Musical Instruments: Types & History

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  • 1:08 Percussion Instruments
  • 1:57 Woodwind Instruments
  • 2:51 String Instruments
  • 4:03 Brass Instruments
  • 4:58 Keyboard Instruments
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

While hundreds of musical instruments exist, the vast majority can be placed into one of five categories, namely woodwind, brass, string, keyboard, and percussion. However, despite the broadness of the categories, each class of musical instrument developed in entirely different ways.

Types of Instrument

Since the first animal skin drums and bamboo flutes, humanity has always desired a way to create something akin to what today is called music. Whether it was for communication, intimidation, or imitation of animal calls, music has been a part of humanity for thousands of years.

Obviously, the first instruments available to humans were their own bodies, whether it was percussion from clapping or vocals from their voices. In time, various tools created by humans through history to create music can be roughly categorized into five main classes: percussion, woodwind, brass, keyboard and string.

Of course, these classes have their difficulties, as some instruments blur the lines. An American Banjo, for example, can be used as both a string instrument and as a percussion instrument. Others, such as synthetic sounds produced on a computer, do not really fit into any existing category. However, for the vast majority of instruments, this system works relatively well.

Percussion Instruments

From the earliest hominids clapping their hands, the sounds of percussion have filled the ears of humanity. Percussion instruments are strictly defined as instruments that are played primarily by striking them. As such, this does not only include drums, but cymbals, tambourines, xylophones, and wood blocks. These instruments are further divided into those that can create musical notes, and those that do not produce such an identifiable pitch.

Given the ease of finding instruments that could qualify as percussion, it is little surprise that percussion instruments soon followed the human voice in the development of musical instruments. This has also led to a great deal of innovation in percussion instruments, as evidenced by the use of steel drums in Caribbean music.

Woodwind Instruments

Woodwind instruments also come in two varieties, flutes and reed instruments. Flutes create music by causing air to vibrate in a pipe, whereas reed instruments create sound by causing a reed, a small flexible wooden piece often near the mouthpiece, to vibrate air in a pipe. In either case, vibrating air is then released from the instruments at certain pitches as governed by holes on the pipe. The concert flute and piccolo are both examples of flutes, whereas the reed family includes clarinets, bagpipes, and oboes.

Woodwind instruments are also quite ancient, with the first flutes made from animal bones dating from 43,000 BC. Likewise, reed instruments are also quite ancient, having first been used at the end of the Neolithic Period, almost 10,000 years ago.

String Instruments

String instruments are those that require the movement of a string to create vibrations that create sound. This class of instrument ranges from guitars and banjos to violins and harps, making the group an incredibly versatile body of instruments for musicians to draw upon. The strings are made to vibrate in a number of different ways, most often by plucking (like a guitar) or using a bow (like a violin).

The first string instrument, a lyre, dates from the Sumerians almost 5,000 years ago, but it was the Greeks who really began the scientific study of music using strings. Pythagoras (of mathematical Pythagorean fame) figured out that the length of the string affects the sound it makes in a ratio that never changes, and created the Western system of octaves as a result. An octave is a series of eight notes that serves as an interval between (and including) two notes, when those two notes either have half or double the vibration or frequency of each other.

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