Melody in Percussion – More than you would imagine


Percussion is often viewed and nothing more than drums in modern music, and understanding the difference between definite and indefinite pitch in the percussion family helps us answer the question, Can percussion instrument play a melody?

Percussion instruments such as Marimba, Handpan, Tongue Drum and Kalimba can not only produce melody but can create some of the most complex melodies creating rhythmic and melodious music. The refinement of percussion from around world opens new avenues of percussion melodies.

The inclusion of percussion instruments into the melodic category has been met with many frowned faces. To be blunt many melodic instrument players have seen the inclusion of percussion as inaccurate, however with instruments like the handpan, the Kalimba and the Tongue Drum, percussion has progressed smoothly into melodic sounds.

Here’s how percussion instruments have entered the melodic world of music!

Which percussion instruments can play melody?

There are many percussion instruments that are now part of the melodic group of sound producing instruments. However, there are only a few that are well known and that have been reliably able to produce the same notes.

  • Xylophone: With its complicated set of bars, hanging drums and complicated set of notes to learn the xylophone has always been able to produce a melody. Many seeing it as a simplified piano the xylophone has proven in many orchestras that it can produce melodies to soothe the soul.
  • Steel Drums: Hailing from Trinidad the steel drums has fast become a favourite for people in the world of percussion to produce high notes. Inspiring modern instruments such as the handpan and tongue drum, used on their own or part of an ensemble the steel drum has become synonymous with the sound of melody being produced with a percussion instrument.
  • Wooden Tongue Drum: A new entry to the world of music, and born from the African slit drum, wooden tongue drums are created to produce easy to repeat melodic sounds that can be both soothing and concentration inducing. Each tongue of the wooden drum has to be tuned to exact proportions and will produce the same sound every time.

How have percussion been used to play melodic sounds?

As engineering and measuring techniques have improved many of the previous instruments that were unable to produce notes repeatedly became refined. This led to instruments like the tongue drum and handpan that could be made to play the same sounds.

Creating melodic sounds from there was simply working on adapting already existing melodic music properly. Many percussion players learn how to play the xylophone if they enter the world of orchestras, which meant that the opportunity to create melodies was already there.

Percussion instruments produce melodies by creating repeatable sounds when struck by a hammer or the hand. This allows sheet music to be created which players can follow along and create similar sounding music without having to have a natural rhythm or understanding of how to keep the rhythm.

Why are they seeing an increase in popularity?

Owing to many traditional barriers being broken and more widespread use of African and Asian instruments in orchestra melodic percussion instruments have become popular additions to ensembles. When combined with other melodic sounds the ensemble is able to produce a wider variety of sounds, that are both pleasing and loved by many.

However, smaller melodic percussion instruments are gaining popularity owing to their small size and smaller learning curve. Traditional melodic instruments usually have many notes to be learned and complicated sheet music that must be understood.

However, simpler percussion instruments that can produce melodies like the Kalimba only have ten notes and can be learned within a few weeks. This has meant that many percussion instruments have been used as introduction instruments and the players prefer to take the instruments they already know further.

How can you learn to play these instruments?

Because these instruments are rather simple to understand learning to play can be as simple as finding the right video online. Most melodic percussion instruments have been labelled with the notes they can play, while being easy to understand with the unique sounds they make when struck.

Even the most complex melodic instrument, the handpan can be learned in just a few hours. While understanding how to play in orchestras won’t happen overnight, you can learn to play simple tunes in only a few hours.

Learning to play any percussion instrument is about repeating what you are doing until it becomes second nature, knowing when to strike something as hard as you can or simply tapping to produce slight tones.

What has limited the use of percussion for melody?

The only limitation placed on percussion instruments has been the lack of repeatable sounds that can be produced. Many percussion instruments cannot be used to make the same note twice, however, this changed as measuring and engineering changed.

With accurate ways of measuring tones the ability to tune percussion instruments to all make the same sound was introduced. Creating a way making even several sets of drum kits create similar sounds, however, it is with more complex instruments such as steel drums and tongue drums that this changed.

With precise engineering two sets of tongue drums can sound exactly the same, this was a limitation that earlier engineering techniques could not produce. Being able to make the same note more than once is the main reason percussion instruments have now entered the world of melodic sounds.

Why is it so hard to play melody on a drum?

Even with the best tuned drum kit it is not simply striking the instrument that will produce a melody. A piano player may never know how to produce a melody using a drum kit, in the same way a drum player may never play on the piano.

Unlike every other instrument the force with which you strike a percussion instrument determines the note that will be played. Creating a set of drums that always produce the same sound has only recently become a possibility. Even then, creating a melody using sounds that are both higher and deeper than traditional instruments can be a challenge.

The biggest challenge anyone creating melodic music using a definite pitched percussion instrument will be knowing how hard to hit their instrument. Louder may not always be better, which means striking the instrument perfectly is a learned skill that must be practiced.

Conclusion

The world is always changing and the acceptance of new instruments and new ways of playing them has broadened the way in which we can all enjoy music. As more people start playing percussion instruments in ways that no one has thought of the sounds being produced will always be amazing.

SteveM

I enjoyed the unpitched appeal of percussion prior to discovering handpans in a 'moment' I was experiencing. I've been writing ever since.

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