Resource notes and guidelines

Questions and discussion suggestions in this resource are voiced directly to students, allowing them to be more easily presented to the class. Teachers' guidance notes and contextual information are included throughout the resource.

This is one of three resources that focus on the main families of musical instruments. Explore string and wind instruments using the link below. 

The three resources can be used together to explore instruments and the sounds they make across a series of lessons. Or use individual components from the resources to integrate into your own scheme of work.


This resource includes interactive elements that encourage students to make sounds and imagine they are playing instruments. It may be a good idea to sit in an informal area without desks or to clear some space in the classroom.

If you have access to percussion instruments, bring them into the classroom for students to see and have a go at. This will also help to explain their different parts, how they are played, and the sounds they make.

Percussion instruments

This painting shows a musician playing lots of instruments at once. The instruments in this painting are percussion instruments. Some are played by hitting them with a stick,  others are played by shaking, scraping or plucking them.

Do you recognise any of the instruments in the picture?

Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), Playing a Concerto for Percussion

Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), Playing a Concerto for Percussion 2004

Chris Tyrrell (active c.2004)

Royal Academy of Music

  • Can you spot a drum? How does a musician play a drum? What sound does a drum make?
  • Can you spot a cymbal? How does a musician play a cymbal? What sound do cymbals make?
  • Can you see an instrument that might be a xylophone? What sound might a xylophone make?
  • What do you think all these instruments might sound like together?

About the painting

The musician in the painting is called Evelyn Glennie. She is famous for being one of the best percussion musicians in the world. She is also deaf – which might surprise you as music is about sound.

Evelyn Glennie uses the vibrations made by the instruments to know what sound they are making. She often rehearses and performs in bare feet so that she can feel the vibrations more easily.

Teacher note

In this video, Evelyn Glennie talks about how she uses vibrations. The video is not made for a young audience but may be a helpful reference for you when planning the lesson.

Find out more: drum, cymbal, xylophone

Let's look at some percussion instruments in more detail and find out how vibrations are used to create their sound.

How does a drum make a sound?

A drum has a thin skin or drumhead stretched across a hollow cylinder or cone shape. The musician hits this with a stick or their hands which vibrates the skin and makes the sound. The shape of the drum will affect how the vibrations reverberate and the sound that is made.

This sculpture shows a drummer playing two drums with sticks. The drums are ntupane drums and come from North Africa. These drums are sometimes called talking drums because in the past they were used to carry messages to people a long way away. Each drum has a different pitch, so played together they make two different sounds.

Male Ntumpane Drummer

Male Ntumpane Drummer

Osei Bonsu (1900–1977)

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

How does a cymbal make a sound?

Cymbals are thin metal discs that make a sound either by clashing them together or by striking them with a stick. The discs vibrate to create sound. Different-sized cymbals create different sounds.

This sculpture shows a musician clashing two cymbals together.

Standing Musician with Cymbals

Standing Musician with Cymbals 20th C

unknown artist

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

How does a xylophone make a sound?

A xylophone is made from a row of wooden blocks loosely attached to a base. The musician strikes the blocks with a stick that has a rubber or plastic head and the blocks vibrate to create a sound. A sound is also made by sweeping the stick across the blocks.


X 1992

Daphne Gradidge (b.1953)

Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust

The blocks are different sizes. The bigger blocks make lower pitch notes and the smaller blocks make higher pitch notes.

Percussion instruments, rituals and ceremonies

Musical instruments often play an important part in ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and religious events and celebrations.


The Indigenous peoples of America use rattles in ceremonial dances. These rattles sometimes represent an animal, a bird or a figure that is important and has meaning to them.

Look at this rattle.

Ceremonial Rattle

Ceremonial Rattle 1980

Richard Hunt (b.1951)

Bradford Museums and Galleries

  • What shape is it?
  • How is it decorated?
  • How do you think it makes a sound?

This rattle is shaped like an eagle. It was made by Indigenous peoples in Northwest Canada and is carved from wood that is painted with bright shapes and colours. The carved eagle is filled with small stones or shells that hit against each other and against the sides of the rattle when it is shaken to make the sound.

The mbira

This instrument is called a mbira.

Thumb Piano

Thumb Piano

unknown artist

David Livingstone Birthplace Museum

A musician plays it by plucking the metal prongs with their thumbs to make them vibrate and create the sound. Mbiras are often played at religious ceremonies, weddings, and other social gatherings by the Shona peoples of West Africa.

  • Look at the pretty carvings on the box. What patterns can you see?
  • Do you think the hollow box helps to create the sound?

The wooden box is decorated with flowers and geometric shapes but it also has an important function. The sound vibrates against the hollow box to make it louder.

