In this post, I’ll be discussing how to write for percussion by first understanding the instrument frequency ranges. This will be part one of a multi-part set of posts on using Rhythm and Percussion in Orchestral-based sample library compositions and productions. Today, I start with PART ONE: to understand the family of orchestral percussion instruments and their respective frequency ranges — from low to high — and how best to approach arranging and composing for a percussion ensemble. While this does touch on rhythmic concepts a little, this PART ONE, is more about how to create a clean percussion arrangement that fills the full frequency spectrum and also provides clarity and impact. As you read below, I hope you will notice how these concepts are quite similar to the concepts for tonal instrument arrangement. And, in case you’re new to the site, or new to orchestral sample library production, be sure to check out my Intro to Orchestral Sample Libraries series.


What is a Percussion Instrument?

Maybe this is just my perception, but, when it comes to music composing and production discussions, it seems like percussion instruments and rhythm gets far less attention (less tutorials, study, less Youtube videos, etc) than the tonal instruments and aspects of the orchestra. However, there is certainly no shortage of percussion sample libraries to choose from! And, this can make it harder to wrap your head around things when you’re first learning because: There are just so_many_sounds to choose from.

And what are all these percussion instruments out there?

If you purchase a modern percussion library, like Heavyocity’s Damage, you might find all sorts of wild objects being used as percussion — such as dumpsters,  crow bars, car parts and plastic cylinders. For this discussion, I will be focused mostly on the traditional percussion instruments of an orchestra — we’ll save the dumpsters and crow bars for a future discussion, I promise.

Epic Percussion Heavyocity Damage Dumpster


My Piano is Really a Drum?

As well, tonal instruments, like the piano and xylophone, are technically part of the percussion family (did you know that?) However, for the purposes of keeping things simple for this first post, I will try to keep to (mostly) non-tonal instruments. We will cover more of the tonal percussion instruments in future posts.


Orchestral Percussion Instruments

If we zoom in on an orchestra’s percussion section, we might find some familiar percussion instruments, including:

  • Bass Drums
  • Snare Drums
  • Cymbals
  • Shakers
  • Other metals (eg Hi Hat, Triangle)
  • Toms
  • Wood Blocks
  • Timpani ( tonal instrument)
  • Mallets (tonal instrument)

(I include Timpani and Mallets, as they are so common in the orchestra, but do keep in mind that they are tonal instrument, capable of playing actual notes.)


The Frequency Ranges

Similar to orchestrating for strings and other tonal instruments, the first step in understanding how to approach composing and arranging percussion instruments, is to understand where each instrument fits in the full frequency spectrum (20hz to 20k). A common way to make this easier to follow, is to break up the full frequency spectrum into 3-5 separate ranges. I usually choose a 4-range division like this:

  • Low: < 100hz
  • Low-Mid: 100hz to 1000k
  • Mid-High: 1k to 8k
  • High:: > 8k

how to write for percussion frequency ranges Frequency Spectrum


This is my general view of the frequency ranges. You will see other versions of this that might look a little different and could include more — or less — ranges and could have values “bleeding” across one another. Note that the two “MID” ranges are taking up most of the spectrum. By comparison, the LOW and the HI are rather small. Therefore, it’s quite helpful to break the MIDs in to at least 2 or 3 ranges like I do here, so that we can get more specific about where a given instrument will sit in the spectrum.



Step One: Map Each Instrument to a Frequency Range

Following the ranges I define above, my first step would be to put the orchestral percussion instruments into the following frequency ranges:

  • Low : Bass Drum, Lowest Timpani
  • Low-Mid: Toms, Timpani, Mallets
  • Hi-Mid: Snare Drums, Wood Block, Mallets
  • Hi: Cymbals, Other metals (eg Hi Hat, Triangle)

Of course, this is not 100% perfect; some instruments might have larger ranges and could cross multiple categories. For example, timpani can get rather low, but, it also has some higher notes that bring it into the low-mid range. There are many different snares and toms and metals and they often bleed into multiple ranges as well. If you’re working with different instruments (including any dumpsters) you would first identify the frequency ranges for each instrument so that you know where they fit in the full frequency spectrum.


Step Two: Make Sure Frequency Spectrum is Covered

Just as with orchestration for strings, or rock music, or music production in general, each instrument in an ensemble needs to play a role and “fit” into it’s space in the frequency spectrum of the piece. First, this helps to create a rich, full-sounding final production because we are filling more of the available frequencies with sound = fuller sound.  Additionally, by giving each instrument it’s own “space” within the spectrum, we allow each instrument — and the part it is performing — to be “heard” with more clarity and impact as there is less chance instruments will be covering each other up (i.e. “stepping on each others toes.”) Therefore, understanding the frequency ranges of your instruments, is key for learning how to write for percussion.

Layering = Full Sound

I will be discussing layering instruments more in a future post, but, it’s important to call out that part of creating a full sound in this way is by layering instruments across all the ranges. One of the most powerful ways to see this in action is with a low drum hit (eg a bass drum.) Want to make that bass drum even more big and powerful? Don’t add more low drums, instead, layer it with a high wood block or similar higher-ranged metal. Then maybe layer a mid-range snare or tom or mallet. This approach often works better because it creates a sound that fills a much larger part of the full frequency spectrum (not just beefing-up the lows.) As well, the tones created by the higher-range instruments creates a punctuation to the sound that a low instrument alone just cannot do.

