With my little knowledge of classical music I noticed, and I believe most people would agree, that unpitched percussive instrument play a much less prominent role in classical music than in most popular music.

When I say classical I think of music from major composers: Bach, Bethooven, Vivaldi and so on, that is, what an average uneducated listener would refer to as classical. And when I refer to popular music I mean it in an inclusive sense: jazz, rock, pop and other genres where the drums often times underline the beat in a distinctive manner.

As suggested in the comments, I say unpitched to rule out percussive instruments such as piano and marimba. While they are percussive they seem their melodic nature make them take up a different role. A perfectly good answer might be that pitched instruments are considered fit for all purposes in classical music and "crowd out" other percussive instruments.

So, why does it seem that classical pieces have so little unpitched percussive instruments?

I imagine there must be both musical and historical reasons for this, please enlighten me (us)!

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    Before answering a question, we need to work out whether it's a valid question. Have you seen the percussion section of a symphony orchestra? There is a large variety of instruments.
    – user48353
    Mar 31, 2018 at 23:15
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    Would you agree that comparatively to jazz ensembles or pop or rock bands percussion are way less prominent? I'm not claiming there is no percussion instruments. I would like to know about their, apparently, smaller role in classical music.
    – Three Diag
    Mar 31, 2018 at 23:26
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    Excluding piano and marimba? Why do rock bands have so little percussion, excluding drum kits? Apr 1, 2018 at 3:58
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    Just wanted to add that I think this is a valid question. The OP is not making a value judgement in classical music, but is asking a questions that deals with compositional and performative practice through a historical lense. A very similar question could be written about use (or development of) brass in classical music. That said, I think it’s important to specify the musical period we’re talking about - obviously the Romantic and 20th Century saw an increase in use. No need to get offended here, folks. Apr 1, 2018 at 11:56
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    Thanks @jjmusicnotes, this is the spirit of the question. Through my quite uneducated ears I've noticed as much: unpitched percussion instrument in classical music play a much less prominent role than in modern day, popular music. I'd like to know why.
    – Three Diag
    Apr 1, 2018 at 12:08

4 Answers 4


Simply put, the answer is because of the influence of West African music on "Western" musical traditions.

If western Europe is the mother of harmony, west Africa is the mother of rhythm. Is that a trite oversimplification? Of course, but it's a meaningful start.

By analogy, it's fair to say that with the introduction of European music to much of the world, the entire harmonic language of the popular music of those countries changed: complex harmony involving cadences, modulations, even the very idea of "chord progressions" is something that isn't found in much of the indigenous music of much of the world, which is often either modal, strongly melodic, or drone based. When you hear bollywood music that involves an "indian sounding" (i.e. microtonal) melody over a band that nevertheless changes chords, that is down to "western" influence on Indian music.

This is a story that is universal to music worldwide, musical traditions both modern and ancient are inevitably products of other varied music traditions that a people or culture have contact with. The history of "western classical music" (or common practice period music if you prefer that term) is full of influence from the different and varied folk traditions of different peoples within Europe.

The concept of multiple overlapping semi-regular rhythms that all exist relative to one inflexible metronomic pulse, and interplay with each other to collectively create a "groove" is something fundamental to West African music, and something that is largely absent from Western European Common Practice Period music.

In a lot Western European art music, the pulse of the music is something that ebbs and flows, and pushing and pulling at the rhythm is part of the musical expression (much as is true dynamics, areas of light and shade create deeper expression). In music like this, the use of untuned percussion to "keep the beat" is something that stifles musical expression rather than aids it, and so for orchestral music (except in some more modern works) untuned percussion, even when present in large numbers, isn't there for the same purpose as untuned percussion in modern popular music, it's there to give colour, to emphasise certain sections and certain moments, it's there to build tension and give release, but it's rarely used to "keep the beat" as with African drumming, jazz, pop, or EDM for example.