  • Have you ever been to a ceremony such as a wedding or religious festival or celebration?
  • Were instruments played?
  • What instruments were they and what did they sound like?

Pianos (and upside-down pianos!)

  • Can you see the black and white rectangles in this painting?
  • Do they remind you of an instrument?

Vertical Structure III

Vertical Structure III 1977

Alan Reynolds (1926–2014)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

The black and white rectangles look a bit like the black and white rectangles on a piano. These are called keys.

Miss Sophie Darwin at the Piano

Miss Sophie Darwin at the Piano 1973


English Heritage, Down House

A piano is a hybrid instrument – which means it is a cross between two things.

Each of the 88 keys of a piano is attached to wooden hammers that strike a string when you press it down. The hammer makes the string vibrate and creates the sound. So it is a percussion instrument... but also a string instrument!

Each string in a piano is a different length and thickness. The shorter thinner strings vibrate less and make the higher notes.

An upside-down piano?!

Who do you think might play an upside-down piano?!

Concert for Anarchy

Concert for Anarchy 1990

Rebecca Horn (b.1944)


This piano has been made into an artwork by an artist called Rebecca Horn. It is suspended upside down from the ceiling and occasionally comes to life in a noisy outburst with no one actually playing it. It is as if it has a life of its own!

This video shows Rebecca Horn's artwork in action.

Centre Pompidou: Concert for Anarchy

  • Does it sound like a piano?
  • Let’s hear your impression of the sound it makes.

Teacher notes

Explain to students that artists sometimes take familiar objects and present them in an unexpected way to make us think about something in a different way or make us feel an emotion. You could ask students:

  • what do you think you’d think and feel if you saw this piano hanging upside down in an art gallery or museum?
  • how do you think the artist wanted us to respond to the artwork? 

Reactions to this artwork might be 'surprise', 'curiosity' 'confusion'. It may also make us laugh or feel slightly scared.

Activity ideas

Activity: Create simple percussion instruments

Have a go at making some simple percussion instruments as a class – then put on a percussion concert.

Drum Dancer*

Drum Dancer* 1968

Qaunaq Palluq (b.1936)

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Percussion instruments are relatively simple to make. For example, a bucket turned upside down could be a drum!

You will find lots of ideas online for making simple percussion instruments using ordinary household objects – or materials you should be able to buy easily from a craft or hobby shop.

Use these links for ideas:

Activity: Make some noise with percussion instruments

One-Man Band

One-Man Band 1954

John Banting (1902–1972)

Jerwood Collection

  • Before the lesson, ask students to bring in any percussion instruments they may have at home. (They may have tambourines, rattles, bells or castanets for example.)
  • You could also bring in percussion instruments or objects that could be used as percussion instruments (such as an upside bucket and a wooden spoon).
  • Or make percussion instruments using the activity above.

In the lesson, ask students to play them and discuss what sort of noise the instruments make. 

Then have a go at playing the instruments to music.

This BBC resource has tunes that you can download and play with young children.

Activity: Make up a story using percussion instruments

Gather a selection of percussion instruments so that each student has an instrument. These could be 'readymade' instruments brought into the classroom or instruments that students have made.

Ask individual students to play 'their' instrument and ask the rest of the class:

'If this instrument were an animal, bird or insect, what would it be?'


Elephant 1957

John Copnall (1928–2007)

Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

  • Encourage them to use their imaginations to think of the different sounds big, small, slow, fast, buzzing, sliding or flapping creatures might make.
  • Write down the names of the different animals, birds or insects.
  • Task students with thinking of ideas for a story using these animals. They could do this as a class, in small groups, or individually.
  • Perform the story or a selection of the stories using percussion instruments to accompany the animals as they appear in the story.

Activity: Experiment with beatboxing

Students may be familiar with human beatboxes and the sounds they make. Beatboxing involves mimicking the sound of drum machines and other percussion instruments using the mouth, lips, tongue and voice. It is connected to hip-hop culture.


Witchdoctor 1983

Denzil Forrester (b.1956)

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

You could play students this audio clip and ask them what sort of instrument they think is making the sound:

Task students with making sounds using their bodies (rather than instruments).

  • They could start by making sounds with their hands, legs and feet. For example, clapping their hands, clicking their fingers, slapping their knees and stamping their feet.
  • Then they could make sounds with their mouths such as words, clicks, sniffs, coughs, breathing in and out and 'shushes'.
  • Listen to the sounds as a group and then try making the sounds to different rhythms.

Once you have explored sounds and rhythms, try making the sounds to accompany a simple piece of music.

This lesson plan resource from Human Beatbox has more ideas for ways to explore beatboxing. It is not written for young students but may give you some ideas:

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