The Problem of Pitch—Seeking a Lasting Repertoire

The Problem of Pitch—Seeking a Lasting Repertoire

Composers and percussionists both wrestle with the challenge of controlling the very important but often indeterminate pitch of percussion sound, which generates instability of purpose, function, and application.

Written By

Samuel Solomon

For percussion, pitch is problematic. Composers and percussionists both wrestle with the challenge of controlling this very important but often indeterminate element of percussion sound, which generates instability of purpose, function, and application. Instability can create problems when attempting to successfully involve these sounds in a musical composition, written or improvised. On the other hand, instability can create novelty, mystery, and surprise; elements that can be powerful components of a musical composition, written and (especially) improvised.

Pitch is the central element of most works of music, yet many of the sounds produced from the percussion battery contain pitches not prescribed by composer or performer. In most cases, the pitches from two like instruments are drastically different; one player’s “medium” tom-tom, for example, will likely sound far different from another’s. Pitches from one single percussion instrument can also vary as a result of changing beaters, beating spot, muting, or volume. All of these variables contribute to a significant and inherent indeterminacy that presents substantial difficulties to creators of percussion music.


Understanding the Pitches of Percussion

A snare drum is an instrument of indeterminate pitch.

Early appearances of percussion in Western composition (17th through 19th centuries) primarily feature instruments of definite pitch (timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, and chimes) and those whose pitches are both indeterminate and predominately unrecognizable (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, castanets, tam-tam, sleigh bells, rattles, and shakers). The success of this second set of instruments is due largely to the difficulty the listener’s ear has identifying the pitches they produce. For these instruments and many others like them, there are three primary factors that effect the ear’s inability to distinguish a clear pitch: noise content, register, and pitch plasticity.

Noise Content

All acoustic sounds are constructed of many different pitches (or frequencies). With traditional “pitched” instruments, the higher frequencies are in tune with the lowest fundamental pitch. This intonation creates a blend, gathering all the pitches together in the listener’s perception into one coherent sound. With blend, the many additional pitches serve to clarify rather than cloud the identity of the intended pitch. With “noise” sounds like crashing waves, highway traffic, or those of many percussion instruments, the overtones are disorganized and out-of-tune, so it is difficult for any single pitch to be identified.

Speaking technically, “noise” is the presence of many pitches sounding simultaneously that are unrelated to each other via a lower fundamental pitch. Many percussion instruments have considerable presence of noise as part of their sound. A snare drum, for example, produces clear pitches from the top drumhead, but the rattle of the snares against the bottom drumhead introduces a significant amount of noise into the overall sound. Instruments like shakers and closed hi-hats have very high noise content, so much so that it is quite difficult if not impossible to identify any single pitch.

Depending on the specific instrument, a different level of noise content may be preferable. For some, like cymbals or triangles, a rich spectrum of simultaneously sounding pitches is ideal; any clear identifiable pitch is considered poor sound. On the other hand, drum set tom-toms are often tuned (“cleared”) and slightly muted for maximum possible pitch clarity and intonation.


Humans have limited ability to distinguish pitches at very low frequencies, so the pitch of certain low-pitched percussion instruments can escape the ear’s discriminating radar. The sound of a concert bass drum in particular survives comfortably towards the bottom of the human range of hearing; overtones sound higher, but are varied and unclear enough to give little clue to the pitches beneath. A similar effect is exhibited by other large drums and large tam-tams at soft dynamics.

Pitch Plasticity

For some percussion instruments, pitch spectrum is a constant variable. Some obvious examples include sirens, mark trees, and bell trees, where a considerable change in pitch is a basic part of the instrument’s sound. Slight pitch changes can also be observed with drums, where the drumhead, post-attack, will relax slightly back into position producing a small downward glissando.

Instruments with the most plasticity are those that have a sound constructed mostly or entirely of overtones. With all acoustic sounds, as volume increases, timbre becomes brighter. This brightening is simply the accentuation of higher overtones. In the case of instruments like cymbals, tam-tam, güiro, and wind machine, the sound is almost entirely a wash of overtones; when volume (and therefore timbre) fluctuates, the spectrum of sounding pitches seems to glissando up and down.

Indeterminate Yet Clear Pitch

Congas sound recognizable pitches, but this instrument is most often used without regard to its pitch.

