There’s a lot to be said for musical instruments—the obvious point being, of course, that they entertain us. Just conjure up, if you will, the breezy sounds of a smooth saxophone, or the confident trilling of a well-tuned trumpet. Yeah, there’s nothing quite like great music being played by even greater musicians. It’s even more amazing when the instruments all belong to different categories—like wind, strings, and percussion—but still flow seamlessly together. That kind of harmony is almost unspeakably beautiful.
How come the exact same notes can produce such wild variations in sound when they’re being played on different instruments? Well, the instruments all operate by different mechanics, and, as such, they can be classified differently, depending on the said mechanics. In this article, we’ll have a look t how modern musical instruments are classified—and we’ll come to understand how come they can sound so lovely.
Wind instruments function because their musicians blow air into them. They are divided into two categories: brass and woodwinds. Brass instruments produce sound when the musicians make their lips vibrate into the instrument. Woodwind instruments, on the other hand, generate sound because musicians’ breathing forms a column of air inside the instrument.
To play their instruments, brass players must “buzz”—i.e., they blow their lips together. Buzzing is something like making the sound “pbfpbbbpfpbbbp”. To put it more clearly, it’s like you’re blowing a more intense form of the adorable raspberry. (Just pretend your trumpet is a cute baby. Aww!) These instruments are played with mouthpieces—i.e., metal pieces into which musicians need to blow to produce sound. Mouthpieces can also be made with various other materials. These days, you can even print a plastic one with a 3D printer.
Examples of brass instruments include the trumpet, the euphonium (which is like a small tuba), the trombone, and the French horn. The trombone is unique among the mainstream brass instruments in that note pitch is determined not, by pressing certain combinations of keys, but by slide position. The slide (that familiar, long…“slidey” part of the trombone) has seven positions, each of which corresponds to different notes of the scale.
Woodwind instruments generate sound how when the air breathed into them causes a column of air to vibrate from within. Some examples are the clarinet, the flute, the oboe, the piccolo, the recorder, the bassoon, the English horn, and the bass clarinet. However, not all woodwind instruments work in the same way. In the case of a clarinet or oboe, when the musician breathes into it, the reed (a removable strip, usually made of wood) vibrates inside the instrument. The result of this is that one’s breath agitates air within the body of the instrument, producing a sound. In the case of the recorder and its relatives, the musician must blow against the edge of the instrument. In the case of flute-like instruments, the musician instead creates sound by blowing against the edge of an open hole. While flutes and clarinets are played by pressing down onto key combinations to create specific pitches, the recorder (like the Native American flute) shakes this up by having open holes take the place of keys. To change the pitch of a recorder or Native American flute, a musician only needs to blow into another hole.
The most famous subcategory of woodwind instruments, however, is that of the saxophones. That’s right—despite their shiny, metallic gold color, these are woodwind instruments, not brass. The major types of saxophones include the soprano (the smallest, it resembles a golden clarinet); the alto (also small in size; its mouthpiece is a straight, diagonal line); the tenor (a medium size, with a wavy bent to its mouthpiece); and the baritone (the largest of them all, its neck has an iconic curled shape). All of these instruments are played with a reed instead of a mouthpiece. Like the clarinet and the flute, all saxophones are played by pressing down on key combinations while blowing into the instrument. Saxophones and clarinets use single reeds, whereas flutes use double reeds. For double reeds, the strip of wood is folded in half. However, single reeds just use one, unfolded strip of wood. Here’s a fun, related fact: the key combinations for clarinets and saxophone players are so similar to each other that one player can switch from a clarinet to a sax with ease.
Outside of the woodwind-brass dichotomy, you can probably remember another famous wind instrument offhand: the humble harmonica. Unlike its fellows, it is a free-reed instrument, which means sound is created when air, pushing through the instrument, flows past a vibrating reed. There are many other free-reed instruments, such as the melodica and the accordion (although the latter is not, of course, a wind instrument).
Other wind instruments include the didgeridoo, a long, pipe-like instrument created by the native people of Australia; the kazoo, which is like a whistle with a vibrating membrane inside; and the vuvuzela, a simple plastic horn whose pitch can be varied by sliding its two halves together. Finally, the whistle is also a wind instrument. It is quite simple, as you can’t vary the pitch. We might even think of it as being an un-pitched wind instrument!
String instruments—also called “chordophones”—generate sound when their musicians make their strings vibrate. They can do so by touching the strings in some way—whether plucking them by hand, strumming them with a pick, or running a bow across the strings. The bow is a long, thin, stick-like tool with a ribbon, meant to stroke the strings, on its underside.
The guitar family—which includes, among others, the ukulele and the sitar—forms one group of string instruments. To play them, musicians strike the strings, either with a pick or with their bare hands, while pressing the frets with their opposite hand. As attested by the guitar, these instruments are well-suited to both acoustic and electric variations.
Another category, related to the guitar, is that of the zither. Basically, these instruments are boxes, usually made of wood, that have strings attached to them. To play a zither instrument, a musician place it horizontally on a flat surface, and touch the strings with their fingers and a pick. Well-known zithers include the koto, guqin, and the yatga.
Harps and related instruments make up another category of strings instruments. Musicians make music with these instruments by plucking the strings individually. In contrast, guitar players strike several strings at once.
Outside of guitar- and harp-type instruments, there are four major types of string instruments in the Western orchestra. These are the violin; the viola (which is similar to the violin, but larger); the cello; and the upright bass, which is so large that most musicians need to stand up while they’re playing it. Unlike guitars, the four in this group are played with the aid of a bow.
Percussion instruments produce sound when a musician hits, strikes, or tap them in some way. They can be separated into two categories: pitched and un-pitched. As the name indicates, the people playing pitched percussion instruments can control the pitches of their notes at will. Examples include the xylophone; the marimba, which resembles a wooden xylophone; and the glockenspiel, which is played standing up. To play these instruments, a percussionist can control the sound by placing his or her mallet on the keys or tone bars, which are differentiated in the same way a piano is. Another example is the timpani, or kettle drums. To play on this set of four huge, copper drums, a musician continuously twiddles the tuning screws on its sides to change the pitches of the beats.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have un-pitched percussion instruments. These instruments include no mechanism to change their pitches. Examples include most drums, like the snare drum, the gong, and the djembe. This category isn’t limited to drums, however. Cymbals—both hi-hats and orchestral cymbals—are also un-pitched percussion instruments, as are castanets, the cowbell, bells (both the clock-tower or sleigh-ride varieties), and the musical triangle.
The Piano and Its Descendants
So, after all this, you might be wondering: where does the piano fall into the mix? Well, on a traditional piano, sound is produced because, inside the instrument, the little weights attached to each note hit the strings inside it every time you hit a key. That means, naturally, the piano is a percussion instrument…and a string instrument at the same time? Yes, that’s actually the case. Amazing, eh? How many other string/percussion combos are there? Well, there’s the harpsichord and the forte piano. There’s also the organ, which makes the sound even more complex by amplifying it via a wide-ranging set of pipes. (And that’s completely disregarding the fact that it has multiple keyboards!)
Musical Instruments: A Spectacular Panorama
So far, we’ve only scratched the surface of the plethora of instruments that currently exist. There are hundreds of others, like the theremin, an electronic instrument which makes music by sensing the position of a performer’s hands, and the beat bearing, a rhythm sequencer that uses ball bearings to create beats. In the UK, there’s even a giant, tree-shaped sound sculpture that makes music when it’s windy! Ultimately, the musical panorama is one we definitely should discover. It is incredibly beautiful; listening to all the music the world has to offer will instantly put a smile on anyone’s face.