Triangle (musical instrument)

This article is about the triangular percussion musical instrument. For other uses, see triangle (disambiguation).

Hand percussion, idiophone
Timbre bright, complex
Volume medium
Attack fast
Decay slow
Playing range

Single note, open and closed


The triangle is an idiophone type of musical instrument in the percussion family. It is a bar of metal, usually steel but sometimes other metals like beryllium copper, bent into a triangle shape. The instrument is usually held by a loop of some form of thread or wire at the top curve. It was first made around the 16th century in England.


On a triangle instrument, one of the angles is left open, with the ends of the bar not quite touching. This causes the instrument to be of indeterminate or not settled or decided pitch. It is either suspended from one of the other corners by a piece of, most commonly, fishing line, leaving it free to vibrate, or hooked over the hand. It is usually struck with a metal beater, giving a high-pitched, ringing tone.

Although the shape is today generally in the form of an equilateral triangle, early instruments were often formed as isosceles triangles. In the early days the triangles did not have an opening and had jingling rings along the lower side.

Use and technique

The triangle is often the subject of jokes and one liners in Europe and North America as an archetypal instrument that requires no skill to play. (The Martin Short character Ed Grimley is an 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 subtle and expressive instrument that makes a beautiful tone/pitch with the vibration.

A triangle roll, similar to a snare roll, is notated with three lines through the stem of the note. It requires the player to quickly move the wand back and forth in the upper corner, bouncing or "rolling" the wand between the two sides.

Classical music

A young orchestral musician plays the triangle.

In European classical music, 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 third movement, giving this concerto the nickname of "triangle concerto". In the 19th century, the triangle was used in some music by Richard Wagner, such as the "Bridal chorus" from Lohengrin. Johannes Brahms uses the triangle to particular effect in the third movement of his Fourth Symphony. The triangle is used extensively in Hans Rott's Symphony in E major, particularly in the BIS recording, and in later recordings, the conductor has reduced its role. [1]

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. When the instrument is played with one beater, the hand that holds the triangle can also be used to damp or slightly modify the tone. For complex rapid rhythms, the instrument may be suspended from a stand and played with two beaters, although this makes it more difficult to control.

Folk and popular music

Latin style triangle
A triangle played latin style, opening and closing the hand for rhythmic effect.

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A Brazilian singer playing the triangle.

In folk music, forró, cajun music and rock music a triangle is 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 by more subtle damping.

The triangle (known in Cajun French as a ‘tit-fer (from petit fer, "little iron") is popular in Cajun music where it serves as the strong beat, especially if no drums are present.[2]

In the Brazilian music style Forró it used together with the zabumba (a larger drum) and an accordion. It forms together with the zabumba the rhythmic section. It provides usually an ongoing pulse, damping the tone on the first second and fourth while opening the hand on the third beat to let most frequencies sound. It can be used though extensively for breaks and to improvise to vary the rhythm. A notable instrumentalist in this style has been Mestre Zinho.

Angelica Kauffman: L'Allegra, 1779

A notable player of the triangle is John Deacon of the rock group Queen. He played the triangle in live performances of Killer Queen, hanging it from his microphone. It can be heard in short breaks on the Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi". Noted zydeco musician Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin started his musical training on the triangle as a child.

The instrument is a fixture in Forró Pé-de-Serra, and in Forró Universitário, a Brazilian music style that is today part of popular music. It used as an ongoing rhythmic pulse, in a way that could be compared to the rhythm guitar in rock music. Notable bands in popular music in this style are Falamansa, Bicho de Pé, Circuladô de Fulô and Forróçacana.

The triangle also provides the trademark percussion during the opening bars of Henry Mancini's famous theme for The Pink Panther.

The opening theme for Blackadder Goes Forth includes Baldrick playing a single note on a triangle at the end of the song.

Drew Hester, percussionist and touring member of the Foo Fighters, had a twenty-second triangle solo in front of 85,000 people each night when the band played Wembley Stadium on the 6th & 7 June 2008. Other notable triangle players include English folk singer Norma Waterson. The Israeli Progressive Metal band Solstice Coil released a parody video on the well-known American Progressive Metal band Dream Theater, in which the prominent character was a triangle player known as "Triangle Guy". [3]

It has also been historically associated with calling people to dinner, especially in nineteenth century depictions.


  1. "OUP: Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)" (instruments used), Oxford University Press, 2006, webpage: OUPcoUK-Wagner.
  2. "Louisiana Voices Glossary" (Under definition for Tit-fer). Retrieved 2008-03-08.
  3. "The Natural Causes Carries On", Solstice Coil, 2011 .
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