The snare drum is beaten with two drumsticks, held one in each hand. Unlike the timpani, striking the head of the snare drum does not produce a definite pitch, or at least one that can only be determined with difficulty.
It is the construction of the drum that causes it to have no definite pitch. Heads are stretched across both ends of the shell. The vibrations stimulated by striking the head are magnified by the resonance of the shell and the air inside it. They cause the snare head to vibrate and this reacts both on the batter head and outwardly. The sound contains a great many inharmonic partials in close proximity to each other and this results in a sound which has very much the character of noise. Because the two heads have neither same degree of tension, nor the same thickness, the batter head and snare head vibrate at different rates which contributes to the indistinctness of pitch.
There is always a small hole in the shell that acts as a vent, preventing a build-up of excessive air pressure inside the shell.
The striking spot, the point on the head that produces the best sound, is more or less in the center of the batter head (unlike the timpani, where it is about a hand-width from the rim). The nearer the rim the head is struck the less volume of sound is produced on the snare drum and the less discernible its fundamental pitch – the upper register dominates. It is for this reason that the drummer plays nearer the rim to achieve decrescendo and piano effects.
Compared to the bass drum the snare drum’s resonance is very short, owing to its smaller dimensions. The drum’s small resonant chamber means that its pitch is relatively high, somewhere in the region of one octave above middle C. The hard drumsticks produce a particularly bright sound.
Traditional grip, which developed in the Middle Ages, when the drum rested at an angle on the marching drummer’s left hip and was struck from the side:
The right hand holds the drumstick like a timpani mallet and beats straight up and down. The left hand makes a sweeping movement, the drumstick rests in the cleft between the thumb and index finger and on the bent ring and little fingers, while the tip of the middle finger holds the stick steady on the ring finger.
Today the drum is usually placed on a stand, and is only rarely played hanging to one side from the drummer’s shoulder, e.g. in (military) parades. The traditional grip has therefore become less appropriate and many drummers prefer to use the so-called matched grip, holding both sticks like timpani mallets.
The snare drum is generally played with the snares taut. It is the snares that are chiefly responsible for the drum’s characteristic sound: the snare head vibrates against the snares, which lie taut across it, causing these to vibrate in sympathy. This results in a metallic-bright, hissing to crisp sound which to the ear sounds about an octave higher than the drum without snares.
More loosely tensioned strings vibrate more than tightly tensioned ones. In addition, the snares vibrate more strongly the nearer the rim the batter head is struck.
In the orchestra the snare drum is placed on a stand. Some drummers prefer to play it seated, others remain standing.