5 Different Types of Musical Instruments

A music studio filled with musical instruments.

The wide world of musical instruments consists of five main types. The typical method of classification, the Hornbostel-Sachs system, divides these families of instruments into five modes of description, including woodwind instruments, string instruments, percussion instruments, keyboard instruments, and brass instruments.

Table of Contents

Woodwind Instruments

A look at various wind instruments.

This type of musical instrument received its name from their design material and the fact that the player must blow into their mouthpiece to create sound. The design consists of a tube with holes. When the holes get covered by a finger or a key, it shortens the tube. Shortening or lengthening the tube changes the sound emitted when the player blows air into the tube’s column.

A shorter air column creates a higher pitch, while a higher air column creates a lower pitch. If you ever wondered what the heck to consider a bagpipe, it qualifies as a woodwind. Other instruments in this category of musical instrument include the English horn, the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the saxophone and the pianica.

You need not blow into some woodwinds though. Some instruments such as the accordion and the concertina use a bellows system. The accordion combines this with keys similar to those on a piano or organ.

String Instruments

A look at various string instruments.

With respect to string instruments, most people probably recognize the guitar and the electric guitar. The late Eddie Van Halen created all of those unique sounds by creatively striking strings on the guitar while pressing down on specific areas of the fret board. This varied the string’s vibrations.

Other items that vary the sound produced by a string instrument include the length of the strings and their thickness. Some of these musical instruments such as the violin and the cello require a bow to play. When you play banjos, guitars, or bass guitars, you can either use your finger or a pick to strike the strings.

Other instruments in this category of the musical instrument include the double bass, the harp, the mandolin, the sarod, the santor, and the sitar. Three classes of strings exist – harps, lutes, and zithers.

Musicians typically use these string instruments in classical, folk, or traditional music. The guitar, bass, their electric versions, and sometimes the fiddle – a modified violin, find themselves used in the performance of the blues, country, industrial, jazz, metal, punk, and rock music genres.

The Percussion Instruments

A look at various percussion instruments.

You might think only of drums when you think of percussion, but many more musical instruments contribute to this diverse range of instruments. With percussion, you produce the sound by striking the instrument or beating its surface. This produces a vibration that sounds as a note. You could play unpitched or pitched percussion.

Notes created by an unpitched percussion instrument do not create identifiable note sounds. Other instruments in this category of musical instrument include the bells, the cymbals, the marimba, the nagara, the table, xylophone. Lest you think that Rick Allen just bangs random parts of his drum kit, the sound a drum makes depends on which area of the drum’s surface you strike. The drummer must hit the surface at a precise point to create the correct note.

In a drum kit, each drum creates a different range of notes, and the typical drum kit consists of at least five, sometimes seven drums. Different countries develop their own drums. These aboriginal or traditional instruments, such as the changgo, a Korean two-headed drum, feature strongly in each country’s traditional music.

Many instruments exist in MIDI form now. That refers to an electric instrument with a memory bank of note samples of other instruments. Instruments such as this include the modified drum kit Allen plays after the car accident that resulted in the loss of one of his arms.

The modified kit lets him play some drums with foot pedals otherwise controlled by hitting them with a drumstick. Part of the drum kit consists of MIDI drums that can be programmed to emit a succession of notes with one strike to the appropriate place.

The sound produced will depends on how the surface of the instrument is struck and the exact points struck. The advancement in technology most of these types of musical instruments being operated by electricity and thus another category of instruments called the electronic instruments.

Brass Instruments

A look at various brass wind instruments.

But, what about the French horn? When you attend the orchestra, you also probably noticed the brass instruments. These instruments also require the player to blow air into their mouthpieces, but rather than being crafted of wood, they consist of brass. The brass instruments use the vibration of the player’s lips to change the note sound.

It also uses column shortening to create different notes. To changes the length of the column, the brass instruments use a slide or valves. In addition to their use in the orchestra, you will also hear these instruments used in jazz music.

Other instruments in this category of the musical instrument include the cimbasso, the trombone, the tuba and the trumpet.

Keyboard Instruments

This is a close look at a black keyboard.

Keyboard instruments consist of rows of levers the player presses with their fingers to vibrate a string or other mechanism. The piano and organ typify a keyboard instrument. The celestas and carillons round out the options for keyboard instruments. Most people are familiar with these instruments used in churches widely.

Like guitars, keyboards can come in an acoustic or electric variety. This extends to synthesizers which may or may not have keys. When they have keys, the synthesizer gets referred to as a keyboard or electronic keyboard or synth or synthesizer keyboard. Without them, you just call it a synthesizer. These may have knobs or switches to control the sounds.

While you play these keyed instruments in a similar way to a piano or organ, they do not only make piano or organ sounds. Most electric keyboards come with numerous MIDI instruments built into their memory. These include a range of instruments including strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, and other keyed instruments.

Where to Buy These Instruments?

A pile of music instruments in a shopping cart.

While at one time, you would have need to go to a specialty purveyor for each type of instrument, such as a luthier for a stringed instrument, today you can visit an online store such as Musician’s Friend. At this e-commerce store you can purchase any type of musical instrument. You can also buy accessories for these and related items such as microphones.

These related items include amplifiers, also called amps, guitar pedals, bass pedals, and unkeyed synthesizers.

You can also purchase these types of instruments at stores such as Walmart and Target although they will not carry the same brands or as wide a selection as a music store. They will also not typically carry high-end instruments, but you can find starter items there. They usually stock these items at holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah.

Another option for shopping is your local music store. These stores carry a small stock, but they will special order items for you. You can play the instrument in these stores to try it before you buy it.

With electric instruments such as electric guitars, they let you plug into an amp at the store to hear the tone of the instrument as it would be when you played it at home. The typical set up uses an analog amp, but you may buy a digital amp if you want to have pedal effects built-in.


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