Classical music evolved from baroque music, which in turn evolved from Renaissance music. Both baroque and even more so Renaissance make extensive use of percussion. It is certainly not new to European music, nor even to "elite" European music. For example, here percussion is used diversely and plentifully in almost every piece, throughout the whole duration:

Or another example from a slightly later period:

There is certainly no shortage of it in baroque, although it is less abundant than in Renaissance and it moves somewhat to the background. Say, Lully:

But then it largely disappears except to highlight some rare moment, quite differently from the bulk of baroque and Renaissance, and differently from much of other music from the same areas.

There was plenty of percussion used in other European music contemporaneous with classical, whether folk or marches, in much the same way as in most modern music, which does not seem to employ it in some more complex fashion as those who suggest that it is mainly a West African influence. Church music with its prohibition on drums was even more prominent at the time of baroque and Renaissance than during classical, and in any case this kind of music is frequently ordered by the rich and/or noble. Percussion being "un-Christian" did not stop the baroque and Renaissance authors, even at a time when the Ottomans were a more direct threat.

Was it a unique ideological point for classical music to start excluding the extensive use of percussion as being insufficiently rational, too primal and primitive, too peasantly, too distant from the enlightened ideal, and so on? Does anyone write about this?

  • Interesting question! There are other changes as well, like decreasing role of wind instruments vs string section. Maybe both are related? Aug 13, 2020 at 3:15
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    I'm not sure, whether baroque from the title would not better be replaced by renaissance; I would consider percussion as only occasionally used in baroque perhaps with exception of opera (and some other works), where it is frequently used to add an oriental touch, see [wikipedia](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_music_(style).
    – guidot
    Aug 13, 2020 at 7:09
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    Related question.
    – guidot
    Aug 13, 2020 at 8:41
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    Modern performers of renaissance music use a fair amount of percussion, but as far as I know, there are no scores from the period which specify their use- it's just assumed from contemporary sources. Composers started writing parts for percussion in the Baroque period. Aug 13, 2020 at 9:26
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    I would tend to think that this is more a matter of which genres of music you're looking at in a given period. The early renaissance stuff full of percussion is closer (I think) to our current jazz and rock bands than to our formal chamber music or symphonic organizations. Aug 13, 2020 at 13:41

3 Answers 3


As noted in comments, some of this is dependent on genre. As Albrecht notes in another answer, military music made use of drums and sometimes other percussion in all periods. Same thing with ceremonial music that often had militaristic ensembles playing at it. It seems like dance music for popular use also made frequent use of percussion.

However, percussion is very rarely indicated in any early music. Renaissance performance groups today frequently use it when it is genre-appropriate (e.g., for dances, etc.) because we have iconographic evidence of percussion (i.e., paintings and drawings of performances with people playing drums, etc.), not because there are any notated percussion parts.

In general, many people may be unaware of how fragmentary many of these early sources are. In many cases, renaissance dances may only have an extant melody in the actual written source, which performance ensembles use to generate a piece for an entire group of instruments (in a similar way to how a melodic lead sheet might be interpreted by a jazz ensemble today). What we hear on performances of renaissance and medieval music often contains a huge amount of speculation as to what they may have actually sounded like. In other cases, we may have a written melody in one source and then an intabulation for lute or guitar with harmony in another source (as these sorts of arrangements were quite common), and the two are used together to generate a kind of "lead sheet" with melody and harmony for performance today.

David Munrow in particular -- while a leading figure in the modern "early music revival" in his brief life -- was well-known for inventing all sorts of nonsense in his "recreations," which are probably far from any sort of "authentic" performance in many cases. (See here for a lot more info.) And while I love Jordi Savall (and have been to a few concerts), his performances too tend to resemble a sort of "jam session" that sometimes has authentic connections to historical performance practice and sometimes is mostly pure modern invention. The thing about such performances is that they do draw audiences, and often have some sort of grounding in the type of ensembles and techniques used historically. Whereas a literal performance of only the surviving original source (like a single melody) wouldn't be very satisfactory.

Anyhow, back to the central issue of percussion: it existed in dance music throughout history and never left. In other genres, it never existed. For example, it would be completely inappropriate for percussion to accompany a renaissance mass (other than maybe ringing of bells at an appropriate service moment), and that remained the case for most sacred music throughout the baroque period.

Part of the problem is that we have so few sources for instrumental music at all before the baroque, so ensembles do the best with what we have, which was often for things like dance music. That sort of music continued to be written down in later eras, but we tend to think of them as "folk dances" which still only had a notated melody or whatever in the baroque and classical (and even romantic) periods, so they perhaps aren't as frequently performed today, even if they were likely accompanied by percussion historically as well.

