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Which Percussion Instrument has Definite Pitch?

Kono Vidovic June 10, 2020 25 1 5


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The list of percussion instruments is long and varied.  In fact, this is the biggest family of orchestra instruments. There are some instruments in this category that are pitched and some that are not.

Which percussion instrument produces definite pitch? When we refer to definite pitch, we mean a sound that can be discerned from other sounds. The percussion instruments that clearly have a definite pitch include the xylophone, marimba, and drum. Some also argue that the piano should be included in this category, but more about that later.

In this article, we’re going to take a deeper dive into definite and indefinite pitch in the realm of percussion instruments. We’re also going to address several questions that people commonly have about this topic.

Percussion Instruments with Definite Pitch.

  1. Celesta – The celesta has a similar appearance as an upright piano. It operates through mallets hitting steel tuning forks. These mallets are manipulated through the keyboard.
  2. Chimes – Chimes and tubular bells also are included in the pitched percussion category. Chimes are typically secured to a metal frame and produce a bell sound when struck.
  3. Glockenspiel – The glockenspiel is also played with mallets striking pitched bars. The primary difference between this and a xylophone is that the bars are made of metal, not wood.
  4. Marimba – The marimba is built similarly as the xylophone, but it produces a much different sound. The tones that come from a marimba are typically deeper and softer.
  5. Timpani – The timpani is commonly referred to as a kettle drum. This refers to the kettle shape of most timpani drum bodies.
  6. Vibraphone – A vibraphone is a bar instrument that varies significantly from the other ones on this list. It operates through a motorized valve located at the top of the resonator tubes. This creates a vibrato effect, which is where the instrument gets its name.
  7. Xylophone – The xylophone is one of the most obviously pitched instruments in the percussion family. Its notes are played by using a mallet to strike the pitched wooden bars.

What is a definite pitch?

Definite pitch refers to a sound or note that can be discerned from another sound or note fairly easily. Sounds that have definite pitch will have harmonic frequency spectra or will be close to having it.

What does it mean to be classified as a definite pitch instrument?

Definite pitch percussion instruments are identified as those that create notes, sounds, and tones that can be clearly discerned from others played by that instrument. If two different notes are played on the same instrument, and there is a noticeable difference between them, then it can be classified as a definite pitch instrument. The percussion instruments that easily fall within this category include the ones with pitched bars: marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel.

Timpani drums are also considered pitched because they can be tuned. A different pitch can be achieved on the timpani drums through the use of a foot pedal that adjusts the tension on the drum heads to create tones that are lower or higher.

How can pitch be described in percussion?

‘Pitched’ is synonymous with ‘tuned’ in the realm of percussion instruments. Pitch refers to the different notes in various pitches that are produced by one instrument. The way these pitches or notes are created varies based on the instrument. Drums, part of the membranophone category of percussion instruments, can create different pitches by adjusting how tight the drum head is. The sounds are then typically produced by striking the drum with a hand, mallet, or sticks.

Other instruments in the percussion family, like the glockenspiel, celesta, and xylophone, can be tuned according to notes that are played either individually or together. The vibraphone can also be tuned in a similar way along with the additional factor of displaced air volume created by a fan assist.

What separates pitched percussion instruments from unpitched?

An unpitched percussion instrument can only play one note or sound, while a pitched instrument can produce sounds of varying pitches. In unpitched percussion instruments, only the tone can be changed by how the instrument is played. Percussion instruments like bass, cymbals, snare drums, and tom-toms provide rhythm but don’t contribute a melody or tune to the musical score. These are unpitched instruments. Compare that to the musical contributions made by pitched percussion instruments like chimes, marimbas, xylophones, and timpani drums. All of these pitched instruments provide melody and layers to a score.

An unpitched percussion instrument should be reserved for rhythm as it is unable to produce a tune like the pitched instruments can. As an example, tapping your foot alone would not create a tune, but it can create a rhythm that pitched percussion instruments could build a tune around.

Here’s a great video explaining unpitched percussion instruments:

How are pitch and tone different?

Tone refers to the quality of a sound. When a pitch is played, the tone can be identified as the difference in perception of those who hear it. If, for example, two chimes are playing the same pitch simultaneously, a listener will sometimes notice a slight or obvious difference between the notes produced by both instruments. The difference that they notice is the tone.

If one instrument produces a soft note while the other plays a strong one, the pitch will match, but the tone will differ. For a much more obvious example, listen to the same pitch played by two entirely different instruments. If a keyboard and a horn play the same pitch, the listener will clearly notice a difference in tone. This illustrates how pitch and tone are different.