There are many instruments that produce very clear and recognizable pitches that are still treated indeterminately. Sounding pitches from temple bowls, brake drums, cowbells, congas, temple blocks and other such instruments are easily identifiable, yet when it comes to using these sounds in context of a pitched ensemble, composers will rarely request specific pitches and percussionists will rarely make instrument choices based on pitch. It should be noted that requesting specific pitches from instruments normally treated indeterminately is usually not an effective solution. A brake drum, temple block, or opera gong with the requested pitch can be very difficult, time consuming, and expensive to acquire.

Figure 1 is a chart of percussion instruments in order of pitch clarity. The instruments listed are all those included in my book How To Write For Percussion.


The Composer’s Problem

Most composers spend a large portion of their education learning to understand and control pitch. Incorporating indeterminately-pitched sounds into this thinking can be a considerable challenge. Successful use of these sounds can sometimes require a complete shift of paradigm for a pitch-minded composer.

There are three effective methods of approach.

The first is avoidance; that is, only writing for instruments of determinate pitch. Pierre Boulez’s Sur Incises, a very successful example, requires three percussionists playing vibraphones, marimba, chimes, crotales, glockenspiel, timpani, and steel drums. Often less successfully, when asked to write for percussion, composers will routinely fall back on keyboard instruments (marimba in particular) where they can just write “their music” for percussion with little special consideration. This approach can be lackluster, for when it comes to wielding pitch there are many more versatile and more powerful music-makers in other instrument families.

The second method is to approach indeterminately pitched percussion through orchestration. This is a traditional orchestral usage, where the composer makes careful instrumental choices so these alien sounds do not impinge on the meticulously designed pitched material. In this context percussion plays a minimal role, simply adding color here and there. Most useful to this method are those instruments from groups five and six of Figure 1’s list that sound unidentifiable pitches. Delicious examples can be found in Bartók, Prokofiev, and Messiaen where a gentle cymbal, bass drum, or maraca make pitched sound-constructions blossom.

The third method is to recontextualize pitch function by shifting the means of compositional discourse to other elements: rhythm, timbre, gesture, etc. In this music, percussion sounds are freed from the ghettoization of their pitch limitations and may fully participate. It is here in the rhythmically, sonically, conceptually, and philosophically driven music of Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and Steve Reich that these indeterminate sounds can flourish. More traditional composers have also used this method in moments when percussion is heavily featured—the pitch material becomes sparse, repetitive, or slow moving, often favoring rhythmic function over melody (see works of Shostakovich, Ravel, and Mahler).

But the ghetto remains. Despite the success of works that employ the above techniques, percussion commonly manages to be involved in inappropriate contexts without raising too many eyebrows. This is largely due to creators’ and listeners’ insatiable thirst for novelty, a resource that, for percussion, is seemingly inexhaustible. “That doesn’t sound right” is more often replaced with “that sounds cool,” so much so that creators of percussion music can easily lose sight of the true potential of these sounds. The most common ailment of this phenomenon is music in which the sounds themselves are the primary compositional material of the work. The sounds are the work. In most non-percussion music, the instrument sounds are simply the tools with which the composer creates a composition.

Postcards, for example, are ubiquitous at any tourist destination. The featured photo is usually a simple picture of a museum, church, fountain, canyon, or statue, taken in attractive light from a predictable viewpoint. The landmark is beautiful, powerful, and breathtaking; the postcard is not. The card, without a heartfelt message on the back, has little artistic value—certainly nothing like the value of the subject it documents.

Mere documentation would likely be inadequate for an artistically minded photographer, who may instead use different shapes and colors, find interesting points of view, play with light, and manipulate reference and perspective. Such a document could have considerable artistic value independent of, but still enhanced by, its subject. So too could compositions for percussion, but like the simple postcard, many are not so much art as they are observations of found sounds. The artistic message amounts to little more than, “Dear listener, wish you were here.”

Novelty’s allure has thus created repertoire for which it is not only an aspect, but a requirement. When a fad becomes tired, the whole of the work loses value; once the “cool”, unusual, and exotic become everyday, there is little substance left to maintain our attention.


The Performer’s Role

Cymbals produce a blur of many frequencies that shift up and down with dynamic fluctuations.

