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The Six Broad Categories of Instruments

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  • Category: Music

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Music is the universal language of culture. The emotion evoked from a piece of music inspires people all over the world. Music is constantly changing with society’s views of popularity and need for betterment. For generations, music was a concept of solely vocal chants, melodies, organums, and little or no notations. Then instruments such as the rebec, pipe, and psaltery were among the first used. Instrumental music, also known as estampie, was invaluable and mainly for entertainment and dance. It wasn’t until the end of the seventeenth century that instrumental music surpassed vocal music on levels of importance and acceptance. Composers, with new ideas and visions, took the reigns in the world of music.

Instruments became the main tools of musicians and composers. There arose six broad categories of instruments that western musicians today classify as the string, woodwind, brass, percussion, keyboard and electronic. Each category incorporates a range of instruments that have created living history through music. Each instrument brings its own tone color to the music and has a variety of other characteristics that set it apart to bring out its own personality. Compositions have been written including all categories of instruments or to single out the strengths of one. Composers use instruments to leave their mark in the universal language.

One basic composition structure that is very common is the string quartet. Although any combination of four string instruments can be called a “string quartet”, most of the time the term refers to a group consisting of two violins, one viola and one cello. If a composer decides to use other four instruments the change is specifically noted in the music. There can be, for example, three violins and bass, or violin, viola, cello and guitar. Many major composers were drawn into the style of writing from the late 18th century onwards. The string quartet was first opened with Joseph Haydn’s works. In his works, he featured five sections, or movements.

There was a fast, slow, minuet, trio, and fast finale in a composition. This became the standard of quartet composition in the Classical era. The more formally known artists are Beethoven and Mozart. Quartets were said to be, “A true test of the classical composer’s art.” (Wikipedia) The sixteen quartets of Beethoven are “highly acclaimed, and the Quartets Nos. 1-6, Opus 18 are thought to demonstrate his total mastery of the classical string quartet as developed by Haydn and Mozart” (Wikipedia). The sound is more restricted than a typical orchestra. And it really emphasizes the tone color of the four instruments.

A change in instruments is specifically noted because each string instrument varies in tone color and what it brings to the music. The strings will blend together, if put together with careful construction and understanding. String instruments are played by plucking the strings with the fingers or a pick (the harp or guitar), by being struck, or by having a bow drawn across them (violin, viola, cello, bass). A bow is basically a curved stick strung with horsehair. Rosin, a sticky substance, is put in the bow to add friction to produce a louder, clearer sound. The bow allows the string instruments to carry out longer, faster or deeper sounds. This will allow variation in the dynamics and tone color of the string instruments. “Pitch is changed as the musician places the free hand on the strings along the fingerboard of the wooden bridge” (Kamien 20). The size of the instrument can be seen to correlate with the range of the instrument. The larger the instrument gets, the lower the range is. For example, the violin has the highest range while the double bass has the lowest. The basic string instruments are actually very similar with a few special characteristics.

The violin is a stringed instrument that is played with a bow. The violin is the highest pitched member of the violin family, which also includes the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The violin has a characteristic musical tone and ability to be played to rapid compositions and melodies which are very busy in sound. “Violinists also create special sounds by using the following techniques: pizzicato, (plucking the strings rather than playing with a bow), tremelo, (moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a string), sul ponticello, (playing with the bow extremely close to the bridge to produce a thin, glassy sound), col legno, (playing with the wooden part of the bow as opposed to the hair), and glissando, (steadily gliding the left fingers up and down the strings to produce a sliding pitch).”(Think Quest) The viola is the second highest pitched member of the violin family. It has four strings tuned to the notes c, g, d, a and is written in the alto clef. Violas are larger than violins and tuned lower as well.

The viola plays an important part in the symphony, but is not used for solo parts as often as the violin is. The cello, also known as violoncello is played with a bow much like the violin. It is a much larger version of the violin. “The cello is about four feet long and one and a half feet across at its widest part and, therefore, this member of the violin family is played sitting down.” (Think Quest). The cello’s range can extend over more than four octaves like the violin. The double bass is the largest and lowest pitched string instrument of the violin family. It is usually six feet high and has four strings. Some basses have an optional feature that allows the player to lengthen one string, lowering the pitch. In all, the strings have the most versatility and range of all the basic western categorized groups.

While the string family is usually part of the quartet, the woodwinds are more likely to have their own solos as well as quartets. They more often play together within an orchestra. Eugene Bozza seemed to “specialize” with the woodwind instruments. He has a number of study pieces and concert solos for the woodwind instruments. He also created a saxophone quartet, woodwind quintet and more. He would mix different categories together but always took time to find the best combinations to make the music sound natural. George Frideric Handel composed an overture for two clarinets and a horn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had the clarinet concerto. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was one of the earliest pieces with the piccolo as well as John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Strips Forever.”

