Why does classical music (at least from the past) lack drums?


I wonder why the great classical composers from history like Mozart, Beethoven, etc. didn’t make more use of drums or percussion in general?

I mean, they did write quite a lot of bombastic pieces and did all they could to make the parts that needed it to hit hard. So why did’nt they use more than one or two bangs on a kettle drum, giving the one who played them the most boring job in the orchestra?

Also I know that a drum-kit is a rather modern invention, but couldn’t they have used different guys playing different kinds of percussion?

Also maybe I’m completely mistaken and this turns out to be a list of classical music with some blasting in it..

Edit: I’m sencerely apologising to every classical percussionist, reading the answers I clearly underestimated your role

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15 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

If you think that classical music only have one or two bangs on a kettle drum as the only percussion in the song you have not listened to a lot of classical music. A typical orchestra have a percussion section of at least four musicians each playing several different instruments. The problem is that because there are so many different musicians playing at once it can be hard to hear the individual instruments. It is even worse for the typically deeper instruments like most drums. But they add a lot of depth and highlights to the music and are an important part of the performance. If you hear a piece of classical music performed without pecussion you might not tell exactly what is wrong but you can tell that something is missing and the entire performance as weak and dull.

But you do have music that is written without percussion. The role that the percussion fills in music, that of rhythm and depth, can be filled by other instruments. A lot of bass instruments can fill this role when needed. And even things like piano when that became available can play a rhythm with the left hand just like a drummer. You might also have seen musicians stomping ther foot, clapping their hands, etc. to create some rhythm when there is missing or little percussion available.

Anonymous 0 Comments

While there are some counterexamples, the reason we don’t associate classical music with percussion is that it largely grew out of sacral music, which was primarily vocal in tradition — it was sung in churches. So the instrumentation used more closely reflected this, with winds and strings that could take the place of or harmonize with voice.

Percussion, on the other hand, would have been largely associated with military and folk music.

Anonymous 0 Comments

I think it was a matter of timing? And perhaps philosophy? If by classical, you mean European, then it’s not hard to trace classical music roots to folks like Plato, who espoused the notion that the percussive beat of music was primal and perhaps tribal. Unleashing the passions of man was not recommended.

I’m also pretty sure that by the time of the composers you mentioned, percussion instruments were being used all over the Turkish/Ottoman world, and those instruments soon found their way into classical compositions.

As for the use of drums, evidence of their use has been discovered going back many thousands of years.

Anonymous 0 Comments

the percussion players/drummers of classical orchestras may not look like they’re doing much, but it’s a vital part of most arrangements. you won’t notice too much if one or a couple of all violins don’t start at the exact same time, some might not be 100% in terms of pitch, but you WILL notice if the one fucking BANG doesn’t sit exactly at the right time. apart from the conductor, they also help keep the rhythm and all others in time. quite an important position really, no margin for errors.

side note, jokes about the most boring orchestra members tend to be about viola players.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Many people have already commented well, but I will also remind everyone, including OP, that “Classical” (with a capital C) music is also defined as music from about 1750-1830-ish. And indeed percussion was started to be more incorporated. However, if you mean “classical” in a more general, pop-culture way, then most percussion instruments starts to get more use in the mid 1800s onward.

Just a friendly reminder that the term classical to musicians means a specific time period, which would effect style, instrumentation, etc. (and, as with most arts, these same time periods have similar connections to European art and cultural differences as well!)

Anonymous 0 Comments

Having drums going all the way through a piece is an African concept. Classical music just used percussion for accents. In a loud reverberant church or concert hall too many drums would turn into a wash of sound. Many African drumming traditions came about for open air spaces and communication over distance.

Anonymous 0 Comments

If you want to hear Classical music with amazing percussion, try Indian Classical Music. Its composition and structure is wildly different from Western Classical so it will not feel the same. But the rhythm is an integral part, and all in complicated yet structured patterns.

Here is a legendary performance: https://youtu.be/lWWra6QDQ-8

Raag Bihag, gat in drut teental (composition in fast 16 beat cycle) by Ustads Vilayat Khan on the sitar and Sukhwinder Singh on the tabla.

Anonymous 0 Comments

While we are at it, why does 20th century pop music lack alto clarinets?

Anonymous 0 Comments

I’m an orchestral percussionist – we also do the gongs triangles shaky things tambourines xylophones glocks etc you might not notice it but it’s all in there and keeps us busy throughout (edit spelling)

Anonymous 0 Comments

Classical percussionist here. Percussion instruments weren’t really part of the western classical idiom until later. With the exception of timpani (commonly used in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s music), like others have said, percussion was mostly reserved for military use and folk music from other cultures. The first use of a percussion section was the famous finale of Beethoven’s 9th, where he was trying to replicate the sound of a Janissary (Turkish) band. He wrote for bass drum, cymbals, and triangle, which would have been much different “versions” of those instruments than we know today.

It wasn’t really until the mid-late 1800s that we see percussion being fully utilized in western classical music, but even then, they were borrowed from other cultures and used to mimic folk music from those traditions (the Nutcracker is quintessential “I heard this instrument in a far away land and I’ll try to replicate it in a symphony” with Tchaikovsky’s use of percussion in the second half).