This flexible expressive relationship to rhythm is something found across European art music throughout the common practice period, and contrary to some popular belief is not a "romantic invention". (In fact, applying strict, computer-like approach to rhythmic interpretation when playing say bach is very much a modern invention, but this is another conversation).

There is of course European music in which the pulse is less flexible: dance music like jigs necessarily has a more regular pulse, and even more so with music for marching (military bands which obviously also influenced popular music, it's where the snare drum comes from after all). But even in these dances and marches, there is once, constant rhythm being played throughout the music, by one drum, or multiple drums in unison, you don't find the "groove" of West African music (multiple overlapping rhythms).

Modern genres featuring prominent use of untuned percussion such as jazz, rock, pop, funk and most electronic music follows in the footsteps of west African drumming. The expressive possibilities of a pulse that ebbs and flows (Chopin's music for example maximises this) are abandoned, in favour of a different set of expressive possibilities that come from a fixed pulse with multiple interweaving rhythms. In Latin American music and west african music, this is mostly achieved by multiple drummers playing together, each one on a single instrument (a Samba rhythm section exemplifies this).

In jazz and rock for example, the drum kit essentially performs the role of allowing one drummer to perform the role of multiple instruments simultaneously, while additionally giving that drummer more creative control to change the beat as and how they please (leading to the "fill", something much easier to achieve with a kit than a group of musicians). Listen to the drumming on "superstition" and it's possible to imagine 3 dudes playing separately on a hi hat, kick drum and snare drum, who all occasionally stop for a second to allow a fourth dude to smack out a fill on another snare drum.

This ability to play distinct independent parts simultaneously all while creating a global groove is one of the most impressive things (to me at least) of "drumkit" drummers, and something that separates great drummers from good drummers is their ability to maintain intricacy in the separate parts while keeping the whole.

In electronic music, the artist is free to program as much or as little percussion as they see fit, (and usually opts for the much option), and almost always performs the function of a "groove", created by sounds that regardless of their actual source are still referred to as the kick snare, hi-hats, crashes etc. Electronic music is at the opposite extreme from group drumming: frequent variation in the parts, and changes to the groove is determined by how much the artist wishes to do it, and the longer pre-programmed (rather than live) electronic music has existed as an independent genre, the more the musicians take advantage of this complete freedom in their percussion arrangements.

In summary, even in classical music that includes large percussion sections, those musicians are not performing the same role musically as the percussion is in much of modern music. The qualitatively different (and more prominent) role of untuned percussion in modern popular music is something which has its genesis in West African drumming, and the influence of West African music on the music of the Americas (both north and south) as a consequence of the slave trade, and subsequent incorporation into to global popular music traditions of the 20th century.

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    People here might have noticed that I haven't cited any sources. This is knowledge I've picked up along the way from reading articles here and there, conversations with drummers I respect, interviews and talks, and looking at the music itself. I'm sure there are books out there on the subject that are better written and better sourced, and I'm sure I've missed out parts of the story, but to the best of my knowledge the above is true, and makes perfect sense when you look at the music itself.
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 2, 2018 at 13:22
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    @ThreeDiag thanks for your thanks, and for posting such an interesting question in the first place :)
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 2, 2018 at 13:24

Western Classical music doesn't really have any concept of back beat / off-beat. The strong, pulse-defining beats are always 1 and 3 (in common time; in ³⁄₄ time it's only the 1). You can certainly use drums and cymbals for such a rhythm, but it invariably gives pretty unsubtle results: you get a march. Feels quite militaristic and certainly not light and dance-like.

In popular music the rhythms (at least the drum parts) are by contrast descended from Rock'n'Roll related genres, where the strong beats are the 2 and 4. Even if a drummer keeps hammering down these beats on the snare throughout the entire piece, it will not sound march-like, because the actual musical movement (harmonic etc.) is still free to evolve around the 1 and 3, with space for individualistic syncopation and freedom to dance a bit out of line.

