Idiophones create sound through actual vibrations within the instrument itself. These vibrations compress and rarefy the surrounding air to create sound which travels to our ears in the form of longitudinal waves. Some characteristics of idiophones are:
· Idiophones do not rely on vibrating strings for sound, like a guitar or violin.
· Idiophones also do not use vibrating membranes to create their sound, similar to other percussion instruments like drums.
Examples of idiophones are xylophones, cymbals, hi-hats, and bells.
The xylophone is an example of a struck idiophone. The player must use mallets to strike blocks of wood consisting of different sizes arranged in a keyboard like pattern. Different sized blocks create different pitches. Longer blocks coorelate to lower frequencies and thus lower pitches, while shorter blocks create higher frequencies and thus higher pitches. Here is a layout of xylophone blocks in relation to a musical scale:
Sometimes the blocks are made out of metal which has a significantly different mass than wood, creating unique frequencies. Although similar in appearance to xylophones, these instruments are called vibraphones.
Cymbals and Hi-Hats
Cymbals are metal discs that can create a variety of sounds relative to their mass, shape and mounting. Cymbals can either be held and smashed into each other, usually known as crash cymbals, or they can be mounted and struck with mallets or drumsticks. Hi-hats are similar to cymbals in size and shape, and are paired together via a connecting rod that is attached to a stand. Hi-hats are struck by the player with mallets, drumsticks or brushes, but their sound is significantly varied by the operation of a foot pedal.
Bells may be struck by mallets or drumsticks, but most bells (like the hand bell above) use a type of mallet suspended inside the bell itself called a clapper. Once again the size, shape and mass determine the different frequencies of vibration. Larger and heavier bells resonate at lower frequencies while smaller and lighter bells resonate at higher frequencies.
The bell has a rich history that spans the globe that reflects many varieties and uses. We can not forget the most famous bell in modern music:
“I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription… is more cowbell!”
Bloomfield, Louis A. How Things Work. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. 2006. Pg 281-285.
Pinksterboer, Hugo and Rick Mattingly. The Cymbal Book. Hal Leonard Corporation. 1993