Bottom line is that the question's apparent trend is merely due to selection bias in what sources we have for what sorts of genres vs. what tends to be performed today. Well, that and the fact that the music we tend to emphasize in "classical" ensembles from 1600 to 1900 often is associated with elite music played at court functions (i.e., fairly small, intimate venues where percussion was out of place), churches, and then in concert halls, where loud boisterous drumming was viewed as less "refined" and unnecessary compared to the music at the local dance hall.

  • Usually I don't vote on questions I answer, but this is such a good answer +1. Your comments about Munrow, Savall, and "jam sessions" gets me thinking about the tabla in the sitar music I've heard. And of course I'm thinking of how influential Ravi Shankar was in the 1960's. Maybe that influence how people thought the percussion should sound in Renaissance dance music? Aug 13, 2020 at 23:00
  • @MichaelCurtis I am not aware of Indian influence, but I know that some early music performers of the 60s, such as Thomas Binkley, drew from North African influences. As far as I understand it that was inspired by the North African origins of many European instruments.
    – phoog
    Aug 14, 2020 at 1:03
  • Jordi Savall also conducts more traditional orchestral concerts where the "jam session" ethos is not nearly as prominent or absent altogether -- just a warning to those who might be inspired to go to YouTube and then wonder what you're talking about if they settle on the wrong video.
    – phoog
    Aug 14, 2020 at 1:05
  • @phoog: yes, you're absolutely right. Some of Savall's stuff is very painstaking and trying to attain maximum historical accuracy. And to be clear, I admire Savall a great deal. (And the "jam session" stuff may be somewhat accurate too; we just don't know as much about how it worked historically.)
    – Athanasius
    Aug 16, 2020 at 4:18
  • Now I'm curious to see what would happen if you threw classical pieces into GarageBand and apply its built-in auto-drummer tool. Aug 17, 2020 at 19:18

This answer doesn't explain why there werde used less percussion instruments in the common practice period. It rather says it was rarely used in the western art-music while it was quite common in Renaissance "pop"music.

For centuries, drums were instruments of the traveling minstrels and the military. In European military music of the Middle Ages and early modern times, the slung drum was often played by a single player ... Due to the Arab rule in Spain, the Crusades and the Turkish rule in Eastern Europe, a large part of these percussion instruments found their way into the music of the West. In European art music, drums were rarely used until the 17th century. For the spheres of expression of the warlike or the sublime, the solemn and the representative, however, the military instruments trumpet and timpani, which gradually established themselves in the baroque orchestra, were often used. The snare drum with a rattle mechanism was added later from the military sector. The bass drum found its way into the orchestra together with the triangle and cymbals in the course of Turkish fashion in the 18th century.

Google Translation of a German link: Classical music- Early music- Drums


Did it?

...it's hard to not notice the prominence of the timpani. Percussion here seems much more important than the Lully example you posted.

I think you need to word the question much more specifically and especially make clear what instrumental genres you are comparing. You don't want to specify dance genres in one era and then compare generally to an entire different era. Also, your setting up a kind of quantitative comparison by using words like abundantly, extensive, plentiful but then not providing any measure.

Having said that, I would go along with a comparison of something like Renaissance dance music and classical sets of minuets, German dances, etc and say percussion seems less prominent in the classical music. My first thought would be to dig into the patronage of the music and association with folk music. I would expect an association between percussion and folk music and the classical style moved toward aristocratic, court music which did not want the folk music associations.

Behind this folk/courtly split I suspect there is historically a secular versus sacred music difference. In other words the secular dance music of the earlier periods was probably more clearly non-sacred in style. As dances became stylized moving toward the classical era the musical style was much more similar to sacred music. (I'm think of stuff like Corelli's trio sonatas, for chiesa/camera, where I really can't hear a difference in their sacred versus secular styles.) So, I'm suggest a gradual shift from folk/secular in dance music to a courtly style that more or less developed out of church music.

Finally, consider the historic sources for all this music. A lot of the early stuff is anonymous, and the score I have seen don't actually notate percussion. I don't mean the modern recordings with percussion are not historically authentic, but it complicates the matter. If the percussion was added based on availability and the performer, just how much percussion was there? By the same token, of the many books of dances from the 17th century scored generically for a treble instrument (often given in title as "violin or flute") and continuo would the ensemble playing the stuff ever be augmented with a ad-lib percussionist?

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