No More Mud

For example, if we created an arrangement that had many different low frequency drums, such as a bass drum — all playing different patterns at the same time, with all the instruments sharing the same ranges at the same time — it will become more difficult to hear each individual drum pattern. As well, because of the nature of low frequencies, it might also turn into a muddy, wash of sound as all those heavy low tones blur together.

To be clear, this “mud” example might be the sound you’re after. However, for the purposes of discussing best practices for how to write for percussion, we usually find that separating each musical part (and/or drum pattern) into it’s own specific frequency range, as defined above, it best. This is because it will provide a more clear and more powerful performance as we can better identify each of the individual parts being played.

Break out the Jazz Drums

So, knowing this information, we can more confidently write a percussion arrangement that fills the full frequency spectrum without instruments covering each other up. You can use a bass drum to handle the low end; toms to cover the low-middle; the snare in the hi-mid; and put cymbals, shaker or hi-hat on the very top. This arrangement sounds very similar to jazz, rock and pop drums …. wait, I thought we were talking about orchestras here? Isn’t it interesting it is to see that a drum set used by a lone jazz drummer, can also cover a full spectrum of percussion frequencies!



Step 3: Arrange the Percussion Parts

Knowing where to place each instrument instrument inside of it’s own range is the first step. Once we get that, our next step is to compose musical parts for each of these voices (ranges). As I mentioned above, the goal is to give each instrument range it’s own unique part. While it’s OK to have multiple bass drums playing at once, or multiple snare drums playing at the same time, it’s better if each of those instrument groups were playing the same part, respectively.

For example: All bass drums play same bass drum part while all snare drums play the same snare drum part, etc. The use of many drums will provide that “big” loud sound — assuming that’s the sound we want — but, because each instrument range is playing it’s own part, we will be able to “hear” it distinctively against everything else that is playing at the same time.

How to Write for Percussion: Keep the Low Range Simple

We can then take this concept further, and assign general rules of thumb for rhythmic complexity to each frequency range. Of course, this is just a general rule, but we usually increase the rhythmic complexity of a part with the raising in frequency. In other words, the higher frequencies usually take the more complex rhythmic parts. This often mean they use more sub-divisions of notes (i.e. more notes within a given space of time).

Meanwhile, the lower frequencies perform the more simple, less-busy parts with less notes in a given space of time.

In musical terms, we’d explain this as: the bass drum plays the whole and half notes; the toms play quarter notes; the snares take the eighth notes; and the hi-hat and cymbals take the sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Again, this is a rough, rule of thumb. But, the idea is that as we lower the frequency, we lower the complexity and speed of the performance.


how to write for percussion music notes


Bass in Your Face

Just like with other forms of musical arrangement or even sound production, the low frequencies take of a lot of space down there on the bottom. Lower frequencies can often be more difficult for our ears to hear clearly, and, as mentioned above, they can create a muddy sound when there are too many low frequencies playing together and/or playing too fast or complex of a part.

We often say:

“Bass is Felt Not Heard.”

That said, low frequencies are great for laying the foundation of a piece of music. We use bass drums and low tonal instruments (eg bass guitar, double bass, tuba, bassoon) to provide a steady glue that keeps the rhythmic elements of our music in place.

And, in the case of tonal instruments, we use the low instruments to help define the harmonic structure of our progression. For example, in musical terms, our lowest instrument often plays the root note of each chord in the progression. This set the root note for the rest of the harmonics to layer on top of, and create the full harmony. By keeping these foundation simple, and clear, and without the clutter of repetitive notes which can ofter muddy-up our low end ranges, we give our listener a solid, clear foundation to follow. We can then layer more complex rhythms on top.

Four on The Floor

And, it’s not just for orchestral music. If you study virtually any other musical genre, including rock, pop, electronic, country, jazz, you’ll this same structure followed just about everywhere! Think about the bass drum for a rock drum performance. While there are certainly some drummers with amazingly fast feet, most will keep a simple, steady, half or quarter note pattern on the bass drum (beats 1 and 3); while they introduce more complex rhythms on the toms and snares – to create excitement and interest. To round it off, they use the hi-hat (the highest range) to play the faster, eighth or sixteenth note patterns that fill in the full frequency spectrum and drive the music forward.

As a super quick and dirty example, please check out the screenshot below from a drum pattern (shown in MIDI.) Starting at the top, the HIGH frequency, played on Shakers, is the most busy as it plays a repeating eighth note pattern. On the bottom, the LOW range, played on a Bass drum is the most sparse, playing a single whole note hit at the beginning of each bar. The MID ranges, played on toms and snares, fill in the rest of the frequency range, and introduce interest and excitement by being more complex against the single bass drum,  yet not as busy and repetitive as the shaker in the High range.


how to write for percussion frequency ranges


How to Write for Percussion – Summary

To be clear, this last musical example might just be the most boring piece of music ever written! However, for learning how to write for percussion, my point is just to help explain these 3 main steps I follow:

  1. map each instrument to it’s appropriate frequency range
  2. make sure to have instruments that cover the full frequency spectrum (this is often dependent on the style/genre of music.)
  3. arrange the parts so that the low frequency ranges are the most sparse and the higher ranges take the busier, more complex parts

I hope this first post on learning how to write for percussion was helpful. I wanted to keep it basic and focused on the frequency range concepts first. In future posts I will get into more advanced topics including rhythm and polyrhythms, tempo, velocity, articulations, accents/punctuation,, layering, hybrid and sound design, processing and production. Whew…that is a lot…I better get started!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *