Perhaps the English language is to be blamed, but there are many words and terms that are often used interchangeably but are actually different. In music, there are quite a number of instances where this occurs, including the mix up of genre and style, rhythm and beat, and…drumroll please…percussion and drums.
This fact was brought to our attention based on observation by at least one of our session musicians who noticed that clients were using drums and percussion interchangeably when ordering drum tracks. Thankfully, most of the time the clients got exactly what they were looking for. However, on the odd occasion, there have been customers who wanted recorded tracks with plain drum set but indicated percussion instruments, or vice versa.
Thankfully, these are easy issues to fix. However, we thought it would be a good idea to explain the differences for clients and readers, who may not know or who haven’t really thought about it. You can never learn too much, right? So, what’s the difference between drums and percussion instruments?
One of the simplest explanations to start off with is that all drums are percussion instruments but not all percussion instruments are drums. With that said, let’s look at each in detail.
In music, the word “percussion” refers to creating sound by means of physical contact – in contrast to plucking strings, blowing air, or manipulating audio frequencies (as in the case of the Theremin). This means percussion instruments produce musical notes by hitting, stroking, shaking, scraping, or rubbing. These can either be agitated by hand, using a stick, shaking the instrument, or knocking parts together.
Common percussion instruments include cymbals, marimbas, xylophones, rattles, tympanis (kettle drums), bells, gongs, and, yes, drums. A percussionist can specialize in just one or several of these, including the drum. But a pure drummer plays, well, just the drums, which leads us to the next part of the equation.
By now, you probably get the main difference between drums and percussion instruments, but understanding a little more about what is called “drums” is also helpful. For starters, there are several types of drums. Usually, when a musician is described as a drummer, it means they play the drum set – the most common type of drum. At least, that’s what is referred to in the realm of pop music.
Drum sets can be acoustic, electronic, or virtual kits and often consist of snare drums, bass drums, and tom-toms, but there are numerous contraptions that depend on the genre and the band set up. (The word “contraption” is why drum sets are also often referred to as trap sets).
There are also hand drums used in cultural music and folk formats in many parts of the world. The Conga, Tabla, and Bongo are among popular hand drums. African drums, Frame drums, and Marching Band drums are other types of drums used in music all over the world, and for varying performances.
Remember, the drummer is often associated with playing drum kits, but many of these musicians also have experience with playing the other types of drums mentioned above. They are still referred to as drummers in this instance but when hired for a musical performance, would need to specify what actual service they will be offering. In addition, a drummer may have knowledge of playing non-drum instruments such as cymbals (which are included in many drum set configurations), tambourines, and shakers. In such a scenario, these drummers will also refer to themselves as percussionists.
As you can imagine, these subtle nuances can lead to confusion if a songwriter is seeking a drummer to work with when they really need someone to play a variety of percussion instrument tracks. Or if they end up employing a percussion player whose expertise is not the drum set, but the latter is really what they need. That’s why it is important to know exactly what you are referring to when selecting musicians for your project.
We hope this article has been enlightening. If there are any questions, feel free to engage us on social media.