What Are Mallet Instruments?

The timpani only tunes to a single pitch at a time.

Mallet instruments make up a meaningful portion of the percussion family. Instruments that use mallets come in two basic types: pitched and nonpitched. Several other approaches exist for identifying the types of percussion instruments, including categorizing them by idiophones, membranophones, chordophones and aerophones. However, in the context of mallet instruments, the distinction between pitched and nonpitched creates the most clarity.


Mallets are sticks with heads made of varying parts including felt, rubber, wood, metal and yarn. The material used on the head greatly affects the sound of the instrument. Percussionists must choose the heads carefully to decide the type of sound desired. Mallets made from hard materials provide a penetrating sound while softer materials create mellow, soft timbres. Percussionist training includes instruction in determining the correct mallet to use as composers don't always indicate the correct mallet in the score.

Bar Instruments

Pitched barred mallet instruments, also sometimes called definite pitch instruments, emit a definite pitch when struck with a mallet. The instruments consist of several bars made from various types of wood and metal. The metal instruments include vibraphones and glockenspiels. Marimba and xylophones consist of several wooden bars made of pine, rosewood or maple. Percussionists use various mallets to strike each instrument to produce sound. The percussionist holds one mallet in each hand, although some more experienced percussionists play with several mallets in each hand. Dean Gronemeier, of The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, plays with up to 8 mallets in each hand.


Nonpitched mallet instruments consist of gongs, cymbals, tam-tams, and crotales. These instruments provide an indefinite pitch. There is an approximation of sound and nonpitched instruments generally adhere to high, middle and low pitches. However, musicians can't name specific pitches, such as the specific pitch middle C. These instruments typically employ specific effects and dramatic stimulus to the music. For instance, a cymbal crash using a mallet helps increase the power of a crescendo. Musicians often refer to nonpitched instruments as instruments of indefinite pitch.


Membranophones use a stretched membrane acted upon by a mallet to create a pitch. These instruments generally do not provide a specific pitch; however, the timpani does have the capability to play specific pitches. Other membranophones include various drums such as the snare drum, toms, bass drum, war drums and various hand drums. Percussionists typically use hard mallets to create the desired sound on these instruments. Originally, membranophones were made with animal skins, but now they consist of synthetic materials and plastics.


Yamaha: Dean Gronemeier [http://www.yamaha.com/artists/deangronemeier.html]
"The Study of Orchestration:" Samuel Adler; 2002


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