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Musical Instruments. Families and Properties . Around the world, thousands of different instruments are used They vary greatly in construction and tone color. Definition. A musical instrument is any mechanism (other than the voice) that produces musical sounds. String Guitar/Violin

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musical instruments

Musical Instruments

Families and Properties


Around the world, thousands of different instruments are used

They vary greatly in construction and tone color

  • A musical instrument is any mechanism (other than the voice) that produces musical sounds.


    • Guitar/Violin
  • Woodwind
    • Flute/Clarinet
  • Brass
    • Trumpet/Tuba
  • Percussion
    • Cymbal/Snare
  • Keyboard
    • Piano/Organ
  • Electronic
    • Synthesizer

Western musicians usually classify instruments into 6 broad categories.


Many instruments are made in different sizes in order to produce different ranges

For instance, the saxophone family includes a soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone

instrument vs voice
Instrument vs. Voice
  • Instrumental performer are constantly trying to match the beautiful and flexible tone of the voice.
  • Most instruments have a much wider range than the voice
    • The well trained singer commands around 2 octaves
    • Most instruments command 3-4 and some 6-7
instrument vs voice1
Instrument vs. Voice
  • Most instruments produce tone more rapidly than the voice. Therefor they are capable of more flexible and rapid musical passages.

Every instrument has specific abilities and limitations such as range, dynamic capability, and how fast it produces tone.

  • Because of this, composers must tailor the music they write to fit the instrument and its capabilities.
uses for instruments
Uses for Instruments
  • They provide entertainment
    • Accompany dancing, singing, religious rites, etc.
  • In many cultures, instruments are thought to have “Magical Powers”
    • Bells are worn to guard against harm
    • Rattles are used by healers and shaman
    • In parts of Africa, drums accompany every religious event. Some tribes make animal sacrifices during the making of a drum in order to bless it.
instruments for communication
Instruments for Communication
  • Messages through drum beats
  • Hunters use signal horns
  • Time was announced by sounding brass instruments from towers
  • Trumpets have been used in the military as signals as moral busters
instruments as status symbols
Instruments as Status Symbols
  • Royal courts have often hired and funded their own musicians, even their own personal orchestras!
  • In the 1800’s and early 1900’s every middle and upper-class home had a piano
    • Every “proper” young women was expected to play
instruments as status symbols1
Instruments as Status Symbols
  • Can you think of some modern instruments or something similar is seen as a status symbal?
  • The most common string instruments in classical music are the Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass.
  • Other instruments in the family include the Harp and Guitar
  • The string family, especially the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, possesses the ability to control tone color almost as subtly as a singer.
  • Orchestral works tend to rely on the string section more than any other.

The strings are bowed or plucked

The resulting vibration is transferred to the body of the instrument

The sound is transmitted out the “F” holes and to the listener


The smallest and highest of the family

Often used as a solo instrument

The violin section of the orchestra often carries the main melodies


About 2 inches longer than the violin

Thus its range is a little lower

Its color is darker and thicker than the violin

violoncello cello
Violoncello (Cello)

The tenor voice of the string family

Rich and mellow tone

double bass bass
Double Bass (Bass)

The lowest voice in the family

Thick and heavy tone

Not as agile as the other string instruments

Generally bowed in classical music and plucked in jazz and pop


47 strings stretched on a triangular frame

Wide 6 octave range

The player plucks the strings with both hands


6 strings that are plucked with the fingers or strummed with a pick

The neck has frets that mark where the fingers must be placed for certain notes

Used in a very wide variety of musical genres

  • Are so named because they produce vibrations of air within a tube that traditionally was made of wood.
  • During the 20th century flutes and piccolos became made of metal
  • All woodwinds have holes along their length.
  • These wholes are opened or closed by the fingers or by pads controlled by a key mechanism
  • By opening/closing these holes the player alters the length of the vibrating air column, thus raising or lowering the pitch
woodwind families
Woodwind Families

The main woodwind instruments of the symphony orchestra can be arranged into 4 categories.

