2 feet long, but as this may well be quite heavy, closer to the anvil, it's usually up to the percussionist if the use of this instrument is feasible, unless the composer specifies this particular instrument. All three have one thing in common, and that is the solid hammer, mallets, steel pipes, or other striking devices required to beat them with, to produce any sound. Composers please note here that pipes of varying lengths can be also used to produce effects, and should be considered in addition to the three instruments described above. One's own imagination is the only real limitation here.


The Tambourine is a very old instrument that consists of a thin wooden hoop, over which a skin has been stretched. There are slits cut in the sodes of the hoops, each of which contains 2 jingles, which are mounted so they shake against each other. There are three typical ways of playing the Tambourine. The first is the most simple and common, which has the performer beating out rhythms on the skin, or as it is more commonly called, the Head. The second is to shake the instrument, which produces a continual 'jingle' from the metal jinlges placed around the hoop. The third is the thumb roll, which involves the performer rubbing or 'pushing' his thumb across the head, against the grain of the skin. There are many variations on these three playing methods, including the common,  more visibly theatrical 1st method, of tapping the Tambourine alternately between hand and knee, or some other part of the body. And the player can also 'drum' his fingers quickly in succession on the head to produce a flam effect.

There are also headless Tambourines, which can produce a shake, or a rythmic jingling. These can be found most commonly in rock or pop music. However the headless Tambourine is used in orchestral music when the performer wants a more accurate and delicate execution of a thumb roll.

Tambourines can also be mounted more rigidly on a stand, where the instrument is fixed on one side, and the player taps it with one hand, two hands, or some sort of beater, i.e. mallets.

Frame Drum

The Frame Drum, as a simple description, is a Tambourine without jingles. It's usually played with the hand, or a soft stick, and produces a gentle snareless effect when stroked softly, or a rattling sound when stuck more forcefully. There are many variations of a Frame Drum, but one example is the Irish Bodhrain.