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Music Theory

A Definitive Guide To Musical Instruments

Photograph of the blog post author, Ella Barnes

Ella Barnes


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If you are looking for a guide to musical instruments, their key features and the categories we use to distinguish them, you have come to the right place!

I am going to cover a whole range of musical instruments, from flutes to violas to synths. I will also explain the different instrument ‘families’ and how to determine to which family an instrument belongs. 

Maybe you are looking to pick up a new instrument, or maybe you just need to brush up on your general knowledge. Either way, I’m sure you will find the information you need. If you can name a musical instrument, it’s on here!

What are the types of musical instruments?

Musical Instruments

There are a few main categories/families of musical instruments. These are determined by how different instruments create a sound.

Woodwinds are instruments that produce sound by vibrating air. These vibrations can either be produced by blowing into a reed or directly into holes. Woodwinds do not have to be made of wood – did you know a saxophone is a woodwind instrument?

Unlike woodwind, brass instruments did in fact get their name from the material they are made from: brass. Similar to woodwind, the sound is produced using your breath, however, instead of blowing onto a vibrating reed, you vibrate your own lips against a mouthpiece. 

String instruments produce sound by vibrating strings. These are made to vibrate either by being plucked with fingers, hit with a mallet, or rubbed with a bow. 

Percussion instruments are anything that is hit, shaken or scraped. Some percussion instruments are tuned and can produce different notes, others have no specific pitch.

The keyboard family is, as the name suggests, any instrument played using a keyboard. Technically, the sound in a keyboard instrument like a piano is produced by vibrating strings, so it could be called a string instrument, however, it makes more sense to group pianos with organs and other instruments that use keyboards.

This musical instruments list is sorted according to families. We’ve focussed on including the most important/commonly played instruments in each category. So without further ado, here is our full list of musical instruments.

Woodwind Musical Instruments 


Person playing flute

Most flutes are made of metal. Their sound is produced by the player blowing across a hole, and the pitch is changed by holes along the length of the flute, which can be opened and closed by pushing down caps. 


The clarinet

Clarinets come in various sizes and use a single reed which vibrates to produce sound. They are a standard part of orchestras and concert bands. Clarinets have the largest pitch range of the common woodwind instruments.


Saophone are popular musical instruments

A saxophone is another single reed woodwind, usually made of brass. They were invented in Belgium in 1840 by Adolfo Sax, whose aim was to create something with the projection of a brass instrument and the agility of a woodwind. Nowadays, saxophones are one of the key jazz music instruments.


Band playing Oboes

Oboes are double-reed instruments, similar in appearance to clarinets. They have a rich and penetrating sound. Their name derives from the French ‘hautbois’ which means ‘high – wood’. They have been played in Europe since the 1700s.



The bassoon is a large woodwind instrument with a double reed. To play it you blow through the ‘bocal’, which is a metal tube attached to the reed on the side of the bassoon. They are usually made of maple wood and produce a deep clear sound.


One of the most popular music instruments for kids, recorders come in various sizes and are played by blowing through a mouthpiece. They have holes down their body, which are covered and uncovered by your fingertips in order to produce different notes.

Examples of Woodwind Musical Instruments

If you want to hear some of the most beautiful music written for woodwind, listen to the following pieces:

This piece was written by Mozart in 1791, shortly before his death. It is an iconic piece for clarinet players, as it showcases the instrument’s range beautifully.

This is a notoriously challenging piece to master and arguably one of the most accomplished pieces of music ever written for the instrument.

A classic oboe piece, this concerto is one of twenty written by Vivaldi for the instrument.

Brass Musical Instruments


Trumpets are brass musical instruments

Trumpet-like instruments have been around for thousands of years, taking earlier forms as horns made from conches or animal horns. The modern trumpet is the smallest of the brass instruments and an orchestra usually features 2-3 trumpets both for melody and rhythm.

French Horn

man playing French horn

French horns descend from hunting horns of the 1600s. These round brass instruments have one unusual feature: they are played with the right hand in the bell. You can change the sound you make by moving the position of your hand within the bell.


man playing trombone

The name trombone comes from the Italian ‘tromba’ meaning trumpet and the augmentative suffix ‘-one’. So it essentially means ‘big trumpet’. Unlike other brass instruments, you do not alter the pitch of a trombone by pushing valves, rather they have a slide mechanism.



Tubas are among the largest brass instruments and certainly the lowest pitched. They were only invented in the 19th century, making them one of the more recent additions to the family. There is usually just one in an orchestra.

Examples of music written for brass musical instruments

If you want to hear the brass family at its best, check out this playlist of the Best of Brass! If you don’t have time to hear it all, here are some highlights of brass instruments:

The piano and trumpet share centre stage in this beautiful concerto by Russian composer Shostakovich.

While this is not written exclusively for brass, the last movement contains a brass chorale which is among some of the best brass music ever written.

Mozart wrote 4 horn concertos for his friend Joseph Leutgeb who was a skilled player.

String Musical Instruments


Guitars are one of the most popular pop, rock, folk, blues and country music instruments. They have six strings and are held flat against the body. The player plucks or strums with one hand while using the other to press the strings down against frets on the neck of the guitar to alter the pitch.

Guitars are one of the most popular musical instruments in the world


Also known as the fiddle, the violin is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the violin family. It is played by rubbing a bow across its four strings, while the fingers move up and down the neck. It has no frets. You can also pluck a violin!

