There are four families of instrument. Each family is defined by the way the instruments produce sound.
- Instruments which use strings are called string instruments.
- Instruments which produce sound when they are hit or shaken are called percussion.
- Instruments which use air are divided into two groups – those that are always made of metal and which are played with a funnel-shaped mouthpiece are brass instruments, and those which can be made of wood are called woodwind. (Woodwind instruments include some instruments that are usually made of metal, such as the flute or saxophone, and also instruments that are sometimes made from plastic.)
In the woodwind family, the clarinet, oboe and bassoon all produce sound using a reed. The clarinet is a single-reed instrument, and the oboe and bassoon are double-reed instruments. A double reed is simply two reeds bound together at one end.
Instruments of Indefinite Pitch
The instruments in the strings, woodwind and brass families are all pitched instruments. This means they play notes which have a definite pitch, which you can write on a stave. In the percussion family, some instruments are pitched, and others are unpitched. Unpitched instruments make a “sound” but not a “note”. This is also called “indefinite pitch”. Here are some examples.
|Pitched Percussion||Indefinite Pitch Percussion|
|Xylophone (made of wood) |
Glockenspiel (made of metal)
Timpani (or “kettle drums”)
A kettle drum can only be tuned to play one note at a time, so usually you find two or three in an orchestra, each tuned to play different notes (e.g. the tonic and dominant).
Members of Instrument Families
In each family the instruments are listed in order from the smallest (=highest) to the biggest (=lowest).