Percussion instruments are played by being struck, shaken, rubbed or scraped. They are perhaps the oldest form of musical instruments. Some percussion instruments play not only rhythm, but also melody and harmony.
Most percussion instruments have a distinct tone; even drums are tuned. However, a distinction is usually made based on whether the instrument can play a definite pitch or not.
The timpani, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, bell, tubular bells, crotales and glockenspiel all play a definite pitch. The snare drum, bass drum, afuche, castanets, claves, cowbell, cymbal, doyra, güiro, maracas, mendoza, ratchet, spoons, temple blocks, tom-tom, timbales, triangle, vibraslap, washboard, whip and wood block do not in general. However, some percussionists tune drum heads to specific pitches when recording albums or in preparation for specific composer requirements. Gongs can be tuned or untuned – the most familiar type of gong in the west, the chau gong (sometimes called a tam-tam), is untuned. Tuned cymbals exist but are rare.
The two major categories are membranophones, which add timbre to the sound of being struck, such as drums, and idiophones, which sound of themselves, such as the triangle. The tambourine is both membranophone and idiophone, having both a head and jingles.
Names for percussionists
The general term for a musician who plays percussion instruments is percussionist.
Percussionists are also called upon to play a variety of instruments which are not percussive or are not generally thought of as percussion instruments. These include the lion's roar, wind machines, whistles and duck calls, air raid sirens, doorbells, car horns, pistols, typewriters and the glass harmonica.