Music is a vast, complicated, and intricate world in which we have only explored a tiny bit, and to enter into this world can be a little bit confusing. Obviously there are musical theory terms to memorize, sight reading to be learned, and other little tips and tricks, but in this post, we will be diving into the number one relevant topic when entering the world of music - what are the different instruments, and which one to pick.
Within the category of musical instruments, there are many “families,” or sub-categories, that define different groups of instruments. Each group of instruments has the same set range, consisting of soprano (really high), alto (still high), tenor (relatively in the middle), baritone (low), and bass (very low). These terms simply define a range of pitch that is grouped conveniently for musicians throughout all families of instruments. The first obvious sub-categories are physical instruments versus the natural instrument that we carry at all times with us, known as the voice. Obviously the voice is used in any choir (or singing part otherwise), and is handy because it doesn’t require anything other than strong vocal chords and determination.
Within physical instruments, two major sub-categories are found: String instruments, and Band instruments. These two categories often join together to form the full symphonic orchestra, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, but when taken apart, this large orchestra truly has to main components. If you aren’t fond of the voice, then it is within either one of these sub-categories that you will find your instrument.
There are four primary modern string instruments that are used in nearly every professional orchestra on earth, and those instruments include the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. These four instruments have many similarities - they are all mostly made of hollow wooden bodies, have 4 strings, are played with a bow or plucked, and all evolved from many generations of other string instruments. However, each one is also very different. The violin, being the highest pitched instrument, plays a lot of high notes and often carries melodies in orchestral pieces, and is considered as the soprano instrument. The viola is very similar to the violin, but is slightly bigger and has a deeper sound, and is considered the alto instrument. The cello, being the tenor instrument, is also bigger with a deeper sound. The same is true about the bass when compared to the cello. All of these string instruments, when played in a full orchestra, are able to harmonize with each other and integrate perfectly into the full orchestra. Two other instruments associated with Strings/orchestras are often the piano and the harp. With no set pitch range, these two instruments have many keys/strings and provide underlying themes to a piece, and have many solo pieces for personal practice.
In the typical band, there are still more subdivisions to better define groups of instruments, and those include woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
Woodwind instruments, such as the flute or the clarinet, are part of the wind family, which is any band instrument where it is necessary to blow into the instrument to produce sound. Most of these woodwinds have little wooden pieces called reeds, which allow for vibrations to be carried throughout the instruments. These reed instruments include clarinets, saxophones, oboes, and bassoons. There are four main types of saxophones (which follow the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sequence), and they are similar yet different to clarinets. Saxophones are very prominent in jazz ensembles as well as band ensembles, and have more concentrated sounds than clarinets. On the other hand, there are only two types of clarinets - the regular clarinet and the bass clarinet - and they are like the saxophone in tone, but have much larger ranges and carry melodies in the band. The oboe and the bassoon, unlike the saxophone and clarinet, are called double reed instruments, because they have two reeds connected to each other, and are typically harder to play. Don’t let this scare you, though, because they are lovely instruments and make a fascinating addition to the band. The flute and the piccolo are different than the reed instruments because they don’t use a reed, and require a different embouchure (lip position) to play, but harmonize with the rest of the woodwinds just as well. The flute is a short tube like woodwind that can play very high, and the piccolo is similar but about half the size and can go even higher!
Brass instruments are also part of the wind family, in which sounds are produced by buzzing lip vibrations, and each are very unique. There are five main brass instruments which fit the 5 main pitch ranges: the trumpet, French horn, Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba (trumpet being soprano, tuba being bass). Something that defines brass instruments as unique from all of the others is that there aren’t different fingerings/visible notes to change pitch level, but one must actually change their embouchure slightly to change pitch. The trumpet is the highest pitched horn and most common in a band, and despite its small size it has a huge tonal range, along with all of the other brass instruments. It is common in jazz bands, and carries melodies in marching band music and other tunes. The french horn, being one of the harder brass instruments to play because of its smaller mouthpiece, has a very rich alto sound, and is important to contribute to balance and intonation in the band. The trombone might be considered the most unique brass instrument, simply because instead of having three valves, the trombone has a slide that is able to slide up and down to notes in many ranges. The euphonium, being the baritone voice of the brass section, provides a deeper support to the section, and the bass provides a very sturdy ground that holds it all together. Although instruments like the trumpet and trombone are more well known in the musical community, like every other section, it is important to understand that all of the brass instruments are equally important in creating a tonal balance in the band that supports all different areas.
This might be a lot of information to throw at a new person at once, so if you are confused, acknowledge the fact that no matter how much research you do about instruments, the final decision will not come from that. In the end, music is an activity that comes from the heart, and the instrument you will chose will reflect that. Listen to a variety of different instruments and ensembles, figure out what instrument you love, and embark on your musical journey!