Unpitched Percussion Instruments

Written by lauren vork
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Unpitched Percussion Instruments
Unpitched drums are commonly used for keeping rhythm. (drum image by agno_agnus from Fotolia.com)

While there are many different types of instruments in the percussion family, and each of them falls into one of two categories when it comes to pitch: those that can produce a distinct tuned tone like any other instrument, and those that exist purely to produce an unpitched, timbral sound. These instruments serve to provide sound effects, rhythmic undertone or colour to a piece of music in a manner than can accompany any tonality. 

Unpitched Drums

Though a few drums are pitched (such as timpani, rototoms and bongos), many of the standard drums are not. The drums of the drum set (bass drum, snare drum and tom) have timbre, but not distinct pitch. The same is true of the orchestral and concert band versions of the these instruments, with the tom producing a thuddy, resonant sound, the bass drum being deep and boomy, and the snare producing a buzzing drum resonance.


Though often mistakenly referred to as a gong, the tom-tom is distinct from a gong in that a true gong is an pitched instrument, while the large metal tom-tom is unpitched. The tom-tom is large enough that in order to get ideal resonance, it must be warmed up beforehand by being gently rubbed in a circular motion with the same soft mallet with which it is then struck.


Metal cymbals come in the form of hand-held crash symbols which are played by being struck together in pairs; and suspended cymbals which are hung or held aloft and struck with a mallet or stick. Though the instruments used for these purposes are basically the same, the different manner of playing changes the timbre.

Auxiliary Percussion

Auxiliary percussion includes many unpitched sound effect and timbre instruments including the ratchet (an instrument that makes a clicking sound), bells (like jingle bells or a bell tree) and many varieties of shakers (hollow cavities filled with beads or seeds). Other commonly-used unpitched auxiliary instruments include claves (short wooden posts struck together), castinets (small, wooden instruments that are played with the fingertips) and the metal triangle, along with the cabasa (tiny strings of beads wrapped loosely around a rough cylinder) and the guiro (a gord carved with wooden ridges that are scraped).


The tambourine consists of a small, hand-held drum whose rim contains many tiny cymbals threaded on small metal posts. The tambourine is played by being shaken, or by striking or vibrating the drum head. The many cymbals shake together in unison according to the motion of the tambourine.

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