Musical Instruments and Their Classifications
Musical Instruments Used to Produce Music
Musical Instruments are found on every continent of the world. They play an important role in every culture of the world. They are in fact part of what defines a culture. This has been true since the beginning of recorded time. Whether a cave man beat a fallen tree in a rhythmic fashion or an early Native American stretched an animal hide across a wood frame, musical instruments are the tools in which all of us can create sound and music.
It is common knowledge that all musical instruments are used to provide us humans a way or method of producing sound. Musical Instruments also provide composers and performers enough variation to express both our creative, unique and individual musical ideas. Our efforts in playing musical instruments result in giving everyone who listens a great deal of musical pleasure. In this way they help to make this a better world for all of us.
As you are likely aware there are many musical instruments that have been built and perfected through advanced engineering designs, manufacturing techniques and materials. The greatest advancement of all however is not in tools, designs and manufacturing techniques rather it is the well trained hands of the instrument makers. For without their skills and abilities, their commitments to the art and craft of making the finest instruments the world has ever known, well, quite frankly, the instruments would not be produced and to me, this would be a great sin to mankind. So it is that all of us should bestow upon them a great honor. It is, after all, of these professional and semi-professional artisans and general craft persons who have taken their greatest gifts and used them, out of their own conscious choice, to produce the highest quality musical instruments ever made.
A General Overview
This article is the beginning of a new section within the Music Theory and Composition website. It is intended to provide information about many musical instruments, some comparisons between them with a focus on their unique qualities, features, available capabilities and limitations. I am intending first to focus on the stringed instruments and moving into the other instruments, and the primary focus will be on the instruments of the orchestra. We will also be presenting information about various other instruments, from time to time, not commonly included in an orchestra but are commonly used to create the music we have all come to love and enjoy.
Unity and Diversity
With that said, this particular article will, in essence, serve to be a general overview of musical instruments using a broad brush stroke, and to serve as an introduction of the complete series of articles we intend to present about them. There is one thing in common among all instruments, they produce sound. Sound is one of those unique things that reaches deep into the soul of each and every one of us, and it moves us all on an emotional level. It is sound, organized and musical in nature that we dance to, sing to and we have passion for in its rhythms in time. In these ways there is unity among us.
Regardless of nations and borders, we must learn to advance our civilization through acceptance of diversity and strive to resolve discordance just as the composer must do when writing music. Recognition of the unity among all the peoples of this planet will endure just as the composer resolves the conflicts in his or her musical score. By understanding the behavior of sound and the instruments used to produce that sound coupled with the fundamental principals in music composition, the discordance is resolved into harmony.
Honoring the differences in musical instruments is like honoring each of us as human beings, as individuals. Just as an orchestra unites the various individual instruments so too does music unite all of us through this one modality called sound. Each instrument is unique and produces sounds, read – music, that is individual and in an orchestra it must find and strike a delicate balance with the other instruments of the orchestra to produce a pleasing listening experience. Not simply being “in tune”, rather in a form of sonic beauty and unity, a special dance that permits the diversity of the individual instruments and yet lives in harmony with the others being performed, all with a single intention, that of manifesting the full glory of the composition.
…and in that same way we must take the diverse elements, groups, organizations, societies and nations and unite them in favor of and for the benefit of the dance of humanity.
Classifying Musical Instruments
Musical instruments can be broadly characterized using the following terms to identify a general classification associated to a sound producing device such as a musical instrument. Take note that these general classifications are grouped by the means or by the method in which the instrument produces sound.
General Musical Instrument Classifications
Aerophones – an instrument that produces a sound by blowing air into them
Chordophones – an instrument that uses one or more stretched strings or cords to produce a sound
Electrophones – an instrument producing sounds by an electronic means
Idiophones – an instrument that you hit, strike, shake or scrape to make sound
Membranophones – an instrument that uses a stretched skin, or membrane to generate sound
Each of these classifications includes an overall variety of specific musical instruments within each classification as well as including a variety of sub-classifications within each general class. These additional sub-classifications are needed in order to more specifically characterize a musical instrument within each of the general classifications listed above.
For example; the guitar falls into the main general classification of the chordophones. It also has several sub-classes including; classical, flamenco, acoustic, acoustic-electric, electric, etc. Further sub-classifications for the guitar also include; solid body or hollow-body, named by various sizes and shapes, all of which are used in defining a specific type of guitar. Most instruments include sub-classifications to describe the variations in design, size, shape or usage.
As you delve deeper into each classification and sub-classification for each instrument, in your search for your final selection, you finally arrive at a specific musical instrument, clearly identified and defined by these classifications and sub-classifications.
Most of us usually are aware of the musical instruments in our immediate vicinity and select an instrument from those we are aware of. The intention of the previous information on classifications is to help you to become aware of the many instruments available to you other than those you may already be familiar with.
Secondly, throughout the world different musical instruments serve as primary instrument(s) which helps to define its character and culture. By taking some time to learn about these instruments it not only broadens our view of the world but it provides to us more options. It is really quite the experience to learn about other instruments, especially as a composer or a performer. For example; the sarangi found in India, Pakistan and Nepal is not commonly found in countries like the Americas or in Sweden. Nonetheless, it is a profound and unique instrument quite capable of producing very beautiful music.
