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What Are the Four Main Instrument Family?

There are many instruments in the music family. You may be keen on learning a musical instrument but torn about which one to pick. There are a total of four types of musical instruments. They are strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. In this post, we’ll explore the musical instruments in these four families to help you get familiar with them.


If you are interested in popular music, you know string instruments include the guitar. String instruments are made of different combinations of strings and wood. The wood is made hollow so as to allow sound to vibrate within them. The strings create sounds and are made of nylon, steel and sometimes gut.

String instruments are played often by drawing a bow across them. The handle of the bow is made of wood. Sometimes, the musicians will pluck the strings with their fingers, or they will strum. In an orchestra, strings are the largest family of instruments and they consist of the violin, viola, cello and double bass (ranging from the smallest to the largest size). The smaller instruments produce higher-pitched sounds and the larger ones produce low rich sounds. They are all shaped with curvy wooden bodies and wooden necks. All string instruments require tuning.


The woodwind family of musical instruments used to be all made of wood, which gives them their name. But today, you can find woodwinds made from metal, plastic or combinations of different materials. They are all narrow cylinders or pipes with holes. Sounds are produced by blowing air into the mouthpiece at the top of the instrument.

Opening or closing the holes on the woodwind instrument with your fingers changes the pitch of the sound. Metal caps called “keys” cover the holes of most woodwind instruments. The mouthpieces of some woodwind instruments such as the clarinet, oboe and bassoon use a thin piece of wood called a reed, which vibrates when you blow across it. The clarinet uses a single reed made of one piece of wood while the oboe and the bassoon use a double reed made of two pieces joined together.

The woodwind instruments include, from the highest sounding instruments to the lowest, the piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon.


Just like the woodwind family, the brass family got its name because the instruments are made of brass. Brass instruments are the loudest in the orchestra and can be heard from a distance away. Brass instruments are categorised by their long pipes, which widen at the ends into a bell-like shape. The pipes are curbed and twisted into different shapes to make them easier to hold and play with.

Sounds are created when players vibrate their own lips by buzzing them against a metal cup-shaped mouthpiece. Most brass instruments have valves attached to their long pipes. These valves look like buttons which you press to open and close different parts of the pipe to produce different pitches. The sound also changes depending on how hard or soft you buzz your lips against the mouthpiece. Brass instruments include the saxophone, trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba.


The percussion family is the largest in the music instrument family. Percussion instruments produce sounds when it is hit, shaken or scraped. It takes a lot of practice to learn to hit the instrument with the correct amount of strength, in the right place and at the right time. Some percussion instruments are tuned and can create different notes such as the xylophone, timpani or piano. While some are untuned with no definite pitch, like the bass drum, cymbals or castanets.

Percussion instruments help to keep the rhythm whether it is in a pop band or an orchestra. Except in an orchestra, the percussionist will usually play many different instruments in one piece of music. The most common percussion instruments in an orchestra include the timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, maracas, gongs, chimes, celesta and the piano.

It may seem strange to you that the piano is categorised as a percussion instrument and not a string instrument. Sounds are after all produced when you hit on the keys of the pian, so it does belong to the percussion family. The piano has the largest range of any instrument in the orchestra. It supports harmony and also has a role as a solo instrument.

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