Musical Instrument Families

Musical instruments are generally grouped into families according to what they are made of and how they are played.   The main families are strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.  Can you guess what family the Piano belongs to?  (You might be surprised!)

String Instrument Family

String instruments include the violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, and many others.  They come in many shapes and sizes, but all have one thing in common: sound is made by causing a string that has been stretched very, very tightly to vibrate,  producing sound waves that resonate through the instrument, into the air, and finally to your ears.  The string is usually made to vibrate by pulling a bow across the string.  The bow is made of a special Brazilian wood and hair from a horse’s tail!  Why horse hair?  Horse hair is naturally coarse and has microscopic “barbs” that allow it to grip and hold particles of rosin that makes the hair “sticky” so it grips the string as it passes over.  Players can also “pluck” or “strum” the strings to cause them to vibrate.  String instruments are great instruments for beginners of all ages to start their music lessons.

Woodwind Instrument Family

Woodwind instruments include clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, and flute.  They are called woodwinds because they are (usually) made of wood, and the sound is made by blowing through the body of the instrument.  There are two main types of woodwinds: reed instruments and flute instruments.  Reed instruments such as clarinet, sax, and oboe, have a very thinly shaved piece of soft wood called a reed attached to the instrument.  When the player blows over the reed, it vibrates and sends sound through the instrument.

Try it out at home! Cup your hands, stretch a piece of grass between the knuckles of your thumbs and blow into your hands across the blade.  Did you get any sound?  Keep trying!

Flute instruments, such as flute and recorder do not have reeds; instead, sound is made by blowing air across a sharp edge built into the instrument.

Brass Instrument Family

The brass family includes trumpet, trombone, french horn, and tuba, among others.  Brass instruments, like woodwinds, make sound when the player blows air into the instrument.  But instead of creating sound from a reed or edge, the sound is created by the player’s lips.  The player “buzzes” his or her lips together by blowing through them into a mouthpiece that sends the sound vibrations through the instrument.

Try it out! Hold your lips together tightly and blow air between them so they buzz.  See if you can make both high sounds and low sounds?  How did you change the sounds?  Can you try to “buzz” a simple melody?

Have you ever heard of the Didgeridoo?  Although it is made of wood, it can be considered a “brass” instrument, since its sound is produced by the player’s lips.  Check out all of the interesting sounds this didgeridoo player can make without any keys at all!  Notice how he keeps the sound going for so long without ever taking a breath.  This is called circular breathing, and it’s not easy!

Percussion Instrument Family

The Percussion family includes instruments such as drums, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, marimba, and, you guessed it, piano!  Percussion instruments make sound when they are struck by the hand or another object such as a drumstick or mallet.  Percussion instruments can either be “pitched” meaning the sound produced has a definite pitch (i.e. you could play a tune on it), “non-pitched” meaning the sound does not have a definite pitch, or somewhere in between.  Piano, xylophone, marimba, and timpani are examples of pitched percussion instruments.  Snare drums, bass drums, and cymbals are examples of non-pitched percussion instruments.  Tom-toms and Conga drums are an example of the in-between category.

So why is the piano a percussion instrument?

The inside of the piano consists of many tightened strings that correspond to each note on the keyboard.  When keys are pressed, “hammers” inside the piano strike the appropriate strings, causing them to vibrate and create sound.  Since the strings are struck, rather than bowed or plucked, the piano is technically a percussion instrument.  Some people consider keyboard instruments to be in a family of their own, but there is not technically a separate keyboard family because the fact that the instrument has a keyboard doesn’t actually describe how the sound is produced, only the manner in which it is played.  Keyboard instruments can produce sound in many different ways.  The strings inside a harpsichord, for example, are plucked when a key is pressed.  A pipe organ, on the other hand, forces air through combinations of large metal pipes.

We highly recommend piano lessons as a starting point for beginning students and also as secondary instrument for those already learning another instrument.  Learn why piano lessons are important for all musicians.