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What Specialized Percussion Instruments Are Heard In This Selection? Bernstein West Side Story What Specialized Percussion Instruments Are Heard In This Selection? Bernstein West Side Story

Percussion Instruments

What Specialized Percussion Instruments Are Heard In This Selection? Bernstein West Side Story

Written by: Julieta Dangelo

Discover the vibrant world of percussion instruments in Bernstein's West Side Story. Uncover the captivating sounds and rhythms that make this selection unique.

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West Side Story is a timeless musical that has captivated audiences since its debut on Broadway in 1957. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story tells the tragic tale of two rival gangs in 1950s New York City. The musical is known for its passionate and emotional storytelling, and the music plays a crucial role in conveying the intensity of the characters’ emotions.

One of the key elements that make the music of West Side Story so distinctive and powerful is the use of percussion instruments. Percussion instruments add a rhythmic and energetic quality to the score, accentuating the tension and excitement of the story. From the opening notes of the overture to the climactic moments in the show, the various percussion instruments in West Side Story contribute to the overall impact of the music.

Throughout the musical, percussion instruments are used to evoke emotions, create dramatic moments, and enhance the energetic and dynamic nature of the story. These instruments add texture, depth, and intensity to the music, elevating the audience’s experience and bringing the characters’ struggles to life.

In this article, we will explore the specialized percussion instruments that are prominently heard in a specific selection from West Side Story. By examining these instruments and their roles in the composition, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complexity and brilliance of Bernstein’s musical craftsmanship.


Background of West Side Story

West Side Story is a groundbreaking musical that premiered on Broadway in 1957. It was a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, who composed the music, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, and Arthur Laurents, who penned the book. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” West Side Story transports the timeless tale of forbidden love from 16th-century Verona to the bustling streets of 1950s New York City.

The musical explores the rivalry between two immigrant gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Tony, a former member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo. Their relationship is hindered by the deep-seated animosity between the two gangs, ultimately leading to a tragic climax.

West Side Story boldly tackled social issues such as racism, prejudice, and the struggle for acceptance in America. The themes and conflicts in the musical resonated strongly with audiences during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, making it a powerful and influential work of art.

Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story pushed the boundaries of traditional musical theater. His score combined elements of classical music, jazz, Latin rhythms, and contemporary theater music. The music not only accompanied the story but also played a vital role in character development and storytelling.

With its revolutionary choreography by Jerome Robbins, imaginative staging, and emotionally charged music, West Side Story was a critical and commercial success. It received widespread acclaim and won numerous awards, including six Tony Awards and a Grammy Award.

Since its inception, West Side Story has been performed and admired around the world. Its powerful themes, stunning music, and captivating story continue to resonate with audiences of all generations, solidifying its status as a timeless masterpiece of musical theater.


Usage of Percussion Instruments in West Side Story

Percussion instruments play a crucial role in West Side Story, enhancing the dramatic storytelling and adding depth to the music. Bernstein’s score incorporates a wide range of percussion instruments to create a vibrant and rhythmic sound world that mirrors the energy and intensity of the characters and their environments.

From the opening overture, the percussion section sets the tone for the entire musical. A combination of drums, cymbals, and other metallic instruments helps establish the urban and gritty atmosphere of 1950s New York City. The energetic and syncopated rhythms immediately draw the audience into the world of the Jets and the Sharks.

Throughout the show, percussion instruments provide rhythmic punctuation and accentuate the emotions of the characters. The pulsating beats of the drums underscore moments of tension and conflict, heightening the sense of anticipation and danger. In contrast, softer percussion instruments like marimbas and vibraphones produce more delicate and ethereal sounds, enhancing the romantic and reflective moments of the story.

The percussive elements in West Side Story also contribute to the dance sequences, which are a hallmark of the musical. The vibrant Latin-inspired rhythms, created by instruments like congas and bongos, infuse the dance numbers with energy and authenticity. The infectious beats encourage the performers to move with passion and intensity, captivating the audience with their mesmerizing movements.

Moreover, percussion instruments are integral to the iconic moments in West Side Story. The famous snapping fingers of the Jets serve as a rhythmic motif throughout the production, becoming a symbol of their presence and identity. The crisp sound of the snaps adds a percussive layer to the music and reinforces the distinctive rhythm of the Jets’ theme.

Additionally, percussion instruments are used to underscore the dramatic climax of the musical. As the tragic events unfold, the percussion section intensifies its rhythm, building the tension, and creating a sense of impending doom. The crashing cymbals and thundering drums heighten the emotional impact, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.

