A Study of Culture from the Perspective of Music

There are many types of musical instruments in use today.  From traditional to digital, musicians today have a wealth of choices in composing their music. In this section, we will explore the instruments commonly used in symphony orchestras, marching bands, jazz bands, and pop-rock bands today.

Orchestral Instruments

The symphony orchestra is commonly broken up into four families of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. These four families are separated into groups based on how the musician plays them.

Assignment: Choose two instruments (each from a different instrument family) and answer the questions in classroom.google.com. Search the Internet for information about your chosen instruments to answer the questions.


The string instruments are made of wood and have metal strings pulled tightly across them. To play a string instrument, a performer must either pluck or bow a string with the right hand, while pressing down on a string with the fingers of their left hand. Common string instruments found in an symphony orchestra are: violin, viola, cello, double bass, and harp.
  • The smallest instrument in the string family is the violin. The violin carries the high soaring melodies of the orchestra.

  • Joshua Bell playing at the Strathmore Center for the Arts. He is one of the most gifted violin players today. - Photo by Chris Lee

  • Slightly larger that the violin, the viola is suited to play notes in the lower register.

  • While similar to the violin, the cello is much larger requiring the musician to sit while playing it.

  • One of the greatest cellists of all time: Yo-Yo Ma - Photo by Jeremy Cowart

  • Even larger than the cello, the double bass requires the performer to stand while playing it. The bass plays notes in the very low contra register.

  • Famous bassist Edgar Meyer standing with his double bass.

  • The harp is played by plucking the strings with your hands and changing note combinations with foot petals.


The woodwind instruments are made from wood (except for the flute) and are played by blowing on a mouthpiece and causing a reed to vibrate. In the case of the flute, the musician blows across the top of the mouthpiece, similar to making a sound with a pop bottle. Common woodwind instruments include: piccolo, flute, oboe, english horn, clarinet, and bassoon.

  • The piccolo is a smaller version of the flute. It plays in the very high altissimo register.

  • The flute is played by blowing across the opening on its mouthpiece.

  • Famous flautist Jessica Pierce - Photo by Alma Nova

  • The oboe is part of a subset of woodwind instruments known as the double-reeds. The musician blows through a pair of wooden reeds at the top.

  • The english horn is a larger and deeper sounding version of the oboe. Also a double-reed instrument, the english horn is often reserved for special solo sections in music.

  • The clarinet is a versatile instrument, it has the largest range of the woodwinds in use today allowing it to fulfill any role needed by composers.

  • Pete Fountain playing his gold-plated clarinet.

  • The bassoon is a large double-reed instrument. The bassoon plays in the bass register of the orchestra, providing a low wood-like sound.


The brass family of instruments are all made from a metal by the same name. They are played by buzzing your lips while blowing through a cup-shaped mouthpiece. Common brass instruments include: french horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba.

  • The french horn is a mellow sounding instrument; if uncoiled it would be over 12 feet long.

  • The trumpet is a high sounding brass instrument. Pitch is derived from pressing three valves in varying combinations.

  • Wynton Marsalis, nine-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpet player over looking New York City. - Photo by Clay McBride

  • The trombone is a low brass instrument played by moving a slide to the desired pitch.

  • The tuba is the lowest brass instrument playing notes in the low contra bass register.


The word “percuss” literally means “to hit.” Therefore, all instruments in the percussion family are struck with a mallet, stick, or hammer to create a sound. The piano is considered a percussion instrument because when a key is pressed a hammer on the inside of the instrument strikes a string. Common percussion instruments include: timpani, marimba, vibraphone, tubular bells, cymbals, woodblocks, snare drum, bass drum, and piano.
  • The timpani is a drum with an adjustable membrane. The player uses multiple timpani set to different pitches.

  • The marimba is a wooden mallet instrument. Each piece of wood is made to a specific length that when struck resonates at the desired pitch.

  • Similar to the marimba, the vibraphone is made of metal.

  • The tubular bells sound similar to church bells and are struck at the top with a hammer.

  • The snare drum is the standard percussion instrument. It is played by striking a drumstick on the drumhead, the sound comes from snares run along the bottom of the instrument.

  • The bass drum is a low sounding drum.

  • Evelyn Glennie is the world's premier solo percussionist. Deaf since she was twelve, she performs barefoot which allows her to feel the music.

  • Arguably the most popular of all instruments, the piano is often featured as a solo instrument when played with an orchestra.

  • When a piano key is pressed down, a mechanism inside causes a hammer to strike a string. It is for this reason that the piano is considered a percussion instrument.

Kidblog: 6th Grade