The Pulse of Worship

Percussion in worship presents the same promises and problems as any other art. Played well, percussion can offer a wordless prayer, a lively conversation, an expression of sorrow, or an infectious call to praise. Performed poorly, it is an annoying, noisy distraction. How can a congregation learn to offer percussion as a skillful, powerful part of the pulse of worship?

This article is addressed particularly to congregations without a tradition of using percussion in worship and rests on these assumptions:

• that the congregation is already able to sing together with soul, heart, strength, and mind (adding percussion won’t enliven feeble, half-hearted singing).
• that the congregation is willing to welcome percussion in worship (the use of percussion must not be imposed).
• that there can be a place for both/and: both strophic hymnody without percussion and “hymns, psalms and spiritual songs” with the added layers of meaning and emotion that pulse and percussion provide.

Where do you begin? The psalmist had something definite in mind: the congregation must have a vision for why, how, and what kind of percussion has a place in your congregation.

First, the Whys

If we believe that we must bring our whole beings into communion with God as we sing, as we pray, as we worship, then expressing the rhythm of our congregational song with our whole bodies is an obvious place to begin.

Rhythm involves the whole body in another sense. Worshipers who feel they can’t sing very well can be involved in the rhythm. Even those who feel they can’t sing or keep time can participate by listening and watching.

Rhythm is one activity in which children can freely participate. Swaying, clapping, stepping, hopping, or jumping are what children love to do. If we want to include children in the whole worshiping community, this is one great way of welcoming them.

Much of the world’s music needs to be sung with percussion or it loses its heart and soul. Leaving out the rhythm instruments in most Aboriginal, African, Asian, or South American music is like leaving out the melody of a hymn.

Rhythm is—or can be—not just keeping time, but an expression of emotion. In the same way that a dancing melody can charge words with life and meaning, a well-placed cymbal roll can lift a congregation’s song and set it soaring.

Next, Some Hows

Go to worship with a congregation that uses percussion. Ask the leaders if they would mind if you study how they use it.

Listen to CDs of worship music, particularly those that use music of the styles and forms you use in worship.

Build percussion into your worship one step at a time. Give each new percussion idea a chance to make its own friends: use the same idea a number of times, in different worship contexts, until everyone knows it thoroughly.

Rhythm should be participatory. It is of course possible to introduce participatory and accompaniment rhythm at the same time. But the congregation needs to feel the pulse together, and this is most effectively done actively rather than passively. Start with the congregation and introduce clapping or other kinds of rhythmic activity. Give congregational members the choice to not clap or step if they so choose; affirm that listening and watching is a welcome contribution to worship.

Singing with percussion presents its own challenges. If your tradition is to slow down at the end of each verse of a strophic hymn, the congregation needs to learn how to maintain a pulse throughout. This can be sometimes difficult to learn at first, and the teaching must be done with grace, humor, and patience. The accompanist will also need to keep the pulse by using arpeggios or other figures to fill in the single longer note at the ends of the verses.

Working with Percussion Players

Good percussion builds community, with all the listening and learning, giving and taking that life together implies. Therefore don’t begin with one drummer who does it all; distribute the rhythm parts to various people.

Good percussion players listen more than they play. They also watch the leader and the other players. So when you ask someone to play, make sure that they are willing to practice, listen, watch, and play as part of the whole group. Some players “zone out”—playing repeated figures on automatic pilot, as it were. This can make them play too loudly or too quickly, or not respond to changes in the dynamic or tempo of a song. Insist that they make it part of their training, their performing, and their ministry to stay in touch with the other players and the congregation.

If your percussion players are children, have a “stop” signal and practice starting and stopping together. Practice keeping a steady pulse, unless the song is meant to speed up or slow down. Practice playing softly as well as loudly, and have “soft” and “loud” signals. Have your players practice getting softer and louder together.

Plan the percussion of each song: decide what sounds are needed, and when. Often the most powerful percussion happens before the “big” moment of the song or hymn, leading the singers towards it, then stepping back and letting the voices soar.

Now for the Whats

What kinds of percussion instruments should we use? Start with just a few, and use instruments of as high a quality as you can. Percussion instruments are not toys, and cheap instruments will not add to the quality (or the sincerity) of worship. On the other hand, wonderful instruments can be made with inexpensive materials.

Think of the kinds of sounds the instruments make: high, medium, and low sounds; hard, crisp sounds or soft, swishy sounds; rattling, wooden sounds; ringing or metallic sounds. Good percussion combines and contrasts different sounds to support the pulse of the music, the shape of the hymn, and the emotions expressed by the singing congregation.

High, crisp sounds produced by snare drums, tambourines, or claves (those round, wooden, dowel-shaped sticks) cut through all other sounds; they tend to dominate and set the tempo in the same way that hand claps do, and for the same reason.

Soft, swishy sounds, like small maracas or rhythm “eggs,” fill in the middle of the sound spectrum. They are good as a constant repeating eighth note pulse (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &).

The deep sounds of a bass drum (or the stamping of feet) are best on the beat, especially the first beat of every cycle.

Explore the different sounds of the drum head: the center gives the deepest sound of each drum, which can easily become a muffled thump. Striking the head just inside the rim gives a more distant “pong.”

Soft taps on a small drum head can be used to underscore the quiet part of a song. An insistant repeated figure can express sorrow, anger, agony, or simply a steady heartbeat.

Bells and gongs are good used sparingly as accents. Small, soft bells can be used like wind chimes, adding a quiet sparkle to a meditative melody.

Cymbals are loud accents like the exclamation point at the end of a SHOUT! Cymbals can also be a quiet swell that you don’t know is there—until it stops.

