Drums vs Percussion Instruments

Drums vs Percussion Instruments: Key Differences Explained

Drums and percussion instruments share deep historical connections tracing back thousands of years. But in modern musical contexts, important distinctions exist between drums and the wider percussion family. Understanding these key differences helps in communicating more clearly when talking genres, ensembles, gear, and more.

This article examines drums more closely compared to other percussion instruments based on aspects like physical construction, playing technique, musical usage, and categorization. We’ll also overview some of the most popular types of drums and percussion to showcase their unique identities.

Drums – Definition and Overview

Drums produce sound through physical striking actions causing vibrations which displace surrounding air to create reverberating noise. Most drums feature the following anatomy:

Key Anatomical Parts:

  • Drum Shell or Body – Hollow chamber with open bottom
  • Drum Head/Skin – Thin membrane stretched across shell top
  • Counterhoop – Metal or wooden ring securing drum head
  • Tuning Lugs – Mechanisms adjusting drum head tension

Construction Materials:

  • Shells made of wood, metal, acrylic or composite shells
  • Heads use animal skin, plastic or specialized drumhead films
  • Counterhoops metal, plastic or wood – affect resonance

Playing Mechanics:

  • Drum sticks, mallets, or hands strike drum head
  • Tension between head and shell generates vibrations and sound
  • Interchangeable heads and tuning lugs change pitch/timbre

Now let’s examine how this compares with the wider percussion family.

Percussion Instruments – Definition and Overview

Percussion Instruments

The percussion family constitutes any instrument producing sound by being struck, shaken or scraped. This encompasses drums but also all other instruments meeting that physical criteria.

Construction Commonalities

  • Many feature resonant shells or hollow chambers
  • Heads/skins often involved but not universally
  • Materials like metal, wood, skin, polymers used

Playing Mechanics

  • Struck directly via hands, sticks, mallets
  • Shaken through rattling internal components
  • Scraped by frictional implements like brushes

Muiscal Usage

  • Melodic pitched instruments like xylophone
  • Non-pitched rhythmic instruments like maracas
  • Drum hybrids like timpani spanning both roles

This broader scope of sound-generating methods and musical roles sets most percussion instruments apart from standard drums. But blurrier lines exist too.

Key Differences Between Drums and Percussion

While overlaps occur, these characteristics help differentiate drums against the wider percussion family:

Physical Construction

  • Drums feature resonant hollow bodies, counterhoops holding tuned skins strikingly vibrated.
  • Percussion utilizes even more diverse construction like solid frames, enclosed casings, suspended metals.

Playing Interface

  • Drums involve direct stick/mallet-to-skin contact, sensitive to striker implements and force.
  • Percussion uses combinations of striking, shaking, scraping motions dictated by form factor.

Musical Usage

  • Drums traditionally provide rhythmic foundations across most genres and ensembles.
  • Percussion fills wider ranging roles like lead melodies, rhythmic textures, or special effects.


  • Drums classified by core drum type — snare, tom, bass drum etc.
  • Percussion categorized into idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, etc.

So while blurred boundaries exist between drums and some keyboard/timpani hybrids, clear delineations hold for most standard percussion instruments.

Overview of Drum Types

drum set

Given those structural and usage differences, let’s survey some of the most popular true drum types:

Snare Drum

  • Features metal wires under bottom head producing signature buzzing crack
  • Struck by sticks on top head – wires sizzle on bottom
  • Provides rhythmic backbone and accents in ensembles

Bass Drum

  • Large drum played standing on one head via a pedal beater
  • Provides thunderous low-end thump for rhythms
  • Used in most drum kits and marching percussion


  • Single or grouped drums without snare wires
  • Played by sticks on top head
  • Available in ranges from high to low tunings
  • Add melodic dimensions to standard drumming


  • Copper bowls covered by calfskin heads
  • Played with mallets and pedals alter skin tension to tune pitches
  • Provide booming bass and dramatic melodic accents


  • Concave metal discs producing shimmering tones
  • Struck by drum sticks for dramatic accents and textures
  • Components of most drum and percussion setups

These represent the most ubiquitous true drum types used in nearly all forms of rhythmic music. But many other drums exist globally. Now let’s examine key percussion instruments.

