Orchestration: Keyboard Percussion

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Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass
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Keyboard Percussion is a family of percussion instruments that share a piano "keyboard"-like layout of pitches (a white notes/black notes layout, where C is the white note to the immediate left of a group of two black notes, etc). Thus, these instruments are all capable of precise pitch production as well as having available the full chromatic set of equal-temperament pitches. While all share a piano-like layout, none have the same range, and in addition notes are only "white" and "black" in layout, not color. These instruments are generally struck with a type of mallet, as most percussion is, though in many recent scores the bow for a contrabass has been used to produce smoother sustained sounds.


Keyboard percussion instruments made of metal are almost invariably made with steel and sometimes with brass. These metals are the most durable and resonate better than others. They are also cost-effective compared to more expensive metals such as titanium or silver.


The Glockenspiel, or "Orchestral Bells", is at the top of the keyboard instrument family's range.



The Chimes are sets of cylindrical, hollow rods of steel or brass. They are designed to mimic church bells. Because of their appearance, they are sometimes referred to as Tubular Bells. However, it is in my opinion that Chimes is a slightly more "correct" name. Either may be used without confusion, however.


Crotales are a set of small metal discs tuned to the chromatic scale. By appearance they're often mistaken with the unpitched finger cymbals. Crotales, however, are always tuned, usually much thicker, and built with a higher quality metal.

Steel Drums


Musical Saw

Other Metalophones

Other Metalophones exist though they are very rare in the orchestra. Orf and Grainger have used them extensively but their use is often based on a specific instrument constructed for that piece. "Alto glockenspiel" "Bass glockenspiel" "Bass vibraphone"


Keyboard percussion instruments made of wood are usually made with cherry or rosewood. Softwoods necessitate the amount of vibration to have a clear sound.


The Xylophone is the wood counterpart to the Glockenspiel.


A bigger xylophone.



Glass keyboard percussion instruments are rarer in orchestral settings simply because of their delicate nature. They're also harder to play sometimes necessitating specialists to play them.

Glass Harmonica

Crystal Glasses


Next Article: Membranophones