Electronic Composition
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What are the most common unpitched percussion instruments?

In the orchestra and band world the most common unpitched percussion instruments are the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals (including crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, and tam-tams). Let’s take a look at each of these instruments and see how they’re commonly used.

Snare Drum

The snare drum often has a metal shell and has metal coils called snares stretched across the bottom head of the drum. These coils vibrate when the drum is played to create a sharp attack with a quick decay. Depending on the style of music the snares can be tightened or loosened to alter the sound produced. Snare drums are often used to add excitement to a section of music and to propel the music forward. Some notable examples of snare drum in the classical world are: Bolero by Maurice Ravel, any march by John Phillips Sousa, and Lieutenant Kijé by Sergei Prokofiev.

This is an excerpt from a famous snare drum method book titled Portraits in Rhythm. Notice how the tone of the drum changes with the dynamics.

Bass Drum

The bass drum is a large drum that’s usually mounted vertically. The performer uses one hand to strike the drum with a large mallet and the other to mute it. In marches and other upbeat pieces the bass drum often provides the pulse of the music, however other interesting effects are possible such as two handed rolls, thumb rolls, and striking the rim of the drum. Some important excerpts for the bass drum in the classical world are: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, and the 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

This is an excerpt from Mahler’s 3rd symphony. Although bass drum is sometimes overlooked as an “effect” instrument, Mahler makes use of its wide variety of tones and dynamics in this passage.


A cymbal is a piece of hammered metal that can be struck with a mallet, stick, or another cymbal. The most common types of cymbals in classical percussion are crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, and tam-tams. These instruments are commonly used to emphasize accent points in the music. Crash cymbals are held in each hand and struck together to create a clashing, clanging sound. Suspended cymbals are hung on a stand of some kind and can be struck with a stick or mallet; rolls are commonly used on suspended cymbals to create a crescendo effect. Tam-tams are similar to gongs, but lack a definite pitch. They’re often used in conjunction with bass drums to create large impact moments, but can also be rolled on like a suspended cymbal.