Multiple Percussion

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Multiple percussion is a relatively new field of percussion literature. The first major work for multiple percussion solo dates back only a little over 50 years to 1956 (John Cage 27'10.554)[1].


Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries percussion instruments were used to give dramatic and coloristic emphasis to the orchestra. As tonal harmony began to dissolve with twentieth century composers, the percussion was able to begin to be freed from the confines of a supportive role and began to explore more soloistic and primary roles in music.

The first instances of multiple percussion were within chamber and orchestral works. Many composers began in the early twentieth century to compose parts in which one percussionist was asked to play many instruments that previously would have been assigned to an entire percussion section. In Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (1918) one percussionist plays drums of various sizes, tambourine, cymbal, and triangle, and in Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937) the percussionist plays xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, triangles, cymbals, and tam tam. One of the major significances of the Bartók is that not only was the player utilizing a multiple percussion configuration but also they were now of equal importance to the piano. [2]

In the 1920s and 1930s the drum set was the multiple instrument that was found virtually everywhere. Stemming from American jazz, this instrument was the model for many pieces written at that time. Three of the most important works are Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde (1923) and William Walton’s Faҫade (1922)[3].

In the mid-1900s, along with orchestral works including parts for multiple percussion, a new genre of percussion ensemble literature arose with the compositions of John Cage and Lou Harrison which made great use of multiple percussion. In their works of the late 1930s and mid-1940s, Harrison and Cage redefined the traditional uses for percussion instruments and began to explore combinations of instruments from varying cultures and timbres of non-traditional percussion instruments. They were little acknowledged by the percussion community but appealed to a younger generation of players [4].

In the early period of the development of multiple percussion there was a lack of unified performance practice. Each individual instrument of a multiple percussion setup might have had its history and techniques attached to it, but this did not always translate to the setup as a whole. Technique of multiple percussion performance is not defined the same as it might be for another instrument, and each composition poses its own difficulties and requires different techniques from each performer.

Notational Systems

Conventional Staff

Expanded Staff

Line Score

Additional Considerations

There are many variables to consider when a performer is creating a musical performance for a multiple percussion piece. The selection of the right instruments, their tuning (including appropriate heads and muting), stick choice, and the performer's movement and touch around the setup are essential components to each performance. In the notation of works for multiple percussion the composer will often give suggestions for these areas but a majority of the interpretation is left up to the performer. The performer must use every means at his or her disposal to realize the best musical interpretation for performance. This can often result in the customization of mallets, instruments and setups. For percussionists stickings can also pose difficulties. A common technique to overcome sticking troubles in multiple percussion works is to create warm-up etudes or to improvise on the setup each time the percussionist moves locations.[5]:

Major Works for Multiple Percussion

John Cage 27'10.554 (1956)
Karlheinz Stockhausen Zyklus (1959)
Morton Feldman The King of Denmark (1964)
Helmut Lachenmann Interieur I (1965)
Charles Wuorinen Janissary Music (1966)
Brian Ferneyhough Bone Alphabet (1991)
John Serry Therapy (1975)
Iannis Xenakis Rebonds (1987)
David Lang The Anvil Chorus (1991)

Significant Figures in Multiple Percussion

John Cage (1912-1992)
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)
Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
Steven Schick


  1. ”Steven Schick, The Percussionist's Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams (Rochester, NY.: University of Rochester Press, 2006), page nr. 4”
  2. “Beck, John, and John H. Beck, eds. 2007. Encyclopedia of percussion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.”
  3. “John Beck and John H. Beck, eds., Encyclopedia of Percussion, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2007), page nr. 290”
  4. “Beck, John, and John H. Beck, eds. 2007. Encyclopedia of percussion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.”
  5. ”Cook, Gary. Teaching Percussion: with DVD. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 2006.”