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Musical instruments

Percussion instruments

Most percussion instruments do not require a knowledge of music or the need to read music in order to play them. This makes them ideal first or early instruments.

The range of percussion instruments available is fairly extensive. Each instrument produces an interesting and unique sound and can be played by itself or with other percussion instruments.

We can divide percussion instruments into two main groups:

  • melodic

  • non-melodic.

The melodic group includes xylophones and chime bars. These are pitched and graduate from a low pitch to a high pitch, matching the white notes on the piano. This group of instruments does require some knowledge of music because you can play a tune (melody) on them. You have to have some understanding of how the tones are organised and how they relate to each other.

Xylophones are made of wood and come in three sizes: soprano (small), alto (medium) and double bass (large). When made of metal, xylophones are called metallophones. These instruments are proper instruments, beautifully made and expensive. Not many centres can afford them.

Chime bars also come in either wood or metal. Each bar has its own pitch and when line up from the lowest sound to the highest sound, they create the same sequence of sounds that a xylophone does. In other words, it is as though a xylophone has been cut up into segments, each segment containing one bar. The advantage of using chime bars is that you can distribute them among the children as opposed to a xylophone which can only be played by one child at a time. Chime bars come in two sizes: soprano and alto.

Each xylophone needs one set of mallets (strikers) as children are encouraged to play with one mallet in each hand. There is a range of mallets available with the heads ranging in degree of softness and hardness. Wood bars need to be struck with more force than metal bars. A yarn mallet head or one with a piece of wood in the centre of the felt is most suitable. It all depends on the kind of sound you want to produce. Mallets also come with a wood head and a rubber head.

We will not be covering melodic percussion instruments in this topic.

All the remaining percussion instruments fall into the second group—non-melodic. ‘Non-melodic’ means you are not able to play a tune (melody) on them as each instrument only makes one or two distinct sounds.

Unlike melodic percussion instruments, non-melodic instruments are not pitched to a specific tone. In fact, you will find that each one has its own pitch (highness or lowness of sound).

We can divide non-melodic percussion instruments into these three sub-groups:

  • wood

  • metal

  • drums.

Following is a table showing all the percussion instruments in their groupings.

Percussion instruments
Melodic Non-melodic

Xylophone:

metallophone

chime bars (wood, metal)

Wood:

rhythm sticks or claves

tone block and striker

two-tone block and striker

guiro and scraper

castanets (adult size, children’s size)

stick castanet

maracas

Metal:

bells

hand bells

wrist/ankle

triangles and striker (small, large)

headless tambourine

cabasa

cymbals (small set of two)

cymbal (large)

Indian bells

metal guiro/shaker and comb scraper

Drums:

hand drums (four sizes)

tambour (small, medium)

snare drum

tambourine

Note: We have placed castanets and maracas under the ‘wood’ category but some are made of plastic.

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Listen to these instruments

Now, let’s listen to some percussion instruments being played:

claves

Claves (rhythm sticks)

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cabasa

Cabasa

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tambourine

Tambourine

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headless tambourine

Headless tambourine

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children's symbols

Children's symbols

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adult cymbal

Adult cymbal

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large tambour

Large tambour

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snare drum

Snare drum

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Large triangle

Large triangle

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small triangle

Small triangle

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tulip tone block

Tulip tone block

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two tone block

Two tone block

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children's bells

Children's bells

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wrist bells

Wrist bells

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photo of Indian bells

Indian bells

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chimes

Chimes

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adult maracas

Adult maracas

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Frog maracas

Frog maracas

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guiro

Guiro

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frog-shapes guiro

Frog-shaped guiro

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adult castanets

Adult castanets

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children's castanets

Children's castanets

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Rhythm sticks (clave)

Rhythm sticks, also called claves, come in large and small sizes. They are played by resting one stick across the less dominant hand with the fingertips supporting the stick at one end and the ball of the palm (just above the wrist) supporting the other end. Avoid resting the stick flat onto the palm. All percussion instruments need to vibrate in order to make a sound. The more body contact on the instrument, the more muffled the sound will be.

The stick in the resting position is then struck in the middle by the other stick (held in the dominant hand). Each stick has its own pitch as you will hear when the sticks are reversed and the striking stick becomes the one being struck. You can also hold one stick in each hand and tap the top ends together. This will not produce as clear of a sound as the first method of playing described. However, children will find it easier to play this way.

You can make your own rhythm sticks by cutting a dowel stick (or old broom handle) into segments. Sand the ends slightly to give them a smooth finish. The sound of home-made rhythm sticks is not as good as the sound of ones you buy (which are usually made of rosewood) but they are adequate.

Because rhythm sticks make a clear, short and precise sound, they are ideal for tapping the beat and for tapping rhythm patterns. Children will find them relatively easy to control.

Click the link below to listen to rhythm sticks.

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Clave

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Tone blocks

Tulip tone block

The tulip tone block is a hollow piece of wood on a stick with a large slit at the top. It is played by striking the top near the slit with a bouncy motion. The tulip shape forms a wooden shell. The slit at the top allows the wood to vibrate creating a sound.

Tulip tone block

Tulip tone block. Note the tulip shape

These instruments are fairly sturdy but they still can be damaged if mistreated.

Tone blocks come in a number of shapes and sizes. Check the weight before you buy them for your children. Like the rhythm sticks, the tone block makes a clear, crisp sound and can easily be played. The short handle on the striker makes it easy to control and children can play the beat and rhythm patterns in quick succession.

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Tulip tone block

Two-tone block

The two-tone block has two parts, with one producing a high sound and the other a low sound.

In the photograph below, the difference in size between the two blocks allows children to see the relationship between pitch and length of the instrument (the shorter block makes a higher sound). In some two-tone blocks, both sides look identical and children have to rely on their hearing to determine which side has the higher sound and which has the lower sound.

Two-tone block

Two-tone block

The two-tone block also has a sharp and clear sound and it has two tones which makes it ideal for playing a gallop as the striker is bounced from one side to the other.

Look at the photograph of the two-tone block again. You will notice that both blocks have a ribbed surface. Children can run their striker across the sides making an entirely new sound—like that of the guiro.

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Two-tone block

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Castanets

Children’s castanets fit into the palm of the hand. Because the two sides are held together with an elastic string, they remain in an open position. To play, children have to bring their fingers down rapidly in order to bang the top part of the instrument with the bottom, and then quickly release it again before bringing the fingers down subsequent times. It is difficult for children to do this with a high degree of control. Castanets are useful for representing quaking ducks, falling rain, chattering animals and so on. Playing the beat would not be difficult and with practice, children will be able to play patterns.

Adult castanets

Adult castanets are harder to play (compared to children’s castanets) as they require more dexterity. Start by pushing the two halves together. The string holding the two halves should be loose enough to form two loops, one on each side of the castanet. The first loop is slipped onto the middle finger as the two castanet halves fall into the palm. The second loop follows onto the same finger. The castanet is played by flocking all the fingers downward which clicks the top castanet half with the bottom half. Wear one castanet on each hand. Clicking the two castanets alternatively or together creates rapid rhythm patterns.

Adult castanets

Adult castanets

Stick castanet

The stick castanet is played by flicking the stick back and forth. The two outside pieces of wood bounce off the third piece of wood in the centre which remains firmly in place. The rattling sound is easy to make but hard to control, ie, you would have difficulty playing the beat or a specific rhythm pattern. It makes a free, continuous rattling sound. You can also tap it against the palm of your free hand or against your thigh to bring the rattling sound.

stick castanets

Stick castanets

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Maracas

Maracas are shakers that are easy to play. You simply flick the instrument sharply back and forth, making a fuzzy sound. Maracas are played in pairs, one in each hand. They are a great addition to dancing and locomotor movement (ie whole body movement from one place to another).

Maracas can be used to imitate train sounds, to show the beat and they can make both long and continuous sound and short sounds. Maracas come in a range of sizes.

Frog maracas

Frog maracas

Adult maracas

Adult maracas made of wood

These frog maracas are light in weight and easy to play. They are made of plastic and come in a range of colours.

Adult size maracas can be made of wood or are gourds with or without handles. Wooden and gourd maracas are more fragile and easier to break compared to plastic ones.

gourd maracas

Natural or gourd maracas

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Bells

Bells are probably the easiest instruments of all to play as they are shaken briskly in any way. In fact, it is more difficult to keep bells still than it is to play them. Bells are suitable for playing a continuous sound, such as the beat or a spontaneous continuous ringing pattern.

Children's plastic bells

Children's plastic bells with easy-to-grip handles

Encourage children to discover ways of making their bells silent, eg, placing their free hand over the bells, pressing the bells firmly against their body, or ‘freezing’ as they stand very still.

Wrist bells leave the hands free and encourage children to move their arms in a variety of ways to make the bells ring. Wrist bells can also be worn on the ankles—a good way to encourage a reluctant participant to dance. Children can walk, run, stomp, gallop, shake their feet or just dance freely as the bells jingle along to their movements.

Always check your bells periodically to make sure that they are attached securely. Bells can, and do, come loose with wear. This is especially important when working with children under the age of three as they have a tendency to put things into their mouths. Bells are a choking hazard.

Heavy brass bells

Heavy brass bells

Indian bells

These bells are made of a thick metal. One is lifted and gently dropped onto the other bell, creating a beautiful, long and high pitched sound. It can be played to a steady beat by repeating the dropping action at regular intervals.

Indian bells

Indian bells

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Triangle and striker

The triangle comes in two sizes, large and small. The large triangle should make a low sound and the small triangle a high sound. The triangle needs to be suspended on a string and struck lightly with a metal striker when played. Once struck, the triangle vibrates for some time before the sound stops. To make the sound stop abruptly, touch the triangle with your hand. This muffles the sound immediately.

Triangle with striker

Triangle with striker

The triangle is not easy to play because it swings around after it is struck. Use a string that is short rather than long to prevent the triangle from swinging around so much.

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Headless tambourine

The headless tambourine is a tambourine without a covering stretched across its frame. It is played by shaking the instrument, making the small metal plates rattle against each other. It can be tapped on the hand or the body to show the beat or to play simple rhythm patters. It is especially useful when creating ‘sound effects’ or when representing characters or animals in stories, songs and rhymes.

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Headless tambourine

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Cabasa

The cabasa is a fairly large instrument. However, it is available in a small child size. The cabasa is played by resting the body of the instrument in the left hand while the right hand twists the handle—thus making the metal beads which are on the outside of the instrument rub against a ribbed metal plate which is underneath the beads attached to the body of the instrument. It’s a bit like rubbing metal beads against a small washboard.

Cabasa

Cabasa

You can play the beat and various patterns on the cabasa. Fast twists and slow deliberate twists produce different sounds.

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Cabasa

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Cymbals

Children’s cymbals come in pairs, each with a strap. The hands are slipped through the straps and the cymbal is held by grasping the strap immediately just above the cymbal. Held in a vertical position, the cymbals can be crashed together, by banging one against the other or by sliding them up and down as they make contact.

Children's cymbals

Children's cymbals

A cymbal can also be played while held in a horizontal position, as the edge of one cymbal is dropped onto the receiving cymbal held underneath.

Children can also use a mallet as they strike the cymbal while it is held in a horizontal position.

The adult size cymbal is very versatile and makes a range of dramatic sounds. By tapping the cymbal continuously with a mallet while gradually increasing the amount of force used, you can build the sound up to a fantastic crescendo (becoming louder). A swift strike with the mallet results in a very loud crash!

Gently tapping the cymbal repeatedly makes a soft, continuous sound which rises and drops gently—good for accompanying movement exploration.

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Guiro

The Latin-American guiro is a long gourd, also hollow, with two holes on the bottom. It is held by placing the thumb and one finger in the holes. A scraper is rubbed across the ribbed notches producing a scratchy sound.