How are pitch and note different?

The difference between a note and a pitch is a subtle one. Primarily, a note is the pitch in written form. The note is written and read as part of a score. The pitch is what results when that note is played aloud on an instrument. Still, it is acceptable to say that you are playing a note.

In casual conversation, note and pitch might be used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two based on whether it is the written or audible form.

Additional questions relevant to pitched percussion instruments

How do percussion instruments change pitch?

The answer to this will depend on which particular instrument in the percussion category you are referring to. The following are some examples.

  1. To increase pitch in membranophones, which are typically drums with drum heads, you will need to tighten the tension rods that are found around the hoop or rim of the drum.  
  2. With timpani drums, the pitch is changed through using the pedal. When the pedal is pressed, the drum rim tightens around the bowl of the drum. This increases the tension of the drum head, resulting in a higher pitch.
  3. Concussion instruments and those with pitched bars like the glockenspiel, xylophone, and marimba are different. Their pitch is affected by the length, depth, and width of their bars. Larger bars have lower sounds. The smaller the bar, the higher the sound. The marimba is a great example of this. The bars on the low end of the marimba are much longer and wider than those on the other end. Changing the pitch on this type of instrument would involve permanently changing the width or length of the bar. Of course, only professionals should attempt to undertake such a project.
  4. For digital environments, it’s a lot less complicated as you can actually tune your recordings or samples right inside your DAW.  Most DAW’s will have some sort of tuning functionality.

Would a xylophone classify as a pitched percussion instrument?

Yes, the xylophone fits soundly within the pitched percussion instrument category. The wooden bars that form the instrument each have their own pitch, and the tone can be changed by switching up the type of mallet used and by playing multiple keys at once. There are resonator tubes underneath the keys that produce the sound. And in case you’re wondering, the word xylophone comes from the Greek word meaning “wood sound.” However, this instrument was first created in Asia and Africa.

Is a piano considered a pitched percussion instrument?

The answer to this isn’t so clear cut. An instrument is considered to be in the percussion family if it makes a sound when it’s struck. If you follow that definition strictly, the piano technically qualifies. There’s no question that the piano is a pitched instrument. If you accept that the piano is indeed a percussion instrument, then yes, it does fall within the pitched percussion category.

However, others classify pianos as stringed instruments. The problem with this is that the strings only produce a pitch when struck, so this puts it in the percussion family. Either way, pianos are generally considered part of the string and percussion categories, and it is definitely a pitched instrument.

Is the tambourine considered a pitched percussion instrument?

A tambourine does not qualify as a pitched percussion instrument. While it is used for percussion, it doesn’t have any pitch to its varied sounds. You can produce various sounds with it by utilizing it in different ways, but you can’t create a melody because of the lack of pitch.

Do chimes qualify as a pitched percussion instrument?

Unquestionably chimes are grouped in with pitched percussion instruments. Every tubular bell that makes up the chimes is tuned to a specific pitch. Chimes are typically played with mallets, and they can also be played by hand. The most common set up is 18 chimes hung from a metal frame.

Does the pandeiro qualify as a pitched percussion instrument?

The pandeiro can be tuned by changing the tension of the drum head. If you are a very skilled pandeiro player, you can also use specific techniques to produce various tones as you play.  While it is technically possible to create high and low pitches by adjusting the tension, this is very difficult to do. For that reason, the pandeiro is in a gray area between the indefinite pitch and definite pitch categories.

Is a snare drum in the pitched percussion family?

A snare drum can be adjusted to produce different pitches, but while it’s being played, it has just one definite pitch. A 14” snare drum should ideally be tuned between E3 and B3.

How does a pitched percussion instrument work?

A pitched percussion instrument produces sound when it is struck by something. They are most commonly played with a mallet, but the hands can also be used. The percussion instrument family is extensive and varied, so it’s difficult to generalize for this category. Drums produce sounds through their bodies when struck with an object like drumsticks, mallets, or hands. Pandeiros and tambourines work in a similar way with decreased resonance.

Maracas make sounds when they are shaken. Ratchets are played by turning a handle. A rachet is also known as a cog rattle, by the way, but it isn’t accurate to call it a rattle. For another intriguing percussion instrument you might not be familiar with, check out the Japanese Binzasara.

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Kono Vidovic at Dirty Disco
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Kono Vidovic

DJ | MUSIC CURATOR & SELECTOR | PODCAST MAKER | BLOGGER Professional online interpreneur. Coffee practitioner. Electronic music culture maven. Total music guru. Infuriatingly humble problem solver. Food & sports fanatic.

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