Vocal Percussion

We can use our voices to make music in many ways besides singing. In practically every culture we can find examples of the vocal apparatus being used as a rhythm instrument. This was often the only instrument available to poorer people. Lacking many of the basic necessities of life, they had no means, or leisure, to acquire materials and to construct musical instruments. Also, subject peoples were often barred from expressing their culture by means of traditional instruments. The poor were obliged to work for most of their waking lives, often at monotonous tasks. The one instrument, available to everyone, which could be played whilst the hands were otherwise engaged, was the human voice.


No doubt, we have all played vocal percussion, at one time or another. Some people, though, have made it into an art-form and it is possible to hear performances of astonishing virtuosity. In recent years, vocal percussion has entered the pop-music world, in the form of 'beatbox'. Some Internet sites provide instruction and sound clips for those who would like to experiment with this form of dance music and some urls are included with this resource. However, attempts to imitate these professionals can be very disheartening! It is far more rewarding (and musical) to explore one’s own ideas. Treat available recordings as a stimulus, rather than a model.

Voiced or Unvoiced

Sounds can be voiced or un-voiced. The latter are performed with the tongue and lips, without involving the vocal chords. The basic sounds, both voiced and un-voiced, can be enhanced and developed through the use of a microphone held close to the mouth. Reverb and other effects may also be applied to the sound. It will be necessary to create a pool of 'instruments' for use in composition. After some initial experimentation, a 'question and answer' session, with individual pupils improvising the 'question' to which the class responds with a pre-arranged ‘answer' will give everyone the opportunity to try out their 'instruments'

Rhythmic Styles

If you are going for a 'beatbox' approach, a 'swing' arrangement is probably the easiest rhythmic style to explore first. Divide the class up into groups of three, each group acting as a vocal drum kit, to accompany a well known tune. "Swing Low" would be a good choice because it can be effective performed in a relaxed tempo. Being pitched quite low, it would encourage the production of low, resonant sounds from the ‘bass-drummers’. Each group has a 'bass-drum', a 'snare-drum' and a 'ride-cymbal'. In 'swing', 4/4- time is performed as though it were in 12/8, replacing each pair of quavers with crotchet-quaver, as in the pdf example:

Pop music rhythms are fun to try, initially, but it is difficult to do anything original with them - that takes a real artist! Exploring vocal percussion sounds with a freer approach to rhythmic organisation will afford greater opportunities for pupils to work imaginatively, especially so if they are using microphones and other effects. Vocal percussion doesn't have to imitate real instruments.


Listen to a recording of Sheila Chandra's ‘Speaking in Tongues" on YouTube. This kind of Indian vocal percussion was originally a form of rhythmic sol-fa for teaching complex rhythms to drummers. It has now developed into an art form in its own right. In this piece, many other musical ideas besides rhythm come into play. Ask the class to identify musical ideas from â"Speaking in Tongues" that they can explore and develop in individual, group or class improvisations/compositions.

© Audrey Podmore, 2003

Some Web Resources

Many examples of vocal percussion can now be found on YouTube, including tutorials by James Wallace, and Sheila Chandra's 'Speaking in Tongues', mentioned above, and examples from world Music. See also:



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