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Chapter 4 Contents


In film music the percussion instruments offer the most color, flexibility, power, energy and excitement to the score.  They can be used for punctuations, dramatic effect, colorations, melodies, counterpoint, and as solo instruments.  They are the most important section of the orchestra for films.  Instrument choices can instantly take one to another region of the world or back in time to a specific era.  Thousands of colors are available with many controllers and software programs having expandable ethnic instrument options for greater possibilities.


Percussion Families

Idiophones produce their own sound by the vibration of the entire instrument for example, triangles, cymbals, wood blocks, marimbas, vibraphones and chimes.  


Membranophones produce sound by the vibration of their own skin or membrane such as snare, bass drum, timpani, tambourine, and bongos.


Chordophones–produce their sound by the vibration of their strings such as piano, harpsichord, organ or dulcimer.


Aerophones–produce their sound by the vibration of an air column within an enclosed body such as whistles and sirens.


While percussion instruments may be struck, scraped, shaken or stroked, virtual instruments have no controllers for these.  The method used for emulating acoustic instruments is built in the sound itself.  


Selected Percussion Instruments

The following descriptions are for percussion instruments that are typically found in orchestras and virtual instrument sound banks:


The xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, chimes and crotales are definite pitch idiophones.  Their colors range from bright (xylophone) to warm (vibraphone and marimba) to bright (glockenspiel, chimes and crotales). They are typically performed using hard or soft mallets and have a quick attack and short decay; with the exception of the vibraphone which has a sostenuto pedal.  They perform rolls that sustain a sound while trills, arpeggios, dead stroke (sudden muting of vibration), and glissandi are very effective.


The xylophone was the first mallet instrument in the orchestra.  It is made out of wooden or fiberglass bars represented in keyboard style.  There are three sizes with the four octave version being most common.  They sound an octave higher than written.  Yarn mallets are used for soft passages while hard wooden mallets are used for loud passages.  The high register is very piercing.


A direct descendent of the xylophone, the marimba has wood sound bars that are wider, longer and thinner than the xylophone.  Therefore, their timbre offers a soft, warm tone in the low register, and in the higher register it sounds much like the xylophone.  The marimba is excellent for doubling chordal progressions and can also perform rolls, trills, arpeggios, dead strokes and glissandi.  It is usually performed with four mallets so for a realistic sound apply only four notes when using a virtual instrument.  The marimba has recently gained more prominence in film scoring.  The following film cue employs the marimba as the centerpiece for the sound track:


Example Cue 4.2 


 Viewer Discretion Advised



American Beauty | Directed by Sam Mendes | 1999

Composer: Thomas Newman


In keeping with percussion instruments set-up like keyboards, the vibraphone is made of metal bars with tubes underneath that have electronically driven fans which create tremolos with various speeds from the motor.  It also has a pedal for sostenuto.  Low notes have more depth and sustain while high notes decay faster.  This instrument is excellent for jazz-like scores.


The glockenspiel and celeste, which is a glockenspiel with a keyboard, have metal bars and with the glockenspiel being performed using plastic or rubber mallets.  This produces a bright piercing tone that can penetrate a full orchestra.


Chimes are also called tubular bells.  They are metal tubes hung on a metal rack covering two octaves and are performed using a wooden, plastic or yarn mallets.  They also have a sustain pedal.  They carry a sound reminiscent of church bells.  They are usually performed using two notes at one time so therefore only use two pitches when using a virtual instrument to get a realistic sound.


Less common definite pitched instruments include the crotales and steel drums.  The crotales are also called antique cymbals and are a set of small metal discs three to five inches in diameter.  They are less piercing than the glockenspiel and are typically struck with a metal mallet and provide a sustained color.  The steel drums are a Caribbean instrument made of a hammered-out oil drum.  Add to these some rarely used pitched instruments like the saw, flex-tone and crystal glasses.  The latter two can be found as virtual instrument sound patches.  They are great for experimental films and colorations.


The indefinite pitch idiophones, also referred to as battery, include:  cowbells (3 different sizes), gongs or tam-tams, bamboo, glass, or metal wind chimes, sleigh bells, bell tree, woodblocks, temple blocks, and thunder sheet; crash, suspended, hi-hat, sizzle, Chinese and finger cymbals.  Other less frequently used include: jawbone, ratchet, slapstick, whip, hammer with wood box or anvil, guiro, and log or slit drums.


Cymbals (crash or suspended) come in a variety of sizes and can be struck together, dampened immediately, let ring, swished across each other, rolled by rubbing plates together.  They can also be suspended, bowed, scraped, and articulated using one’s imagination.  


Gongs are pitched and hammered out while tam tams are non-pitched and are rung like cymbals.  These are great colors that work well with bass drums and used for punctuations.  Their sonic color can also take us to foreign places.