*These are arranged from highest to lowest and only include the 2 most common instruments in the family

  • Woodwinds are individualistic
  • There is much less similarity in tone color between types as is in the string family
  • The difference in timbre between the flute and oboe is far greater than the difference between the violin and the viola
  • *The primary reason for this uniqueness of tone color is due to the various ways in which each instruments produces vibration

Short for Flauto Piccolo (small flute)

Is ½ the size of the flute and therefor an octave higher

Shrill and whistlelike


Has a high range and is extremely agile

Velvety tone in the low register

Bright and sparkling in the upper

flute piccolo
  • Both utilize a column of air that is created by blowing air across a hole in the top of the neck joint
  • Much like blowing air across the lid of a jug or bottle

The clarinet produces tones very rapidly and is capable of a wide range of dynamics and tone colors

bass clarinet
Bass Clarinet

Similar to the clarinet but longer, resulting in a lower tone

clarinet bass clarinet
Clarinet/Bass Clarinet
  • Both use a reed (small sliver of wood) to trigger the vibration that carries sound through the instrument

The oboe has a nasal, intense, expressive tone

Its tone is so unique and piercing that only one is needed to carry through the entire orchestra

Its pitch is hard to alter so the entire orchestra tunes to its “A” 440

english horn
English Horn

Is not English

Is not a horn

Rather, it is simply a low, or alto, oboe.


Uses the double reed like the oboe and English horn

Deep and nasal tone


Produces the lowest note in the orchestra!

  • From high to low, the main instruments of the symphony orchestra’s brass section are the Trumpet, French Horn (or simply Horn), Trombone, and Tuba.
  • The vibrations of a brass instrument are triggered by the lips of the musician as they buzz in a cup or funnel shaped mouthpiece
  • The vibrations are amplified within the coiled brass tubing and are projected out of the bell.
  • While modern instruments are made of brass, their earlier counterparts were made of animal horn, elephant tusk, wood, and even glass.

The highest member of the brass family

Its bright and powerful tone make it perfect for adding drama to a piece

french horn
French Horn

The Horn has a rich and mellow tone

It is often used to depict hunting scenes or triumph


Unlike the other brass instruments, the trombone uses a slide instead of keys to adjust pitch

The tenor voice of the family

Commonly used in classic and jazz music


The largest and lowest of the family

It, along with the double basses provides the tonal foundation of the symphony

  • Keyboard instruments are all played using a series of keys that are depressed by the player’s fingers (and in some cases feet)
  • The 3 most common keyboard instruments are the piano, harpsichord, and organ
  • The use of a keyboard allows the player to play many notes at once and at very rapid paces.
  • The keyboard instruments can play both melodic and harmonic material simultaneously

The piano is the most prominent of the family

More solo music has been written for the piano in the last 2 centuries than any other instrument.

  • The piano was invented in 1700 but didn’t come into widespread use until the 1780’s.
  • The piano is extremely versatile!
  • Its 88 keys provide it with over 7 octaves of range.
  • The dynamic range of the piano is also very broad.
  • Because of its ability to play both very soft and extremely loud, the Italians originally named it the Pianoforte (soft-loud)
  • The piano uses a percussive action to initiate vibration
  • A felt covered hammer strikes the string causing the string to vibrate.
  • Most pianos have 3 pedals that provide different effects.
  • Damper – This pedal (furthest to the right) allows for notes to be sustained after the finger is lifted
  • UnaCorda/Soft Pedal – softens the sound
  • Sostenuto– This pedal is rarely used. It allows the player to sustain some tones while not sustaining others.

Predecessor to the piano

Was the prominent keyboard instrument from 1500-1775

  • Has no pedals
  • May have one or two different sets of keys

2 Keyboards

No Pedals

  • Unlike the piano, the harpsichord’s strings are plucked rather than hammered
  • The strings are plucked by a device know as the plectra (made out of hardened leather, quill, or plastic)

The most complex of the keyboard instruments

Anywhere from 2-5 keyboards

  • The organ uses air blown through pipes of various sizes to produce sound
  • There may be 2-5 keyboards for the hands(manuals)
  • Also, a full keyboard for the feet! (pedals)
  • The organ can change its timbre through the use of Stops.
  • The stops are pulled by the player and produce different timbers by bringing different sets of pipes into play