Early humans invented the first musical instrument, and over time, musical instruments have significantly evolved. Now experts in musical instruments classify these instruments into multiple types. The most common classifications of musical instruments divide instruments into five categories: String, Brass, Woodwind, Percussion, and keyboard instruments. Moreover, the very first four types of instruments form the modern symphony orchestra’s foundation.
If you are desirous of learning a new musical instrument, it will help familiarize yourself with these different types of musical instruments. In this way, you can choose wisely which musical instrument to learn and master.
The 5 Major Classifications of Musical Instruments
Musical experts classify instruments according to families. For example, the Hornbostel-Sachs system—which is the most famous classification of musical instruments globally—groups the musical instruments into the strings family, keyboard family, woodwind, brass, and percussion family. Below is a short discussion of these different classifications:
1) String Instruments
String instruments—also termed stringed or chordophones—originate or produce sound from vibrating strings. Performers usually play or pluck the strings of the instruments to produce sound. They use a plectrum or their fingers to create that great sound of the string instruments.
Others, however, make sound by hitting the strings with a wooden hammer or merely rubbing the strings with their bows, while others press a key that enables the string’s plucking.
Bowed instruments also belonged to the string instruments. These bowed instruments constitute the Classical Music Orchestra’s string section instruments, including the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. You can pluck with your fingers all of these bowed string instruments. This plucking technique is called pizzicato.
With the electric guitars, however, you can use various techniques to sound notes. Such methods include plucking using a plectrum or fingernails, tapping, strumming. The harp, on the other hand, is mostly plucked.
You can change the pitch of a stringed instrument by varying the tension of the strings. In this way, you can tune a string instrument. You can change the string’s pitch in three ways. First, you vary the string’s length. The longer the string, the lower its pitch. You can also adjust the string tension. Strings with less tension result in a lower pitch. You can also change the string’s pitch by varying the linear density or the string’s mass per unit length.
Most string instruments transmit vibrations to the instrument’s body. The body comes with a hollow or enclosed area. The instrument’s body also vibrates together with the air inside that body. As the instrument’s body vibrates, the string’s vibration becomes more audible to the audience and performer. Nevertheless, string instruments like the electric guitar don’t rely on the instrument’s vibration but the electronic amplification.
2) Brass Instruments
You can expect the brass instruments to work like the wind instruments saved for some modifications. The brass instruments feature air columns of which width you can alter using the slide mechanism or their press valves. For example, if you look inside the trumpet, you will find that it has valves. Before the incorporation of valves, trumpeters find it hard to play other notes.
Hence, they can only play a restricted number of notes. But with the introduction of valves, the range of notes that they can play expanded. You can open and close its valves. You can also open or close them to form a variety of combinations to begin producing various pitches.
Another brass instrument with valves is the French horn. It features a round tube, forming a compact shape that ends in a conical bore or bell. Other brass instruments you may want to consider playing are the tuba, trombone, bugle, and conch.
Aside from the valves, you can produce various pitches on brass instruments with the help of the slides, crooks, keys for changing tubing, and vibratory length. The players can also alter the pitch by their embouchure, airflow, lip tension to change the harmonic produced.
Scholars sometimes think that brass instruments should be distinguished and defined by how they produce sound. It should not be limited by whether it is made of brass or not. For this reason, you will find brass instruments wrought in wood like the cornett, alphorn, the didgeridoo, and the serpent.
3) Woodwind Instruments
Another distinct family of musical instruments is the woodwind family of musical instruments. Some examples of the woodwind instruments include the flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and bassoon. Moreover, the woodwind instruments come in two types: reed instruments and flutes. This distinction is due to the way the musical instruments produce sound. Nevertheless, all woodwind instruments feature a sharp edge onto which you would blow air to split the airflow.
Although these instruments are called woodwind, not all woodwind instruments are made of wood. Some typical materials used for woodwind instruments include cane, silver, brass, and other metals like platinum and gold. The saxophone is another kind of woodwind instrument that, although made of brass, belongs to this musical instrument family because it has a reed for producing sound.
At present, you will find woodwind instruments in the modern orchestra with the woodwind section that includes oboes, flutes, clarinets, and bassoons. You will also sometimes see the piccolo, bass clarinet, cor anglais, E-flat clarinet, and even the contrabassoon as supplementary woodwind instruments. It may also include saxophones.
4) Percussion Instruments
Another musical instrument family is the percussion. These instruments are sounded by striking or scraping the instruments using a beater or rubbing the instruments with one’s hand. The percussions consist of a section in the modern orchestra. This section consists of the snare drum, timpani, bass drum, triangle, bass drum, and tambourine.
Moreover, they may also have non-percussive instruments like the sirens and whistles. However, the celesta, a keyboard instrument, is not included in the percussion section but in the keyboard percussion like the xylophone and the glockenspiel.
Percussion instruments are also classified into two types: pitched percussions and unpitched percussion instruments. Pitched percussions, of course, produce identifiable pitch, while unpitched produce sounds or notes with indefinite pitch. The human body may also qualify as a percussion instrument.
5) Keyboard Instruments
The keyboard instruments are characterized by standard keyboard, though their operations vary in range and usage. The keyboard, of course, consists of rows of levers that you would press with your fingers. The popular keyboard instruments include the organ, piano, and electronic keyboards. Synthesizers and digital pianos also fall under this category. Other examples include the celestas and carillons.
At present, you will often hear the keyboard when referring to any keyboard-style synthesizer. Used by an expert, the keyboard can also control the phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and sound shading.
The modern keyboard sounds like a piano but doesn’t have the weight and size of the piano. You will find electric and electronic organs at present. The keys of most keyboards feature plastic keys that come with springs. The springs let the keys return to their original position after you press on them. You will also find keyboards with weighted keys for simulating the key resistance of the acoustic piano.
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