In your search for your musical instrument, a more worldly view will give you a chance to look around a little to discover which musical instrument is exactly right for you. At a minimum, you will at least learn something more about a variety of musical instruments and a little bit more about the world in which you live. This is not such a bad thing, hey?
Orchestral Musical Instruments
Musical instruments are also grouped into various collections of instruments which can be identified by their usage, (i.e. such as by the genre or style of music being performed). This is a different type of classification for musical instruments in so far as it is based upon usage rather than by the method of producing sound. The two lists below include a few examples of the more commonly found groups of musical instruments.
The Orchestral Instrument Instrument Groups
The size and shape of the orchestra has changed over time however there remain four main instrument sections to a typical orchestra. These are listed below. Keep in mind that each section is comprised of multiple instruments. These are reflected in the sub-headings in the chart below.
Also, each instrument group plays a unique and different role in orchestral arrangements. As before, the individual instruments, unique in sonic character, when brought together produce the amazing music we find throughout most of our known history. Here again we find the concept of unity and diversity at play among the various instruments which make up a full orchestra.
Orchestral Sections and Their Instruments
The Woodwind Musical Instruments
The Brass Musical Instruments
The Percussion Musical Instruments
The Membranes: Tambourine and all drums with a skin or membrane
The Metals: Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Chimes, Cymbals, Triangle, Gong and Tam-tam
The Woods: Temple Blocks, Wood Blocks, Xylophone, Marimba and Castanets
Other Musical Instruments Used in the Orchestra
Virtual Musical Instruments
Of note is that when writing music for the full orchestra it is imperative to know the capabilities of each instrument, including their individual limitations. You must also know and understand the composition methods and the notation markings and techniques for all of the instruments you are writing for, their individual role within the composition and the musical interactivity among them.
Other Musical Instrument Groups
Other groups of musical instruments can include just about any combination of instruments one can imagine. Typically the collection of instruments is based upon cultural standards. In many cases it is also based upon the composition, your preferred genre and taste and driven further by others possibly including other performers in your group, managers, your agent or even so far as a publishing company. Here are just a few examples of these types of musical instrument groups.
Musical Instrument Groups
The Small Group Ensemble
The String Orchestra
The Harp Orchestra
The Big Band
The Drum and Bugle Corps
The Marching Band
The Contemporary Band
Each group can be large or small in overall size, meaning the number of instruments/performers involved. Included in each type or group are sub-groups such as for the contemporary band group, which can be formed for purposes of playing in any one of several music genres; jazz band, country band, rock band, blues band, etc. Also, some of these groups can and usually do include performances by any one or more of these smaller groups; a single or solo instrument, duo, trio or quartet, depending on your groups actual member count and instrument mix.
Musical Instruments and Musicality
Any collection of instruments can fall into any one of the aforementioned group sizes. The most important thing to remember is that whatever collection of instruments you bring together, in the end and collectively, they must sound musical and pleasing to listen to. There are certain groups which are more traditional and others that are more readily accepted within specific genres of music. Just remember that any collection of instruments is possible based first upon the composition as it was originally written by the composer and secondly by gaining approval, including artistic freedom and commercial licensing, from the original composer or license holder(s) allowing you and/or your group to perform a specific interpretation, or a specialized and customized arrangement of the original music.
In all cases, it is imperative that the music being generated actually sounds musical and not simply a collection of various random sounds, in a basic sense. Structure is not always a bad thing and music is based upon patterns and structures. The ideas of rhythm, harmony and melody are necessary structures or components of music and they work together to cause sound to be accepted as being musical or having musicality. Instrument selection plays a vital role in attaining musicality too. This idea is known as orchestration, selecting instruments which produce sounds that work well together and that most closely resemble the intent of the composer. Again, the goal is musicality, creating a collection of organized sound, music that is beautiful and pleasing to the ear. This is not to be confused with popularity or marketability.
Whether you elect to play as a solo performer or with any one of the groups listed above, being aware of the available instruments and selecting one or more that are right for you should involve a little investigation. It is vital that you select an instrument that “fits” you, your interests, your taste, your actual performance capabilities and your overall musical skill level. In that way you gain the most satisfaction from your playing. You can also either compose your own music using your selected and preferred instrument to write from or on, or select a repertoire of existing music that matches the instrument you have chosen to play.
Hopefully I have conveyed to you the general ideas of musical instruments as well as the idea of instrumentation in this article. I feel we have met the intent of this article in setting the stage for further articles focusing on the individual musical instrument. As a reminder, I will be producing more articles about them, more specifically, a review of each instrument in the chordophone classification of instruments to start off with. Eventually the total collection of articles covering most all of the major musical instruments of the orchestra are planned to be written, at least that is our hope.
For you, we also hope that this article will help you get started finding a suitable instrument for your self and possibly it can be used as a basic guide when searching for the musical instruments best suited to you and the type of music you wish to play. If you already have selected your preferred instrument you might find this article of some help in researching a new found and expanded interest in musical instruments.
For more information about musical instruments and additional resources please see http://www.distance-education.org/Degrees/An-Educational-Guide-to-Musical-Instruments-A599.html. We wish to thank Amy a young and highly motivated student of music from Delaware attending Ms. Ward’s music classes for this excellent resource page. Thank you Amy! – Don Rath Jr., composer.