Wood blocks, temple blocks, claves are wooden instruments and are articulated using any type of mallet or in the case of claves, striking each other.  The sound in penetrating and dry with the exception of the hollowed-out temple blocks which are mellow and resonant.  These percussion instruments are great for ostinato patterns.


Illustration 4.10  Marimba Ostinato Pattern



Duncan Metcalfe


Rarely used battery include castanets and maracas.  They are also good for ostinatos, rhythmic patterns and punctuations.  Much like the gongs, they can take the listener to their place of origin-the Mediterranean.


The definite pitch membranophones (battery) include:  timpani and roto toms.  Timpani are one of the oldest members of the orchestra and are used a great deal in today’s film scores.  They have a wide dynamic range from pp to fff and can perform rolls, single notes and glissandi.  A pedal is used to determine the pitch of any of the four different sized timpani.  These instruments are great for setting direction, climaxes and creating intensity as well as used for punctuations.  Most virtual timpani sound very much like the real thing.  Again, they are played with two mallets and therefore limit the amount of activity when utilizing them so as to not get to muddy and remove their realism.  Roto toms are seven tunable drums that change their tuning when rotated.  They can play fast passages and blend well with timpani.  They are also effective at creating intensity and building direction.


Indefinite pitch membranophones (battery) include:  snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, field drum, tom-toms, tambourines, bongos and congas (larger than bongos and standing).  


The snare is the leading and longest standing percussion instrument of the orchestra.  The snare on the bottom head can be turned on or off.  They have a crisp sharp sound and attack.  They perform specific rhythmic patterns and create contour when add to other sounds by making then sound wider.  Wooden sticks are used and can also strike the rim of the drum for a different percussive effect while brushed are used for jazzy material.


The tenor drums, field drum, and bass drum are all used frequently in the orchestra.  The tenor drum has a deep resonating sound, the field drum sounds much the same as the tenor drum except lower and the bass drum has great power and boom.  These battery instruments are also great for establishing a time and place as well as being used for ostinato, coloration and punctuations.  Timpani has recently been substituted with Taiko drums which have additional energetic and powerful connotations in film scores.


Tom-toms (wooden) and timbales (metal) are played with wooden stick, mallets or hands.  They are great for colorations, phrase ending fills, and rhythmic patterns.


Other less often used battery include tambourines, string drums (quica, string drum, or lion’s roar).  Tambourines are a small drum with a single circular head.  Some have added small cymbals.  They are struck, shaken, played with fingers, stroked with a wet thumb or placed on top of other skinned instruments.  The string drums are a large skin covered bucket with a pole placed through the middle of the skin.  The pole is stroked or rubbed which makes the skin vibrate.  They have a much darker sound than tambourine.


The piano, harpsichord and cimbalom (a trapezoid shaped sting instrument struck with a wooden mallet) are chordophones which are most often used as solo instruments, coloring and harmonic support.  They are excellent for rapid and fluid passages as well as homophonic ones.  They can also be prepared using erasures, bamboo sticks, cans, coins, chains, and other found instruments creating interesting and fresh sounds.  These are not often found in the virtual instrument arena.


Extra music effects can also fall in the percussion family such as the use of definite pitch aerophones such as bird whistles, police siren, and non-definite pitch sounds such as wind machines, electronics, machine sounds, and other environmental sounds whether natural or man-made.


Percussion Scoring

Music software programs have both sequencing and scoring capabilities albeit with very different capabilities.  Scoring percussion is consistent within the abilities of the different software.  Recall that most percussion sounds are mapped instruments and should they have a specific pitch range, they would be reflected in the number of keys that are assigned to the sound.  For example, timpani can have four to six different key assignments.  Note that for pitched instruments notes on the staff are assigned.


Also, secco notation is used for scoring.  The following key is a standard assignment for the mapped instruments of the drum kit:


Illustration 4.11  Mapped Drum Notation



Duncan Metcalfe


Should you wish to have your score performed with live percussion you should provide a key or score notes in a legend.

• Use secco notation for non-pitched–staff notation for pitched. 

• If using a combination of pitched and non-pitched.  Place the non-pitched 

   above the staff and on the staff for pitched instruments.  

• Indicate mallets required–metal, hard, wool, rubber, other.

• Indicate l.v. to let vibrate or let ring.

• Place an X on stem for dead stroke.

• Place slashes on stem for measured roll and use a trill sign for unmeasured.

• Place z on stem for a snare drum buzz.

