The snare drum’s tasks are first and foremost rhythmic (rhythmic sound effects).
Probably the most famous example of this is Ravel’s Boléro, in which two drummers lead the whole orchestra and can even reduce the conductor to the status of a spectator! (-:
However, since the Romantic period it has been entrusted with more and more tonal tasks, for instance lending other instruments a sharper edge by brightening their sound. Playing techniques such as tremolos, trills and bow noises produced by the strings can be emphasized by a drum roll, but single notes such as a pizzicato can also be accentuated by the snare drum.
The snare drum’s classic task is the roll in build-ups and tutti passages. In addition to this, the instrument has also seen service as a solo instrument in 20th century works such as Ravel’s Boléro (with snares) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (without snares).
Snare drum + other percussion instruments
In the drum group in the orchestra the snare drum brightens the sound. It usually plays rhythmic figures while the bass drum with its dark timbre accentuates the underlying beat and the dark and somber-sounding tenor drum plays the rolls. The drum group is often complemented by the timpani.
The possible combinations of the snare drum with other percussion instruments are of course many and varied. Which combination is chosen depends on the type of effect desired: together with bright and ringing instruments such as the cymbals, triangle, anvil etc. the composite sound is particularly hard. With darker and softer-sounding instruments, the snare drum is often played snares off.
Snare drum + woodwinds
The woodwinds’ staccato is accentuated by the snare drum’s precise sound.
A sort of blend is achieved especially with the high woodwinds: the snare drum gives the flutes, oboes and clarinets a sharper edge, while its own sound is cloaked.
In combination with the snare drum the bassoon takes on extra brightness, but the two instruments are heard as two distinct lines.
Snare drum + brass instruments
The metallic properties of the brass’s timbre are emphasized by the snare drum. There is no blend, however, the sounds remain disparate and are heard as distinct lines.
There is a similarity between the sounds of the snare drum and the trumpet played with a metal mute, since the timbre of the muted trumpet also possesses a high noise level. The effect of the trumpet’s noise-like flutter-tonguing is also similar to that of the drum roll.
Snare drum + strings
The snare drum accentuates the strings’ staccato, marcato and pizzicato. Because the snare drum is in the treble register this is particularly effective with the high strings.
The noise level of col legno (with the wood) playing and the bowed tremolo is also emphasized, which produces an eerie effect.