Now, classical music does have syncopation too, and it is indeed used a lot in particular for dances. Actually, syncopation is often described as synomymous to “off beat” – but IMO both are completely different! A syncopated note is a note that conceptually belongs on a strong beat, but is played at a different time (usually earlier). That is a paradigm classical musicians routinely follow even if it's not written out by the composer at all – the “flowing time” already discussed in the other answers. Waltz is basically always played a little out of time, it's crucial part of the gracious feel of the dance.
But this kind of thing only really works on instruments that are able to “smear” the emphasis. Bowed strings excel at this, but most other classical instruments are to some degree capable of it too (arpeggiated piano chords etc.).
But guess who's not capable of it? Exactly, the unpitched percussion instruments. If drums play syncopated, it's serious business, more characteristic of nerve-wrecking modern classical music than soothing classical/romantic feel.

That is, unless the actual defining steady beat happens elsewhere: jazz, funk and many other popular genres feature lots of syncopation, but manage to nevertheless sound nice and groovy because something keeps a steady 2 and 4 back beat. Usually snare, hi-hat or guitar chords.


As replete mentions in the comment, there typically are a large number of percussion instruments in the orchestra. But it is fair to say that in the classical world - whether looking at orchestral music or small ensembles - you don't really often get the prominent sound of a 'rhythm section' playing elaborate lines the way you do in pop, rock, jazz etc.

One problem is just that of relative volume - in a small ensemble, many drums would be much louder than most acoustic instruments.

Of course that isn't an issue with a full orchestra - but you get a different issue when an ensemble is spread across a large stage, possibly in a reverberant environment, in that really detailed rhythms tend to get smeared, and it's hard to for a large number of performers to play detailed rhythms in time with each other with the level of precision needed to make a rhythmic groove work. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I've seen it attempted a few times, unfortunately usually with rather embarrassing results.

Both of these problems can be solved with amplification, which is one reason why the 'rhythm section' can be a bigger feature of pop and rock.

The jazz solution is a bit subtler though - use quite loud acoustic instruments (piano, sax, trumpet) along with a drumming technique that works at moderate volume (e.g. the use of brushes). And one can imagine similar solutions in a classical environment, so it's probably something of an accident of history that few classical composers went a similar route with prominent percussion in small ensembles.

Another finger I would point (tentatively) would be at standard notation. Although it's very clever and efficient in the way that it represents rhythm, it's somewhat deficient in really pinning down particular rhythmic feels (or 'grooves', as they might be called). So it's perhaps understandable that it's the traditions where the use of notation is less prominent (folk, rock, jazz, etc.) where detailed, prominent percussive rhythms are more commonly found.

We might also consider the function of classical and popular genres. Classical music spans a range of functions - including religious and 'programme' music, as well as dance pieces. The popular music genres that spring to mind, on the other hand, are often very dance-oriented, lending themselves to featuring strong rhythm sections. If we think of pop genres that aren't so dance-based (perhaps the one-man-and-his-guitar folk balladeer, or even hymns?), we also notice the lack of a percussive rhythm section.


IMO this is not a valid question:

You are asking: "Why is Genre A not like Genres B, C and D?"

The answer is: "Because Genre A is not like Genres B, C and D."

Unless there is a compelling reason that Genre A should be like Genre B yet it is not like like Genre B, it is not valid to ask why they are different, no more than it is valid to ask why some people don't like vanilla, even though others do, since no compelling reason has been given why someone should like vanilla, such that we need to explain why they don't.

People are diverse, and so is their music.


In the comments, the OP states that their intent is not to put the onus on classical music, but simply to ask 'why are these genres different from one another'.

I am not sure what the point of contention is, since the question clearly asks why classical is different: Why does unpitched percussion play a less prominent role in classical music than many other genres? but that is irrelevant. Even taking into account the OP's contention, the question remains invalid, as stated: No reason has been offered explaining why they should be the same, such that we need to explain why they are different.

If they mean to ask a general question - "Why do different genres exist?", then that is the question that should be asked. It is not the question that is posted, which clearly juxtaposes one genre against others and asks why it is different- or why they differ from one another.

Different strokes for different folks.


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