There are five families of the woodwind category. The family includes flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe and bassoon. Most woodwind instruments are tubes of wood that are blown into to make sound. “During the twentieth century, however, piccolos and flutes came to be made of metal” (Kamien 21). They can have a bell shaped bottom or be one size tube all the way down the instrument. Each woodwind instrument varies the pitch by opening and closing padded or non padded holes that are placed all down and along the instrument. The way a woodwind instrument works with pitch is, the longer you create the resonating tube (by opening and covering holes), the lower the pitch sounds. This is why the number of keys and holes that are covered correlate to the pitch of the instrument. Compared to the string instruments, the woodwinds are less alike in tone color.

The piccolo and flute have similar features of the woodwind category. They are played being in a horizontal position with the mouthpiece at one end of the tube. They were the couple to transition into metal makes. The piccolo is pitched an octave above the flute and both have three octaves of the highest pitches. The flute is commonly tuned to the note c. The tone of the flute is more full in low register, and bright in high register, while the piccolo tends to be shrill like. The oboe and the bassoon are both double reed instruments. The double reed instruments will give off a squawky sound. The oboe is the smallest and highest in pitch while the bassoon is around eight feet long with four joints. “There is the bass joint, the tenor join, the double joint, and the bell joint. The bell joint is slightly flared and is attached at the bottom to the bass joint.

This is set in turn to the tenor joint which is then set into the double joint. The double reed mouthpiece is attached to a crook in the tenor joint” (Wikipedia). Both are played by blowing on the double reed and positioning each finger to create the right pitches. The oboe tends to be more difficult requiring “a lot of air to play, and the musician must learn the proper breathing techniques” (Think Quest). The English horn is part of the oboe family and is tuned one-fifth lower than an oboe. The clarinet and saxophone are other woodwinds with bell shaped bottoms. They are one reed instruments with thick low registers and piercing high registers. Most common saxophones have a range of about two and a half octaves and the clarinets range about three and one half octaves. These woodwind instruments are all classified together because of the way they are played. Each woodwind also tends to create a bucolic mood.

An interesting category of energy evoking instruments is the brass. The earliest trumpets were made from conch shells or elephant tusks or wood and then technology allowed for the metal instruments. Then practicality called for many twists in the actual construction of the instrument. Valves were eventually added in the 19th century to create the full chromatic scale. Wolfgang Armadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni incorporates the trombone into his orchestra. Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 includes trumpet, trombone, and high horn solos.

Instruments such as the French horn did not gain any credibility until new techniques were discovered. Valves were a very important change as well as hand stopping for the French horn. Tone color is changed in brass instruments by adding a mute into the bell. The brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones can be more associated with jazz and rock ensembles. These instruments are played by puckering the lips and blowing into the mouth piece. Brass instrument’s pitch is “regulated by using slides and valves to change the length of the tube through which the air vibrates,” (Kamien 25) and they are characterized also with having bell shaped ends.

The trumpet has the most distinct brassy sound. It is a penetrating and memorable sound. Most trumpets in the band will be tuned to the B Flat key. The French horn has a less brassy tone which is more calm and rounded. It is made of a twelve foot long coiled metal tube with a bell at the end. It is played with the left hand controlling the valves and the right hand covering the bell to change the tone and pitch of the sounds. The trombone becomes the tenor voice of the section and is usually toned in the third B flat or middle C key. The tuba takes the position of the lowest pitch of the brass section and also the largest of the brass instruments. The most popular type of tuba is the baritone tuba or the euphonium. The tuba has a very heavy tone and is, “used to add weight to the lowest register of an orchestra or band” (Kamien 26).

The fourth category of instruments to discuss is described with hitting, striking, rubbing, shaking and more. It is the percussion. The percussion can be further divided into another category of definite and indefinite, all depending on the pitch that is created. If there is a definite pitch, then that is the classification of the percussion instrument; it is just the same with indefinite. A combination of percussion instruments is used in orchestras and bands to emphasize rhythms and hold the beat. Percussion is also well known for producing a climax.

“Most classical pieces written for full orchestra since the time of Haydn and Mozart are orchestrated to place emphasis on the strings and woodwinds, but will almost always include at least one pair of timpani in the background, providing percussive drive and strengthening the bass line” (Wikipedia). There are many different structures of instruments that fit into the percussion class. Most are known for having a stretched material cover that can be played on, but there are also various metal and wood based structures.

The most common percussion instrument can be seen in the form of a drum set. This consists of a bass drum, snare drum, cymbals and tom toms. The bass drum is the largest and deepest sounding drum. The snare drum has a buzzing sound and a higher pitch than the bass drum. The cymbals are usually twenty two inches in diameter and can either be hit with sticks or foot pedals to create the sound needed. There are three tom toms in a drum set. The drum set includes only indefinite instruments. The only definite drum instrument is the timpani. The timpani is also called a kettle drum. It has a pedal that can be adjusted to fit the pitch and the timpani is hit with mallets. The mallets can be made of soft or hard and it can be of felt or wood. This diversity is used to produce different tones. Other instruments of the percussion category are the triangle, gong, maracas, tambourine, and hand drums.

