medieval percussion instruments

Rhythms of the Realm: Exploring Percussion Instruments of the Medieval Era

The Middle Ages were a time of great artistic and cultural development, with music playing a vital role in society. While many are familiar with the string and wind instruments of the time, percussion instruments also had a significant presence in medieval music. From the pounding of drums to the shimmering resonance of cymbals, medieval percussion instruments brought depth and complexity to musical compositions.

Key Takeaways

  • Percussion instruments played an important role in medieval music
  • Drums, tambourines, cymbals, bells, shakers, and rattles were all commonly used in medieval music
  • Medieval percussion instruments added rhythm and vibrancy to melodies

The Role of Percussion in Medieval Music

Medieval music is known for its distinctive sound, which was largely shaped by the instruments used during that time. While stringed and wind instruments were widely popular, percussion instruments played a significant role in adding rhythm and enhancing the overall musical experience.

Percussion instruments in medieval times were varied and unique, and each instrument had its own cultural significance. They were used in both secular and religious music, reflecting the diverse nature of medieval society. Medieval instruments were often handmade, with each instrument having its own distinct sound due to variations in construction and materials used.

Percussion instruments in medieval music were primarily used to keep time and create a steady beat, allowing other instruments to play in harmony. They were also used to add depth and texture to the music, creating a dynamic and lively sound.

The use of percussion instruments in medieval music was not limited to specific genres but was present in all forms of medieval music, including instrumental and vocal music. Some of the most popular percussion instruments of the time included drums, tambourines, cymbals, bells, as well as shakers and rattles.

Medieval music, including the use of percussion instruments, has played a significant role in shaping the music we know today. Understanding the role of these instruments in medieval music allows us to appreciate the rich history and cultural heritage of music in our world.

Drums: The Heartbeat of Medieval Music

Drums were an essential component of medieval music, providing a steady beat for accompanying vocal and instrumental performances. These instruments were often made from animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, producing a deep, resonant sound that carried well in large, open spaces.

There were several types of medieval drums, each with its unique character and purpose. The tabor, for instance, was a small, handheld drum that was often played in conjunction with a piper during processions and dances. The bodhrán was a larger drum, commonly used in Celtic music, while the timpani was an enormous kettle drum played in grandiose medieval orchestras.

Drum Type Description
Tabor A small, handheld drum played with a stick, often used in processions and dances.
Bodhrán A large, Celtic drum made from goatskin and played with a tapper or brush.
Timpani An enormous kettle drum played with soft mallets in medieval orchestras.

Drums in medieval times were often used in conjunction with other percussion instruments such as tambourines and cymbals to create intricate rhythms and add depth to musical compositions. Medieval drumming techniques varied from region to region, with some players using multiple sticks, brushes, or even their bare hands to produce different sounds and effects.

Overall, drums played a crucial role in medieval music, providing a rhythmic foundation for other instruments to build upon. They were often considered the heartbeat of the music, adding a sense of energy and excitement to performances.

Tambourines: Adding Vibrancy to Melodies

The use of tambourines in medieval music brought a vibrant quality to compositions, enhancing the overall listening experience. These percussion instruments were often played by hand, producing a rhythmic beat that complemented the melody of the music.

There were various types of tambourines used during the medieval period. The most commonly used was the frame drum, which consisted of a wooden hoop and animal skin stretched over one side. This type of tambourine was played by striking the edge with the knuckles or by shaking it. Another type was the jingle ring tambourine, which had small metallic discs or bells attached to the frame, emitting a bright and resonant sound when shaken or hit.

The medieval tambourine was also used in both religious and secular music. In spiritual music, tambourines provided a celebratory element to hymns and chants, whereas in popular music, tambourines were often included in dance music, adding a lively and festive energy to the atmosphere.

Overall, tambourines were an integral part of medieval percussion instruments, adding vibrancy and rhythm to a wide range of musical compositions.

Cymbals: Unleashing the Power of Resonance

Cymbals are one of the most iconic percussion instruments in the medieval era, known for their ability to create shimmering effects and add depth to the overall sound. These instruments are comprised of two circular plates that resonate when struck together, producing a distinctive and clear sound.

The most common types of cymbals used during this period were the hi-hat cymbals and the ride cymbals, each of which produced unique tonalities and were used for different musical purposes. Hi-hat cymbals were typically used to create rhythmic patterns, while ride cymbals were used for longer sustained sounds and to accentuate melodies.

Interestingly, different sizes of cymbals were also utilized to produce varying sounds and effects. Smaller cymbals produced high-pitched notes, while larger cymbals produced lower tones and more sustained sounds.

One of the key characteristics of cymbals in medieval music was their ability to add resonance and complexity to compositions. They were often used in combination with other percussion instruments, such as drums and tambourines, to create dynamic and multi-layered rhythmic patterns.

Given their versatility and importance in the music of the time, it is no wonder that cymbals remain an essential component of many musical genres today. As we continue to explore the realm of medieval percussion instruments, we can appreciate the lasting impact and influence of cymbals in shaping the musical landscape of the past and present.

Bells: A Heavenly Addition to Medieval Melodies

In medieval times, bells were not only used to mark the time of day but were also incorporated in musical compositions. Different types of bells were used, ranging from small handheld bells to large church bells. They were played either by swinging them or using clappers, and were often used to create a sense of grandeur and spirituality in music.

Bell Type Description
Handbells Small bells that could be rung by hand or attached to a frame for ensemble playing. They were commonly used in religious music and had a clear, bright sound.
Tower Bells Large bells that were hung in church towers and rang by pulling on ropes attached to clappers. They had a deep, resonant sound and were used to signal important events such as weddings and funerals.
Chimes A set of tubes or rods that were struck with hammers to create a ringing sound. They were often used in conjunction with other percussion instruments to create complex rhythmic patterns.