Two young girls play the violin


A viola is slightly larger than a violin and therefore has a deeper sound. It is a popular component of a string quartet and a frequent soloist in orchestras. It is played in the same way as a violin.


The cello

The cello is also part of the violin family, however, it is considerably larger. The player places it in front of their body and it rests on a spike which extends from the bottom of the instrument to the floor. It is frequently played both as a solo instrument and as part of an orchestra.

Double bass

Musicians playing musical instruments

The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched instrument in an orchestra. It can be played with a bow or by plucking. It is used in classical music and folk/popular genres such as blues, bluegrass and reggae alike.



The banjo is a string instrument that is plucked or strummed in a similar manner to a guitar. It has a round frame, a long neck and 4 or 5 strings. The banjo descended from African instruments played by enslaved people in the USA. It was adopted by Americans of European descent in the late 19th century and became a defining feature of bluegrass music, while also continuing to be crucial to African American folk music.



The mandolin is part of the lute family. It usually has 8 strings, split into pairs of 2 which are tuned to the same pitch. and is played in a similar way to the guitar and banjo. It is widely played in folk music across Europe and the USA.



The ukelele developed from small Portuguese lutes in the late 19th century, although it was popularised through its use in Hawaiian music. It looks like a very small guitar with only 4 strings and a high pitch.


Musical Instruments

The harp is a large stringed instrument, with a triangular shape. It is usually placed on the ground between the player’s legs and leant against their shoulder, so they can pluck and strum the strings stretched between its frame. 

Exemplary music written for string instruments

Here is a selection of famous pieces written for various string instruments:

This is one of the most frequently performed pieces of string quartet music ever! 

Though it was originally believed that this piece was written for an organ, scholars now think it was intended to be played by a harp instead.

Many classical guitar pieces are from the Spanish tradition, and this is one of the most famous. It was written in 1939. 

Percussion Musical Instruments

For a full guide to percussion instruments, see our article specifically on this family! 


Musical Instruments

Drums, or membranophone percussion instruments, are any instrument that produces a sound by striking a membrane (skin) stretched across a frame. They are usually unpitched, although some, like the timpani, can have the skin loosened or tightened to alter the pitch. Drums are some of the oldest examples of instruments!

Cymbals & Gongs


Cymbals and gongs are both usually made out of metal and produce sound by being struck by a mallet. Gongs have had ceremonial uses for thousands of years in many different cultures. 

Musical Instruments

There are a few keyboard-esque instruments in the percussion family. These include xylophones, glockenspiel and vibraphones. Bars of wood or metal are arranged in a keyboard shape and hit with a mallet to produce different notes.

Music written for percussion instruments

Here are some exemplary artists and pieces played on a variety of percussion or heavily featuring percussion.

This drummer from Guinea is a master of the djembe drum. He is globally respected as one of the most skilled djembe players in the world. 

This classic piece is famous for its explosive percussion section.



Musical Instruments

To produce sound on a piano, you press the keys on its keyboards, which causes hammers inside the piano to strike strings which vibrate at different pitches. It was invented in Italy in the 17th century. It is a popular instrument with composers as it has a wide range, so can be used to experiment with complicated harmonies etc.


Musical Instruments

There are various types of organs but the most impressive is the pipe organ. These are commonly built into churches and can be as large as 5 storeys tall. When you press the keys it blows air up the pipe which vibrates to produce sound.


Musical Instruments

The harpsichord is highly associated with Baroque and Renaissance music. It predates the piano and is very similar in design. However, with the harpsichord the strings are plucked rather than hit, producing a different sound.


Musical Instruments

An accordion has bellows and a keyboard. To play it you play a melody on the keyboard with one hand while expanding and compressing the bellows to create a bass line. It is used in a lot of folk music across Europe and the Americas. 

Most famous pieces written for keyboards

Pianos and organs are vastly popular in Western music, so no wonder there are some exceptional pieces of music written for them. Check them out here:

This piece was written in 1900 and is one of Rachmaninov’s most famous and loved pieces.

This was written for a pipe organ and captures the full drama and grandeur of the enormous instrument.

This is undoubtedly one of the most famous piano pieces of all time – you will recognise it when you hear it!

Electronic Musical Instruments

In recent years, electronic versions of many classic acoustic musical instruments have been invented. 

Electric Guitar

electric guitar

Electric guitars are popularly used for performances as they require an external amplifier in order to be heard at loud volumes. When you play an electric guitar, the vibrations of the strings are converted into electrical signals by pick-ups, then reproduced as sound by loudspeakers.

Electric Keyboard

Musical Instruments

Electric keyboards provide a cheap and transportable alternative to a piano. When you press a key, a pre-recorded ‘piano’ sound plays. Electric keyboards can have many different settings with different sounds. For example, your keyboard could mimic the sound of a church organ or Hammond organ.

Electronic Drum Kit

Musical Instruments

Electronic drum kits are made up of pads representing the various drums. These have sensors which generate an electronic signal when struck which is sent to a central synthesiser which converts the signal to a sound. 

This sound can be transmitted through an amp or through headphones (the latter making this a particularly appealing option to drummers who want to remain on good terms with their neighbours!)


Musical Instruments

Synthesisers are a crucial electronic instrument invented in the 20th century. They create electronic signals which are amplified and converted to sound by voltage-controlled oscillators. Check out our article on synths to learn more. Most synths come in keyboard form.

Closing Thoughts on Musical Instruments

I hope you found this musical instruments list interesting. Name a music instrument we haven’t included and we will add it to the collection!


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