Overview of Major Percussion Types

Moving beyond standard drums, here are some examples of percussion instruments bringing expanded sound qualities:


  • Filled seed pod shaken by handle grip
  • Provides rattling rhythmic layers
  • Iconically used in Latin styles and varieties of World music


  • Row of wood bars each tuned to specific pitch
  • Struck by hard mallets to convey melody and harmony
  • Key member of mallet percussion family with orchestral roots


  • Suspended metal loop resonates brightly when struck by beater
  • Adds shimmering tonal accents in orchestras and bands
  • Popular handheld percussion option


  • Held percussion instrument made by attaching jingles/zils to circular frame
  • Shaken or struck with hand
  • Provides rhythmic punctuation and embellishment across genres


  • Trough-like open-ended gourd or wood instrument
  • Grooved surface scraped by stick
  • Adds texture and rhythmic layers to Latin, Jazz, World music

This sampling displays the immense tonal and textural variety existing beyond standard drums kits courtesy of the wider percussion instrument family.

Key Drum and Percussion Groupings

We can also cluster some drums and percussion instruments sharing functionality:

Beamable Percussion

  • Notated on musical staves with staff lines
  • Includes timpani, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel
  • Enable melodic and harmonic ideas akin to wind/string sections

Auxiliary/Accessory Percussion

  • Provide rhythmic punctuation, texture and coloring
  • Examples: triangle, tambourine, shakers, guiro, claves, woodblock
  • Often improvise embellishments within stylistic norms

World/Ethnic Percussion

  • Culturally specific drums and percussion like djembe, dhol, tabla, pandeiro
  • Blend rhythmic foundations with melodic phrasing
  • Associated with ceremonial and festive folkloric music

Drum Kit Percussion

  • Standard component drums like snares, toms, cymbals
  • Combine to form modern drum sets across genres
  • Drummers integrate melodic percussion like cowbells, triangles, tambourines to expand sonic capabilities at the kit

This organizational structure captures some of the overlapping roles yet unique musical voices granted percussion instruments alongside standard drum types.

Advantages of Percussion Skills for Drummers

Even though clear differences exist, drummers benefit tremendously from developing additional proficiencies on other percussion instruments too. Reasons why include:

Elevate Musicianship

  • Gain independence and limb coordination through mallets and hand drums
  • Unlock new melodic roles beyond rhythmic timekeeping

Increase Listening Sensitivity

  • Blend brighter percussion tones balancing cymbal qualities
  • Intuit new rhythmic feels from diverse cultural instruments

Widen Creativity and Expression

  • Add exotic spices like shakers, triangles and vintage sounds
  • Sculpt drum kit textures and vibes otherwise unachievable

Improve Ensemble Communication

  • Build camaraderie collaborating with percussion sections
  • Lead productive rehearsals coaching parts

Enjoy Wider Professional Opportunities

  • Meet bandleader preferences for auxiliary percussion skills
  • Facilitate earning by gigging across more instruments

The symbiosis runs both directions too – malleting technique from xylophone directly improves snare drum rudiments and stick control! So while differences exist between percussion and drums, intermixing these worlds pays creative dividends.


In summary, crucial distinctions hold between drums and the wider percussion instrument family spanning construction, playing mechanics, musical roles and categorization. But learning to blend these diverse sound qualities and functions helps drummers evolve more complete musicians.

Hopefully this breakdown of how drums and other percussion instruments compare and contrast provides clearer communications for educators, music directors, drummers and all players. Mastering the lexicon allows conveying needs more easily at rehearsals, sessions and performances from both the drum throne and conductor’s podium.

Any drummer also limits potential creativity without exploring instruments beyond the standard kit like shakers, triangles and mallets. Supplementing the dynamic voice of drums with even brighter percussion textures makes drum