In addition to their musical function, bells also had a spiritual significance in medieval times. They were believed to ward off evil spirits and bring blessings to those who heard them. The sound of bells was often associated with the divine, and they were used in religious ceremonies to create a sense of awe and reverence.

Overall, bells were an important and diverse addition to medieval music, adding a sense of grandeur and spirituality to musical compositions.

Shakers and Rattles: Creating Eclectic Rhythms

Medieval music was known for its dynamic range of percussion instruments, including shakers and rattles. These instruments were used to create unique and eclectic rhythmic patterns, adding depth and complexity to compositions.

The medieval shaker was constructed using a variety of materials, including clay, wood, and animal hides. These shakers were designed to produce a range of sounds, from light and delicate to deep and resonant. The rattles used during this time were also varied, with some made from bones or shells and others from metal or wood.

Shakers Rattles
Clay Bones
Wood Shells
Animal hides Metal

Shakers and rattles were often used in conjunction with other percussion instruments, such as drums and tambourines, to create a complex and layered sound. In medieval times, these instruments were also used for ceremonial purposes, often played during religious festivals and processions.

The unique sound and versatility of shakers and rattles made them highly sought after in medieval music. They allowed musicians to experiment with different rhythms and sounds, creating new and exciting musical compositions.

Today, shakers and rattles remain popular percussion instruments, used in many different music genres. But their rich history can be traced back to the medieval era, where they played an integral role in the development of music.

Other Percussion Instruments of the Medieval Era

While drums, tambourines, cymbals, bells, shakers, and rattles were among the most popular percussion instruments in the Middle Ages, they were not the only ones. There were many other fascinating and unique percussion instruments worth exploring.

One such instrument is the crotales, also known as handbells. These small handheld metal bells were struck together to create a bright and clear sound. They were often used in religious music, particularly during the Christmas season.

Another intriguing percussion instrument from medieval times is the psalterium. This was a type of stringed instrument that was plucked or struck to produce sound. It featured a number of strings arranged in parallel, and was played with a plectrum or hammer. Although the psalterium was not strictly a percussion instrument, it was often used to provide rhythm and tonal support in medieval music.

The nakers were another lesser-known percussion instrument of the medieval era. These were small, paired kettledrums that were struck with sticks. They were often used in military music, adding a sense of pageantry and excitement to parades and other public events.

Finally, there were a number of obscure and unique percussion instruments used in specific regions of medieval Europe. For example, the tambourin de Béarn was a type of tambourine used in the Béarn region of France. It had a distinct shape and sound, and was often played during festive gatherings and celebrations.

Overall, the range of percussion instruments used in the medieval era was vast and varied. While some instruments remain well-known to this day, others have been lost to history. By exploring these lesser-known percussion instruments, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the rich musical heritage of the Middle Ages.


Medieval percussion instruments played a vital role in creating the mesmerizing music of the time. From the powerful beats of the drums to the shimmering effects of the cymbals, each instrument contributed to the overall richness and depth of the music.

Exploring the various types of medieval percussion instruments, we have discovered the cultural significance of each instrument and how they were used in different contexts.

The legacy of these historical instruments is still felt today, as modern musicians continue to draw inspiration from their unique sounds and incorporate them into contemporary compositions.

Overall, the rhythms of the realm will continue to resonate for generations to come, reminding us of the beauty and power of medieval music and the importance of preserving historical instruments.

Medieval Percussion Instruments: A Timeless Treasure

As we conclude our journey through medieval percussion instruments, it is clear that they hold a special place in musical history. The diverse array of instruments, each with their unique sounds and cultural significance, continue to captivate and inspire musicians today. Whether it’s the thunderous beats of the drums or the gentle chiming of bells, there is something undeniably enchanting about the rhythms of the realm.


Q: What were the most common percussion instruments used in medieval music?

A: The most common percussion instruments used in medieval music were drums, tambourines, cymbals, bells, shakers, and rattles.

Q: What was the role of percussion instruments in medieval music?

A: Percussion instruments played a crucial role in providing rhythm and enhancing the overall musical experience in medieval music.

Q: What types of drums were used in the medieval era?

A: The medieval era featured a variety of drums, including the tambourine, frame drum, and cylindrical drum, each with its own unique construction and playing techniques.

Q: How did tambourines contribute to medieval melodies?

A: Tambourines added vibrancy to melodies in medieval music, with different types of tambourines such as the tambour de basque and tambourine jingles offering distinct features and impact on compositions.

Q: What role did cymbals play in medieval music?

A: Cymbals were used in medieval music to create shimmering effects and add depth to the overall sound, unleashing the power of resonance.

Q: How were bells incorporated into medieval music?

A: Bells had a spiritual significance in medieval music and were incorporated into compositions to add a heavenly touch, enhancing the overall musical experience.

Q: What types of shakers and rattles were used in medieval music?

A: Medieval music featured a diverse array of shakers and rattles, each producing unique sounds and contributing to the creation of eclectic rhythms.

Q: Were there any lesser-known percussion instruments in the medieval era?

A: Yes, there were lesser-known percussion instruments in the medieval era, including instruments like the Jew’s harp and tambourine with jingles, which had their own unique history and role in specific musical contexts.

Q: What is the significance of medieval percussion instruments in the history of music?

A: Medieval percussion instruments are an important part of the rich heritage of music history, contributing significantly to the music of the time and serving as a testament to the creativity of medieval musicians.