Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

2.3: Western Categories of Instruments

  • Page ID
    51250
  • Instruments are commonly classified in families, according to their method of generating sounds. The most familiar designations for these groupings are strings (sound produced by vibrating strings), winds (by a vibrating column of air), and percussion (by an object shaken or struck).

    The members of the string family of the Western orchestra are violin, viola, cello (or violoncello), and bass (or double bass). All are similar in structure and appearance and also
    quite homogeneous in tone color, although of different pitch ranges because of differences in the length and diameter of their strings. Sound is produced by drawing a horsehair bow across the strings, less often by plucking with the fingertips (called pizzicato). The harp is also a member of the orchestral string family.

    In wind instruments, the player blows through a mouthpiece that is attached to a conical or cylindrical tube filled with air. The winds are subdivided into woodwinds and brass. The nomenclature of the orchestral winds can be both confusing and misleading. For example, the modern flute, classified as a woodwind, is made of metal while ancestors of some modern brass instruments were made of wood; the French horn is a brass instrument, but the English horn is a woodwind; and the saxophone, a relatively new instrument associated principally with jazz and bands, is classified as a woodwind because its mouthpiece is similar to that of the clarinet, although its body is metal.

    The main orchestral woodwinds are flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. Their very distinctive tone colors are due in part to the different ways in which the air in the body of
    the instrument is set in vibration. In the flute (and the piccolo) the player blows into the mouthpiece at a sharp angle, in the clarinet into a mouthpiece with a single reed, and in the oboe and bassoon (also the less common English horn) through two reeds bound together. In all woodwinds, pitch is determined by varying the pressure of the breath in conjunction with opening and closing holes along the side of the instrument, either with the fingers or by keys and pads activated by the fingers.

    The members of the brass family are wound lengths of metal tubing with a cupshaped mouthpiece at one end and a flared bell at the other. Pitch is controlled in part by
    the pressure of the lips and amount of air, and also by altering the length of tubing either by valves (trumpet, French horn, tuba) or by a sliding section of tube (trombone).

    The percussion family encompasses a large and diverse group of instruments, which in the Western system of classification are divided into pitched and nonpitched. The nucleus of the orchestral percussion section consists of two, three, or four timpani, or kettledrums. Timpani are tuned to specific pitches by varying the tension on the head that is stretched over the brass bowl. The snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, marimba (or xylophone), tambourine, castanets, and chimes are among the other instruments found in the percussion section of an orchestra when called for in particular musical works. Percussionists usually specialize in a particular instrument but are expected to be competent players of them all.

    The piano, harpsichord, and organ constitute a separate category of instruments. The harpsichord might be classified as a plucked string, the piano as both a string and a
    percussion instrument since its strings are struck by felt-covered hammers, and the organ as a wind instrument, its pipes being a collection of air-filled tubes. Because the mechanism of the keyboard allows the player to produce several tones at once, keyboard instruments have traditionally been treated as self-sufficient rather than as members of an orchestral section.

    Counterparts to the Western orchestral instruments are found in musical cultures all over the world. Among the strings are the Indian sitar, the Japanese koto, the Russian
    balalaika, and the Spanish guitar. Oboe-type instruments are found throughout the Middle East and bamboo flutes occur across Asia and Latin America. Brass-like instruments include the long straight trumpets used by Tibetan monks and instruments made from animal horns and tusks, such as the Jewish shofar. Percussion instruments are probably the most numerous and diverse, from simple folk instruments like gourd rattles filled with pebbles, notched sticks rubbed together, and hollow log drums, to the huge tempered metal gongs of China, the bronze xylophones of Indonesia, and the tuned steel drums of the Caribbean.

    • Was this article helpful?