Which Instruments on Which Songs?

The Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation includes specific percussion suggestions for many songs from Asian, African, and Latino sources.

But what about hymns? It is possible to powerfully reinterpret and update classic hymns, (nicea with jazz harmony and percussion, for example). This can be done worshipfully, with both authenticity in the “new” genre and respect for the original. But perhaps a better place to begin is by expressing a rhythm close in spirit to the original. There are many hymns we could consider, but two examples will suffice.

Listen to what Beethoven did in the final movement of the “Choral” symphony. At the exposition of the principal theme, after the melody begins with cello and bass and moves up through the orchestra, he adds tympani in an insistent dotted-quarter/eighth note figure that both accents the melody and drives it forward.

This effect could be used in the hymn “Joyful, Joyful,” with the first stanza begun softly and unaccompanied (it is possible to sing both softly and joyfully), building the layers of accompaniment through the rest of the stanzas, until percussion enters on the final stanza. It is not necessary to use a set of tympani: a floor tom will do.

Another useful source for matching percussion to a hymn style is a CD entitled “Sing Lustily & With Good Courage” (Maddy Prior with the Carnival Band, © 1990 Saydisc Records, Chipping Manor, The Chipping, Wotton-Under-Edge, Glos. GL 12 7Ad, England). This disc presents hymns of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, using a variety of instruments, including different kinds of percussion. The hymn “Who Would True Valor See” (to the tune monks gate) is performed on this disc with violin, curtal (an early bassoon), bass, mandolin, and tabor (a small drum which usually accompanied a fife for march tunes). This instrumentation underscores “the marching pilgrim” theme of the hymn, and provides a vigor lost in slower, smoother renditions.

Finally . . .

Percussion is like any art used in worship. It is first of all a natural expression (imagine a four-year-old with a box of paints) enriched through tradition and training (imagine a mature painter using all her training in form and color) to help us respond with joy and awe to God’s creation and to send us out to interact with the world with passion, compassion, and power.

When looking for percussion for your church, you needn’t jump first to the powerful (and easily abused) trap-set as your first purchase. A collection of hand-percussion instruments, each doing a simple rhythm, can offer a lovely polyrhythmic effect .



“Praise God with tambourine and dance,” the psalmist cries. “Praise God with loud clashing cymbals.”
“Praise God with tambourine and dance,” the psalmist cries. “Praise God with loud clashing cymbals.”


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Percussion Instruments: A List

that enhances rather than overwhelms the congregation’s singing.

Here is a list of often-used hand percussion instruments. Prices will vary, depending on quality. As a general rule, if you want your musicians and your congregation to take the instruments seriously, avoid the “children’s toy” end of the scale. Get advice, then buy the best your budget can afford. For more information, check out these websites:

• (Latin Percussion). Click on “product showcase.”
• Click on “World Music.”
• =1&cat=255.

Hand Percussion


The two hardwood sticks give a high, resonant click. They produce the core rhythm patterns essential for Latin percussion. Hold one of the claves (pronounced clah-vays) in one hand, making sure that there is a space between the palm and the clave. Strike with the other clave.


A metal cylinder with a handle and rows of small metal beads. The beads are stroked or tapped in various combinations.


Also essential for Latin percussion. An effective substitute can be created by filling a cardboard tube (for potato chips or a small poster tube) with rice or seeds and taping both ends.


Very useful in giving a soft maraca-like sound. They should be shaken back and forth rather than up and down.


Traditionally, two metal spoons are held with the rounded backs together. They can be tapped on the knee or rolled across the spread fingers of the opposite hand. “Pre-mounted” spoons are easier to play. They are often used for North American folk music, but can also be used to play a “carnivalito” rhythm.

Gourds (Shekeres)

Of the various kinds, some are filled with dry seeds, much like maracas; others have shells or small pieces of metal attached to the outer surface to give a bright swishing sound. Small gourds strung together can be tied around the knee or ankle to add accent to dance steps.


A hollow gourd with a serrated surface, scraped with a stick.

Hand Drums


Come in two basic kinds: both the small hand drum variety, with small cymbals fitted into the wooden rim, or a rim only (usually made of synthetic material).


A wooden percussion box. The player sits on the box and beats the different faces of the box. Each face of the cube has a different sound; one side has strings attached to the inside surface of the wood, giving a snare-drum sound. A good substitute for the drum kit.


A very versatile African drum; gives both a booming thump and a high crisp snap—and everything in between. (See review of How to Play Djembe in RW 64.)

Talking drum

The strings joining the two ends of the drum allow the player to change the pitch of the drum.


Have a bright, urgent snap. One of their main strong points is their portability.


More versatile (and much larger) than bongos, with a gentle, resonant sound.


Stand-mounted cymbals are the most useful, not only for crashes, but for felt-mallet swells and other effects.

Special Effects

Wind chimes (aka, a “bell tree”)

Vertical tubes that can tinkle, whisper, or sound like a soft cymbal.


Come in all shapes and sizes. Use them for a meditative presence, or for a sound of celebration at a high point in a song.


A long tube filled with rice or seeds. When held at an angle, the seeds flow from one end to the other with a sound like flowing water.


Can be used to give a bright sparkle to a melody.

Rhythm tubes

Pitched to the notes of a scale (marketed commercially under the name “Boomwhackers”).

—Andrew Donaldson

Andrew Donaldson is a Canadian writer, composer, and church musician with extensive background in global song. He worked for five years in Geneva, Switzerland, as the worship consultant for the World Council of Churches. His work may be found at

Reformed Worship 69 © September 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.