The triangle is a musical instrument that gets a bit of a bad rap. It’s developed the reputation for being really easy, sort of gratuitous, and not exactly very interesting at all.
However, this is not really very fair at all – as it is not in the least bit true. Rather, triangles – believe it or not – are actually really important instrument with a long and illustrious history. They are not just kids’ toys or instruments for beginner percussionists at all.
Here, we’re going to look at some of the most important aspects of the triangle – from its history to its central techniques, from some famous triangle performances to the places where you can find yourself a triangle teacher. We’ll look, in fact, at everything that a beginner needs to play the triangle.
And you might not think it, but there’s a lot to know about the instrument. So, let’s get cracking.
What is the Triangle?
The triangle is a percussion instrument that is made of a steel rod bent into the shape of – you guessed it – a triangle. And, as a percussion instrument, it is struck – most commonly with a metal beater, to give the instrument a bright, ringing tone. Like the marimba and the xylophone, the triangle is an idiophone – or an instrument that, when struck, vibrates as a whole.
Something that you may have noticed is that the triangle is not quite a full triangle. Rather, one of the corners is missing.
There’s a reason for this. If the instrument was a full triangle, its being struck would give a single pitch. However, that’s not quite what happens with a triangle as it is. Rather, a triangle produces lots of overtones, or harmonics – which gives the instrument its distinctive sound.
The triangle itself aside, you will need what is conventionally known as a ‘triangle holder’ too – a loop from which the triangle is suspended – so that you don’t mute the instrument’s resonance.
Now, apart from in the classroom, you’ll actually find the triangle in a lot of different musical contexts. In samba music, in a lot of Brazilian traditional music, and in classical music too. And, by the way, we’d say that if Brahms is happy to put the triangle to use, there is no reason why you should think it’s daft yourself.
A Brief History of the Triangle.
So why does this instrument even exist? What has caused something so simple – and objectively so limited – to be found in different genres all over the world?
The answer, actually, is quite interesting, as it goes back for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The first known reference to a triangle comes from the tenth century, when it is seen in a book manuscript. Since then, images of a triangle are seen in medieval editions of the Bible, in stain-glass windows, and in a lot of Christian iconography. Indeed, according to some sources, the triangle is only beaten by the cymbal as the most common instrument played by angels in religious images.
Again, this would seem to us like further support for the fact that maybe the triangle isn’t such a useless instrument after all. It has been around for potentially a thousand years!
From these religious origins, the triangle began to be incorporated into European orchestral works in the eighteenth century, by composers like Brahms, Mozart, and Liszt. This resurgence of interest in the instrument was apparently due to the fact that Turkish musicians who were popular at the time used the instrument a lot.
Moreover, as we mentioned, the instrument became popular in styles of Brazilian music – including samba and forró.
Are there Different Types of Triangle?
As with many percussion instruments, the triangle is not just a single thing. Rather, it comes in all different shapes and sizes.
Triangles tend to come in a standard size of five inches, yet they also come in six inches, seven inches, and eight. The different size will affect the sound that the instrument produces: larger ones will be louder, yes, but they will produce lower pitches, owing to the differences in vibration.
Sometimes, triangles can come with a stand – but more often they are played with a holder or string loop as we discussed above. These aren’t even strictly necessary, as we shall demonstrate below.
The very old – we’re talking medieval – types of triangles would have had rings attached to the bottom side of the instrument. When the triangle was struck, these rings would jingle almost like a tambourine. And whilst this sounds cool, you don’t really find these at all anymore.
Find out about different types of percussion instruments!
Some Triangle Performances You Should Know.
To demonstrate to you that the triangle is not simply a joke instrument or a toy, it is worth looking at some places where it has been put to extraordinary use. And, as you’ll see, these create an amazing effect without which their pieces of music would be severely lacking.
Johannes Brahms – Symphony #4 (Third Movement)
One of the most famous uses of the triangle in classical music is in the third movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Throughout this triumphant, joyful movement, the triangle contributes a strange, ethereal effect that adds atmosphere to the piece.
And if you have seen any video of an orchestra performing this piece, you will have noticed the look of concentration on the triangle player’s face.
Franz Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1 (Second Movement)
Mocked once upon a time as a ‘Triangle Concerto’ – due to the fact that the triangle features heavily – Liszt’s first piano concerto is an astonishing piece.
Lead, in a sense, by the triangle, the second movement’s second part is full of frantic piano lines and our percussion instrument’s constant presence.
Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – Casa Forte
We said that a considerable amount of Brazilian music features frequent use of the triangle.
An example of this is in Sérgio Mendes’s ‘Casa Forte’, a wild bossa nova track with a strong percussion section. Here, the triangle is heard in its different style: not just with its piercing ring, but used in its percussive mode too.
What You Need to Know to Play the Triangle.
So, you have heard some famous uses of the triangle. It’s not time to pick up your own instrument and get playing yourself. At this point you’ll see that it is not such a straightforward technique.
Here, we are going to look at three techniques: the basic strike, the roll, and the muted bossa nova technique as heard in ‘Casa Forte’.
Holding the Triangle.
Before you start to play, you’ll need to attach the triangle holder. Loop the string onto the open corner and pull the string onto the first closed corner you reach.
Now, if you are right-handed, hold the triangle in your left hand with the open corner pointing leftwards.
Striking the Triangle.
As you are holding the triangle with the holder, you can now practise striking the instrument. As you would with a drum, you need to strike it with the beater and then return your hand to its original position – otherwise it will not resonate.
It is best to strike it towards the closed corner to the right of your hand.
The Triangle Roll.
Once you have got the basic strike down, you can try the triangle roll. This is where you put the beater inside one of the closed corners of the triangle and quickly strike at either side.
This will produce a jangling effect that recalls a drum roll.
Muting the Triangle.
Now, for the more rhythmic technique, you want to unloop the triangle holder and place the top corner of the triangle onto your left hand’s index finger. It should balance on that finger so that your left hand’s other fingers are able to move.
Now you can use those free fingers to mute and unmute the triangle during rhythms – just as they do in Brazil.
Do You Need a Triangle Teacher?
As with any musical instrument, a decent triangle teacher would help you improve your technique.
However, you are going to find very few – if any – teachers that only work with the triangle. As the triangle takes its place amongst the other instruments of the percussion section, your best bet is to find a general percussion teacher.
One of the best places to find one of these is with Superprof. We have a huge number of tutors available for tutoring across the world – either in person or online. Just search for a percussion tutor!