When you think of percussion, you first think of drums, right? Most people do. Snare drums, bass drums, maybe tuned drums such as tympani. Cymbals, temple blocks, perhaps gongs.
These instruments produce sounds which are integral to many an ensemble, from a small jazz combo to a full symphony orchestra. But these sounds are generally not what we might consider “lyrical” or “melodic.” We think of these sounds as being single-tone, abrupt, and perhaps even harsh in some cases.
It’s easy to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument, too.
Technically, anyway. This is because each note of a piano is produced by means of a tiny hammer striking the strings. And it’s this “striking” aspect which defines a percussion instrument, in technical terms.
The rich tones produced by the piano, reverberating in harmonic overtones that add depth to the sound, the liquid melodies, the complex chords… When considered by means of sound production, all of these are produced by a percussion instrument.
However, in practical terms, there is a clear distinction between pianists – who may not know how to hold a pair of drumsticks properly, let alone perform a paradiddle – and percussionists – who may not know how to find middle C on the keyboard.
There has also been discussion of whether the piano could or should be classified as a stringed instrument. Most musicians would say no, despite the fact that you can’t have a piano without strings. The technical definition of a stringed instrument is one whose sound is produced by bowing or plucking the string, not by striking it. Think violin, or guitar.
A better case could be made for the harpsichord to be considered a string instrument, since its strings are indeed plucked. Yet because of its keyboard, it is played using much the same techniques as the piano – technically, as we’ve said, a percussion instrument.
In fact, as an interface between the musician and the sound-producing mechanism, that keyboard is a highly distinguishing feature. Because of this, many musicians opine that there is (or should be) an entirely separate class of instruments, the keyboard family.
These musicologists would class piano, harpsichord, organ, celesta, and electronic keyboards together, due to the similarities in playing technique – regardless of how the sounds are actually produced.
So the Keyboard family would look something like this:
- Piano (Percussion – sound produced through striking)
- Harpsichord (String – sound produced through plucking)
- Organ (Wind – sound produced through air flow)
- Celesta (Percussion again)
- Electronic Keyboard (?????)
Yes, it’s complicated. How you class the piano depends on which of the following classification schemes you feel is most relevant:
(1) By how the sound is produced. By one thing striking another (percussion), by plucking or bowing (strings), or by vibrating a column of air (wind).
(2) By construction. If you can’t make the sound without the strings, then call it a stringed instrument.
(3) By method of playing. If you use a keyboard, it’s a keyboard instrument; if you hit it with a stick, it’s a percussion instrument.
Traditionally, the first classification scheme has held sway. Number 2 is not widely accepted. But Number 3 is gaining ground.
For now, most musicologists would agree, the piano is a percussion instrument, and also a keyboard instrument. Perhaps a happy medium would be to define it as a keyboard instrument whose means of sound-production is percussive.
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