You can also buy a frog guiro which is made of wood and rests in the palm of your hand. The scraper is brushed briskly across the ridges on the frog’s back. This produces a loud croaking sound.

The flat frog-shaped guiro is a hand-made instrument. Because it is not hollow, the sound it makes is more shallow in comparison to the other guiros.

Guiros make an interesting addition to your collection because they sound so different to other instruments. They can represent croaking frogs, buzzing bugs and other scratching critters. They can be played by scraping slowly, quickly and in a rhythmic pattern. You can also use a metal scraper to create a stronger sound.

Metal guiro/shaker and comb scraper

The metal guiro doubles up as a shaker. When played as a guiro, it is held in one hand while the other hand runs the comb shaped striker across its body.

These are two sets of ribbed patterns on this instrument. On one side the ribs are close together and on the other side they are further apart resulting in two slightly different sounds.

The metal guiro can also be used as a shaker. Compare the sounds of the wood and metal guiros.

Guiro

Guiro

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metal guiro

Metal guiro

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Hand drums

small hand drum

Small hand drum

These come in sets of four hand drums and are ideal for children. All four are fairly small and light in weight. Each has a handle making it easy to hold and play, as the free hand bounces the mallet against the drum.

The largest drum has the lowest sound. The pitch becomes gradually higher with each smaller drum, with the smallest drum having the highest sound.

Hand drums need to be suspended in the air when played. Unless your drum has a set of legs attached to it, it should not be played while resting flat on the floor or in your lap. In order for the sound to travel, it needs to be free of interference from solid mass, like the floor or your body.

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Tambour

The tambour comes in a range of sizes. These instruments are much larger and heavier than the hand drums. Children will be able to handle the small tambour but not the larger one (unless you hold it up for them).

Unlike the hand drum, which has a striking surface on both sides, this instrument has a covering (or skin) on only one side. The covering is stretched onto a round wooden frame and held in place with a metal ring. The tension of the metal ring is adjusted by tightening or loosening the screws on the frame. As you tighten the screws, the skin is stretched across the frame making the pitch go up. Always tighten the screws gradually, one at a time, to keep the tension of the skin even.

When played, the tambour is held by the wooden frame in a vertical position while the surface is struck with either a bare hand or a mallet. The weight of this instrument makes it harder for very young children to play.

Always loosen the skin at the end of each session before you put the tambours away. This prolongs the life of the instrument and prevents the skin from being damaged. Once the skin is ripped or over-stretched, it loses the quality of its sound and becomes a thud instead of a bang! Heat also makes the skin contract, pulling it tight. Take extra care of your tambours in the summer months. When storing, never place one tambour on top of another with the screws making contact with the skin. If you need to stack tambours, then stack them in pairs—skin to skin.

The tambour has a larger surface than the hand drum making it more versatile in the way it can be played. Encourage children to explore different ways of playing with their hands. Tap with one finger, all fingers, run finger tips across the skin, rub fingers across the skin, etc.

The tambour‘s screws should never make contact with the skin of another tambour.

Tambour

Tambour

Snare drum

The snare drum is a small tambour with a number of metal springs attached underneath, touching the covering. When struck, the springs vibrate against the covering—hitting it repeatedly and making a very loud and sharp bang. This instrument also has a handle making it easier to hold.

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Tambourine

The tambourine is a tambour and headless tambourine combined, making it an extremely versatile instrument. It can be shaken, struck with a mallet or tapped with the hand in a number of ways.

If your tambourine has screws around the frame, it means that the covering can be adjusted to a higher or lower pitch (as with the tambour).

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Tambourine

Our selection of percussion instruments does not, of course, represent the full range of percussion instruments which are available. The instruments which have been included are the most common ones used. Don’t hesitate to go beyond this list.

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Metronome

metronome

Metronome

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A metronome is used to indicate the exact tempo of a composition. Have a look at what it looks like and sounds like by clicking on the link below.

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Improvised instruments

  • Cardboard boxes with lids

  • Kitchen items

  • Saucepan lids

  • Bowls

  • Pots and pans

  • Shakers

  • Other kitchen items

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