Jim Neglia

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The Triangle


The triangle is a percussion instrument consisting of a steel rod bent into a triangle with one corner left open. It is suspended by a gut or nylon loop and struck with a steel rod. It is theoretically an instrument of indefinite pitch, for its fundamental pitch is obscured by its inharmonic partials (component tones). Some players, however, perceive a suggestion of pitch and often possess more than one instrument. A single stroke on the triangle clearly penetrates the full force of an orchestra, and it is perhaps most effective when used sparingly.

The triangle was known by the 14th century and was sometimes trapezoidal in form; until about 1800 it often had jingling rings. With cymbals and bass drums, triangles were basic to the Turkish Janissary music in vogue in 18th-century Europe, entering the orchestra at that time as a device for local colour.

In the 19th century it began to be used purely for its sound, as in Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major (Triangle Concerto).


The triangle is an idiophonic musical instrument of the percussion family. It is a bar of metal, most usually steel in modern instruments, bent into a triangle shape. One of the angles is left open, with the ends of the bar not quite touching - this causes the instrument to be of indeterminate pitch. It is usually suspended from one of the other corners by a piece of thin wire or gut, leaving it free to vibrate. It is usually struck with a metal beater, giving a high-pitched, ringing tone. In folk music it is more often hooked over the hand so that one side can be damped by the fingers to vary the tone. The pitch can also be modulated slightly by varying the area struck and more subtle damping.

The exact origins of the instrument are unknown, but a number of paintings from the Middle Ages depict the instrument being played by angels, which has led to the belief that it played some part in church services at that time. Other paintings show it being used in folk bands. Some triangles have jingling rings along the lower side.
Although the instrument is nowadays generally in the form of an equilateral triangle, these early instruments were often isosceles triangles.

The triangle has been used in the western classical orchestra since around the middle of the 18th century. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven all used it, though sparingly, usually in imitation of Janissary bands. The first piece to make the triangle really prominent was Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, where it is used as a solo instrument in the second movement.

The triangle appears to require no specialist ability to play and is often used in jokes and one liners as an archetypal instrument that even an idiot can play. The Martin Short sketch comedy character Ed Grimley is the best known example. However, triangle parts in classical music can be very demanding, and James Blades in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians writes that "the triangle is by no means a simple instrument to play". In the hands of an expert it can be a surprisingly subtle and expressive instrument.

Most difficulties in playing the triangle come from the complex rhythms which are sometimes written for it, although it can also be quite difficult to control the level of volume. Very quiet notes can be obtained by using a much lighter beater - knitting needles are sometimes used for the quietest notes. Composers sometimes call for a wooden beater to be used instead of a metal one, which gives a rather "duller" and quieter tone.

The Triangle by Cary Nasatir
Taking a look at an instrument that doesn't get the respect it deserves...the triangle
In my clinics, private practice, and writing, I tend to focus on the challenges facing the school percussionist, as well as the private instructors and educators who teach these school-aged drummers. So many instruments, so many techniques, so many questions... Let's start by taking a look at an instrument that doesn't get the respect it deserves...the triangle.

This three sided piece of metal is a delicate piece of equipment, but at the same time it is capable of generating a sizzling opening or finale of a piece of music. Much of the time, however, the sound coming from an inexperienced percussion section can make it sound like a fire bell ringing. A few moments of attention can change that.

First and foremost... what size is the triangle? The skinny four inch models may be okay for elementary school rhythm band classes or in front of a recording microphone, but they lack the volume and sonority to cut through a brass section. Generally, the larger and/or thicker the instrument, the fuller the tone, the richer the overtones, and the better the projection. For most concert work, an instrument in the six- to ten-inch range will do a good job.

The secret to playing with a bigger triangle is that a lighter touch will actually get a penetrating tone without an objectionable clang. To deliver a crisp tone at any dynamic level, all that is needed is a very slight move of the wrist and a little bit of added movement from the middle finger holding the beater. A good quality clamp and an assortment of different sized beaters also help in the process. Replace the nylon cord on the clamp when signs of wear appear. Make sure the clamp has plenty of room for the middle finger and thumb to hold it without touching the instrument. Rubber bands or yarn are not good materials from which to hang a triangle as they mute the sound and cause the triangle to twist in circles.

Unless one is performing a multi-percussion part, I advise that the triangle not be clamped to a music stand but instead be held in the player's weak hand at chest level or above (see photo). Single notes generally should be struck on the outside of the triangle, while rolls are played on an inside corner. Experiment by striking the triangle at the outside top angle or on the bottom bar and notice the tonal changes depending on where the instrument is struck. Muting is achieved by gripping the triangle with the last two fingers of the hand that is holding the clamp. You can also attain a vibrato by rapidly waving those same fingers in front of the triangle while holding the clamp.

When everyone in a school percussion section wants to play the snare drum, it may take a bit of salesmanship to "sell" the triangle part. One can always point to Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Bernstein as composers who thought the instrument important enough to include in their masterpieces. As with any instrument, the triangle player should strive for a musical sound. Duke Ellington said it best..." if it sounds good, it is good ".

Cary Nasatir is the Director of the Nasatir School of Percussion in Castro Valley, Ca; adjunct faculty member at Patten University (Oakland); percussion coach to three San Francisco area schools; and author of "Praise And Worship
Drumming...A Guide To Playing In Church" (Hal Leonard Publishing). His website is: http://www.nsopdrums.com

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