In the orchestra the bass drum performs important tonal and rhythmic tasks in both tutti and solo passages. The marking of rhythm on accented beats, its fundamental task in military, rock, pop and jazz music, is also one of its functions in traditional orchestral music. In more recent times composers have entrusted the drum with other tasks, too.
Because the bass drum possesses tremendous volume, dynamic levels in combinations with other instruments must be carefully balanced. A tonal blend is achieved especially with mellow and full-sounding bass instruments. The bass drum’s great resonance often creates the impression that it is playing the same pitch as the bass instruments (which is why, when the instruction tacet appears, it is occasionally covered with a cloth, or the drummer places a hand on the head, so that it does not vibrate in sympathy).
Bass drum + other percussion instruments
Bass drum + other drums
Within the drum group, the bass drum, with its deep, dark timbre supplies the bass voice, providing a rhythmic and tonal foundation with its single strokes. The snare drum adds brightness and performs mostly rhythmic figures, while the dark and somber tenor drum plays rolls. The drum group is often complemented by the timpani.
The bass drum’s function in the orchestra is by no means limited to accentuating the beat; apart from rolls it can also perform complex rhythmic figures.
Bass drum + timpani
On occasions the bass drum either replaces or reinforces the lowest notes of the D timpani, because in this register the loosely tensioned timpani head sounds dull while the drum sounds lively and energetic. In this instance the timpani notes are often played an octave higher.
Bass drum + cymbals
Since Janissary music the bass drum has had the function of providing the rhythm in marching music together with the cymbals. This combination remains the foundation of western brass band music today. For this type of music the cymbal is often mounted on the shell of the bass drum.
In the orchestra this practice is usually followed only in marches or waltzes or to suggest a military atmosphere. At certain dynamic levels and in certain playing techniques the combination of bass drum and cymbals is quite capable of creating subtle effects rich in nuances, e.g. by striking the rim of the cymbal only or striking the cymbal with a stick etc. The bass drum’s single strokes in combination with a cymbal crash can sound majestic and solemn (the same is true of the gong and the tam-tam). One of the most powerful orchestral effects is the combination of the bass drum roll (especially as a crescendo) and an fff cymbal crash.
Bass drum + brass / woodwinds
The combination with the warm and fat sound of the tuba is particularly effective. Single drum strokes and rolls merge with the tuba’s single notes and tremolos to form a composite timbre.
The bass drum’s resonance is also relatively effective together with the bassoon and contrabassoon.
Bass drum + strings
Bass drum + double bass
Of the strings the double-bass is ideal for combinations with the bass drum. At appropriately low dynamic levels the bass drum’s single strokes reinforce the double-bass’s single notes and pizzicato. Its tremolos are also accentuated by the bass drum roll.