The triangle is a steel rod that is bent into a triangle shape. It is hit with a steel beater to produce a high pitched, indefinite tone. The gong is a bronze disk that is hit with a beater as well, but this produces an indefinite, rich, ringing sound. The maracas are egg shaped rattles. They are most commonly used in Latin music. The tambourine is like a hand held drum with little metal disks all around the edges. It is also shaken to produce its indefinite sound. A melodic part of percussion can be heard as the xylophone. It has wooden bars that produce different pitches when struck with a mallet. “The xylophone’s first orchestral use was in Dance Macabre (1874) by French composer Camille Saint-Saens” (Think Quest). It takes practice to get each technique and rhythm right, and to make the percussion fit into the harmony and to conversely make the harmony follow the percussion’s lead.

One of the most revered groups of instruments would be the keyboard group. Being a key aspect of music for centuries, the keyboard allows several tones to be simultaneously played and manipulated with. “A large number of composers being proficient pianists, the piano is often used as a tool for composition” (Wikipedia). The piano is a crucial instrument in Western classical music, jazz, television and electronic game music, and most other complex western musical genres. This category consists of the piano, harpsichord, organ and accordion.

“More great music has been written for the piano more than any other solo instrument” (Kamien). Pianos and harpsichords arose during the eighteenth century. The piano started from the Viennese School. Viennese-style pianos were built with wooden frames, two strings per note, and had leather-covered hammers. “It was for such instruments that Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance. The piano of Mozart’s day had a softer, clearer tone than today’s pianos, with less sustaining power” (Wikipedia). From 1780 to 1890 the piano went through many changes and stages of development.

There are grand pianos, and upright pianos. The Grand pianos have the frame and strings laid out horizontally. It is made for areas with high ceilings and plenty of space to allow for good resonance. The upright pianos have the lay out vertically which can make it harder to produce a “sensitive” sound. The modern pianos have 88 keys that incorporate seven octaves plus a minor third. Some pianos have eight octaves, with the extra keys hidden under a lid. There are three main pedals on the piano. These are the damper, soft, and sostenuto pedal. Each one provides a differing characteristic to the sound of the music. The harpsichord has strings that are plucked instead of struck.

It was replaced by the piano around the late eighteen hundreds. The pipe organ is a very powerful and impressive instrument. It has sets of pipes that are controlled by a keyboard that opens and closes valves. “It has a greater range of pitch, volume and tone color than any other instrument; it has been known as the king of instruments” (Kamien). The accordion has a keyboard to be played with the right hand and a brass board with buttons that is played with the left hand. In all, the keyboard instruments allow for much variety and versatility with sound.

Of the more recent classifications of instruments comes the electronic category. Electronics allowed for producing and amplifying sound. “The first purely electronic musical instrument was the Telharmonium, built by Thaddeus Cahill in 1906. Employing electric generators and tone wheels to produce notes, it had a length of 60ft and a weight of 200 tons; because of a lack of suitable loudspeakers at that time, the music was distributed over the telephone network” (Kamien). The more simple electronic instruments can be called sound effects. The tape studios are used to manipulate sounds and play them the way you wanted them to be. Changes could be made in pitch, duration, mixture, editing and other qualities. The more complicated ones are the synthesizers and computers.

Synthesizers generate and basically control the output of sound. They are used like a keyboard and can change the pitch, duration, loudness, and tone color of a sound. Electronics are used in every studio, for voices, film, advertising, concerts, and more. There are developments like analog and digital frequency modulation, sampling, musical instrument digital interface and effects devices, all of which are used to manipulate the sound being produced. Computers can be used along with synthesizer technologies or can stand alone to produce its own unique sounds. This equipment “enables the composer to exploit the entire spectrum of sound as never before” (Kamien).

There is an extensive amount of material on the basic instruments of western classification. Music takes a variety of instruments to be able to have the capability of melody. There needs to be instruments specialized to different octaves and ranges. There needs to be variety in tone color. There has to be chance to experiment with sound. Without instruments we could very well be stuck in a time of chants and lost feeling. When composers found themselves being pulled into the melody more than the chant, there was a chain reaction. There was no turning back to the traditional, bleak style of music. But to create music takes more than just the right instrument. Composers have to have imagination, creativity and devotion to such a complex system of sounds and manipulations.

Works Cited:

Blatter, A. “The Orchestra: A User’s Manual.” Instrumentation and Orchestration New York. Schirmer 1997. February 4, 2006.

Kamien, Roger. “Music, An Appreciation.” Ed.8. Mc Graw Hill Companies 2004.

“Music History and the History Behind Making Instruments.” February 4, 2006. < http://invento rs.about.com/li brary/inventors/blmusic.htm>

Silver Burdett Making Music. “Musical Instruments.” February 4, 2006

Think Quest. “Musical Instruments.” Oracle Education Foundation. February 4, 2006.

Wikipedia. “The String Quartet.” The Wikipedia Foundation. February 4, 2006.

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