Illustration 4.12  standard snare drum techniques:  


Flam                      Drag                       Ruff    







Be sure to use articulations such as: 


 Light accent (stress)          Medium (Accent)         Hard accent (Marcato)








Glissando                           Dead Stroke                                 Scrape








Duncan Metcalfe


• Timpani: R = near the rim, C = in the centre

• Note: performers will roll whole notes on non-sustaining instruments such as 

   the marimba whether marked or not.



While this list is introductory, additional readings recommended at the end of this chapter offer more detailed descriptions of percussion techniques.

Uses for Percussion in Scores

Color is a film composer’s friend and allows them to capture the somewhat endless psychologies of the human experience.  Percussion instruments including traditional western, eastern, mideastern, Latin, and African provide thousands of colors to use as part of your palette.  Researching and experimenting with ethnic instruments expands the types of scores one can professionally create. 


Consider using percussion for:

• Phrase ending punctuations.

• Adding color to melodic lines.

• Created rhythmic intensity and providing direction.

• Adding homophonic element with mallet instruments.

• Using as rhythmic counterpoint to main idea.

• Use as an ostinato element that acts as a glue to which other ideas can be 


• Use a solos–especially mallet and keyboards.

• Use as a thick or thin texture.

• Alternate between sections of the orchestra.


Generally speaking, percussion is used in almost every score because of their versatility and virtual accessibility.  Gaining great facility with these colors and creating complex rhythms is a required qualification for a film composer.



Example Cue 4.3:






The Matrix Reloaded | Directed by Lana & Lilly Wachowski | 2003

Composer: Don Davis

MIDI Tip 4.5

To avoid the machine gun effect when programming percussion rolls be sure to randomly change the velocity of each note in the event list.  This will humanize the musical event. 


Exercise 4.4

Select a provided MIDI percussion file from Logic Pro (or the software you are using) which have numerous audio and MIDI percussion files and loops.  Copy and paste to make a 12-measure rhythmic idea.  Then cut and paste to additional 

tracks based on the number of mapped sounds in the original, i.e. a file with 8 different percussion sounds should be copied 8 times.  Now delete the notes for each track and leave only the one mapped pitch for each sound on the tracks, only bass drum on one track, only cymbals on one track, only snare on one track, etc.  Now assign different percussion instruments to replace the ones used.  Consider using only mallet instruments, ethnic instruments, or experimental sounds.  Share and discuss the outcomes in class.


Exercise 4.5

While many audio programs come with templates, create your own orchestral template based on the following modern orchestra instrumentation and be sure to pan your instrument to align with the traditional orchestral set-up (see illustration 4.9):




2 flutes (Flute 1 also plays Picc.)

2 oboes

1 English horn

2 B flat clarinets 

1 B flat bass clarinet

2 bassoons

1 contra bassoon



4 French horns in F (on two tracks)

2 B Flat trumpets

3 trombones 

1 bass trombone

1 Tuba


Percussion (3 players)

4 timpani using one player

1 snare drum

1 bass drum

1 marimba

1 other instrument of your choice


1 harp


Strings (Use only one track for each string section, for a total of 5. They can be divisi later.)

16 1st violins 

14 2nd violins

12 violas

10 cellos

8 double basses



Illustration 4.13 Typical Orchestral Instrument Placement



Duncan Metcalfe


Now, chose any piece of music, classical, pop, jazz or other that has a piano score.  Now orchestrate at least 16 measures for full orchestra.  Be sure to consider the following:


• Melody color assignment(s).

• Doublings.

• Textural changes.

• Section changes.

• Fore, middle, and background.

• Dynamic and articulations.

• Dovetailing.

• Use of other techniques such as pizzicato for strings and harp.

• Overall impression that results.


Produce and share with the class for discussion.


In closing this chapter, it is recommended that having a solid understanding of creating a score is of upmost importance since it may be possible to double a string sound with that of an acoustic string quartet to give the sound a human element; rosin on the bow moving a vibrating the string as well as phrasing by the performers.  It can also provide the opportunity to use and experiment with other performance techniques such as sul g, sul d (paying the melody on one string of the instrument) in consort with the virtual sounds that cannot differentiate this technique.  Also, working with live performers allows one to consult for best practices; string players for bow markings, percussion players for articulations, wind players for phrase lengths and brass for dynamic envelopes and recommended mutes.  


The marriage of virtual with real instruments can be both cost effective and create the illusion of a larger ensemble.  With that in mind, some quantizing and editing of the actual MIDI tracks are required to make the score look practical since real-time recording with MIDI can produce rather odd and unreadable rhythms.  


MIDI Tip 4.6

Once you have completed the MIDI recording, save it as another score version so that you can correct the notes (quantize and fix rhythms) and add articulations, dynamics and other information where needed.  The MIDI recording will look very different and sound different from the score recording when both are completed.  The score and parts thereof can now be used for overdubbing the acoustic performers.

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