Percussion writing’s reliance on novelty has to some extent created a culture of mediocrity, not just in the quality of repertoire, but in the perception of what is and what is not a good sound. For lack of options, lack of know-how, lack of caring, or lack of guidance, percussionists commonly allow poorly functioning sounds which are promptly shrugged off by composers, conductors, and listeners.

The repertoire places percussionists in a unique position of power. Even within the boundaries of correct execution of the score, certain choices can be made that drastically affect the success of the composition. Performers are trained to make such choices in the interest of the work, but many will be limited in some way by the available instruments, a lack of familiarity with the piece, or logistical impositions created by the piece itself.

A percussionist with great ears, copious instrument options, no logistical hindrances, and plentiful time to learn a piece and experiment with sounds will be able to determine the best answers to a composition’s inherent questions. In this scenario, even pieces that have not properly taken into account the aforementioned pitch issues will have perfectly sculpted percussion sonorities. This is an infrequent case, however, and significant compromises must often be made. Unfortunately, percussionists and composers have come to accept these compromises as inescapable casualties of percussion use.

A performer’s most important responsibility is to communicate the strengths and ideas of a piece despite any suspect choices the composer may have unknowingly made. For percussionists this is a particularly challenging task, since in addition to executing the composer’s requests they must also choose their own pitch material. And because none of the parties involved tend to think about these instruments in terms of pitch, this pitch material must often be discovered intuitively, through experimentation, and in the small window of whatever rehearsal time may be available. Certainly, there must be better way.

Although the composer’s toolbox contains the most effective devices for making percussion sound fluent, there is much performers can do. They must first open their ears specifically to this issue of pitch.

  • What pitches are sounding from my suspended cymbal and how do those pitches function among the others sounding at this moment?
  • Am I able to achieve the proper intonation?
  • Am I able to achieve the proper blend?
  • Am I serving my orchestrational function?

The answers may illuminate a need for change: a different dynamic, a different beater, a different beating spot, different muting, a different cymbal, or a different instrument altogether.

With indeterminately-pitched instruments, the composer has automatically conceded the decision of pitch to the performer. The performer, when possible, must choose to make that decision based on musical criteria rather than convenience.


The Composer/Performer Relationship

The most perfect compositional uses of an instrument require very little of the performer. There are a handful of compositions, most for resilient media like piano, string quartet, or orchestra, that just work. Simply by executing the bare minimum of the score’s requests, the performers can effectively realize the music. Those requests may not necessarily be easy to execute, but they are always reasonably possible. Such works achieve foolproof success through either economy of ideas or economy of means. A simple composition may of course be realized simply; the true challenge is finding simple means of execution for complex compositions. Therein lies a balance of responsibility between composer and performer, a relationship that will define the terms “simple” and “complex”. Both parties aim for some form of beauty—which can also be infinitely defined—but ideally both will labor to make the common goal as within reach as possible.

The performer’s work becomes more difficult the less-well an instrument is used. Poor usage will make it increasingly difficult for the player to really sell the piece and communicate what is intended. The composer’s work is already a particular challenge just by shear variety of available percussion instruments; add the difficulty of managing the infinite logistical and notational considerations, and “less-well used” can become the norm. But for all the misunderstandings of percussion—dynamic limitations, beater necessities, articulation and sustain, instrument setup—no issue is as fumbled and ignored as pitch function.

The solution requires the understanding of both composer and performer. By turning our ears towards pitch, intonation, blend, and function from the moment of conception through the moment of realization, the true potential of this capricious family of sounds can be achieved. This treatment will bring the repertoire substance and sustainability, so perhaps generations of musicians and listeners to come may enjoy frequent revisitations of percussion works, continuously discovering more to say, more to express, and more to find beautiful.


Samuel Z. Solomon

Percussionist Samuel Z. Solomon currently teaches percussion at The Boston Conservatory, Boston University, The Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and is the President of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Percussive Arts Society. His book, How to Write for PERCUSSION, has received critical acclaim from composers, performers, and conductors worldwide. Solomon is founding member of the Yesaroun’ Duo and the Line C3 percussion group, percussionist-in-residence at Harvard University, and principal timpanist of the Amici New York chamber orchestra.