In summary, percussion instruments in West Side Story serve multiple purposes. They establish the setting and atmosphere, provide rhythmic support, enhance the emotional moments, enliven the dance sequences, and contribute to the overall impact of the storytelling. The masterful use of percussion by Leonard Bernstein elevates the musical to a new level of intensity, making it an unforgettable experience for audiences.


Specialized Percussion Instruments in the Selection

In a specific selection from West Side Story, there are several specialized percussion instruments that play a significant role in enhancing the musical composition. These instruments contribute unique sounds and textures, adding depth and complexity to the overall arrangement.

One prominent percussion instrument in this selection is the timpani. The timpani, also known as kettle drums, are large, bowl-shaped drums with tunable pitches. They provide a deep and resonant sound that adds a sense of grandeur and drama to the music. The timpani are often used to emphasize important moments, such as the entrance of a character or a climactic point in the story. Their booming, thunderous tones create a powerful impact that resonates with the audience.

Another specialized percussion instrument heard in this selection is the glockenspiel. The glockenspiel is a melodic percussion instrument similar to a xylophone, consisting of tuned metal bars that are struck with mallets. Its bright and shimmering sound adds a sparkling quality to the music, often used to accompany light and joyful moments. The glockenspiel adds a touch of playfulness and innocence to the composition, contrasting with the intense emotions portrayed in the story.

The snare drum is another specialized percussion instrument that plays a crucial role in this selection. The snare drum provides a crisp and sharp sound, often used to punctuate rhythmic patterns and accentuate specific beats. Its rhythmic presence adds a sense of urgency and drive to the music, heightening the energy of the performance. The snare drum is particularly effective in capturing the tension and excitement during the dance sequences, driving the choreography and engaging the audience with its infectious rhythm.

Furthermore, the Latin influence in West Side Story is reflected through the use of congas and bongos. These specialized percussion instruments contribute to the vibrant and rhythmic nature of the music. The congas produce deep and resonant tones, while the bongos provide a sharper and more percussive sound. Together, they create a dynamic Latin groove that infuses the selection with energy and authenticity. The congas and bongos are often heard during the dance numbers, adding a layer of exoticism and thrilling the audience with their infectious beats.

Lastly, the use of chimes in this selection adds a mystical and ethereal quality to the music. Chimes are suspended metal tubes or rods that produce a delicate and shimmering sound when struck. Their presence adds a touch of enchantment and magic to the composition, enhancing the emotional depth and creating a sense of otherworldliness.

Overall, the specialized percussion instruments in this particular selection from West Side Story elevate the composition to new heights. The timpani, glockenspiel, snare drum, congas, bongos, and chimes each contribute their unique qualities, adding depth, emotion, rhythm, and texture to the music. These instruments showcase the artistry and creativity of the percussion section, enhancing the overall impact of the story and immersing the audience in the world of West Side Story.



The specialized percussion instruments used in West Side Story are essential components that bring the music to life and enhance the storytelling experience. From the booming timpani to the sparkling glockenspiel, each instrument adds a unique texture and emotion to the composition. The rhythms and sounds created by the snare drum, congas, bongos, and chimes infuse the music with energy, authenticity, and depth.

Leonard Bernstein’s masterful use of percussion instruments in West Side Story showcases his genius as a composer. Through the clever integration of these instruments, he effectively transports the audience to the gritty streets of 1950s New York City, allowing them to feel the palpable tension between the rival gangs and experience the ups and downs of forbidden love.

The percussion section’s ability to create intense and captivating moments is evident in the selection we explored. The timpani’s deep resonance, the glockenspiel’s sparkling tones, and the snare drum’s sharp accents all contribute to the emotional impact of the music. The Latin-infused rhythms of the congas and bongos add an enticing layer of energy and passion, while the delicate chimes evoke a sense of mystery and enchantment.

Furthermore, the specialized percussion instruments in West Side Story go beyond their technical role and become characters in their own right. They embody the spirit of the Jets and the Sharks, the turmoil of forbidden love, and the vibrant energy of the city itself. They create a dynamic and immersive musical landscape that connects the audience even deeper with the narrative.

West Side Story’s legacy as a groundbreaking musical is undeniable, and the skilled use of percussion instruments plays a significant part in its enduring appeal. The power and versatility of these instruments allow the music to transcend time and resonate with audiences from generation to generation.

In conclusion, the specialized percussion instruments in West Side Story are integral components of the musical’s success. They enhance the storytelling, elevate the emotional impact, and contribute to the overall immersive experience. The masterful compositions and arrangements by Leonard Bernstein demonstrate the enduring power of percussion instruments and their ability to transform a musical into a captivating work of art.

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