Musical Instruments Articles

Musical Instruments For Musical Expression

All About String Instruments

Some of the earliest stringed instruments have been identified in archaeological digs of Ancient Mesopotamian sites, like the lyres of Ur, which include artifacts over three thousand years old. Lyre instruments with wooden bodies, and strings used for plucking or playing with a bow represent key instruments that point towards later harps and violin type instruments; moreover, Indian instruments from 500 BC have been discovered with anything from 7 to 21 strings.

During the medieval era, the rate by which string instruments developed arguably varied from country to country – Middle Eastern rebecs represented breakthroughs in terms of shape and strings, with a half a pear shape using three strings. Early versions of the violin and fiddle, by comparison, emerged in Europe through instruments such as the gittern, a four stringed precursor to the guitar, and basic lutes. These instruments typically used catgut and other materials, including silk, for their strings.

String instrument design was refined during the Renaissance and into the Baroque period of musical history – violins and guitars became more stable in terms of their design changes, and were roughly similar to what we now use – the violins of the Renaissance featured intricate woodwork and stringing, while more elaborate bass instruments such as the bandora were produced alongside quill plucked citterns, and Spanish body guitars.

In the 19th century, string instruments were made more widely available through mass production, with woodwind string instruments a key part of orchestras – cellos, violas, and upright basses, for example, were now standard instruments for chamber and smaller orchestras. At the same time, the 19th century guitar became more typically associated with six string models, rather than traditional five string versions. Major changes to string instruments in the 20th century primarily involved innovations in amplification and electronic music – electric violins were available by the 1920s, and were an important part of emerging jazz music trends in the United States. Breakthroughs in electric guitar and basses then saw major breakthroughs in pop and rock music through the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing connection of string instruments to electronic amplification added variety to classical performances, and enabled experimentation in the dynamic range of orchestras, bands, and solo performances.

String instruments can be divided in three groups.

Lutes – instruments that support the strings via a neck and a bout ("gourd"), for instance a guitar, a violin, or a saz
Harps – instruments that contain the strings within a frame
Zithers – instruments that have the strings mounted on a body, such as a guqin, a cimbalom, an autoharp, or a piano

It is also possible to divide the instruments in groups focused on how the instrument is played.

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Types of playing techniques

All string instruments produce sound from one or more vibrating strings, transferred to the air by the body of the instrument (or by a pickup in the case of electronically amplified instruments). They are usually categorized by the technique used to make the strings vibrate (or by the primary technique, in the case of instruments where more than one may apply.) The three most common techniques are plucking, bowing, and striking. An important difference between bowing and plucking is that in the former the phenomenon is periodic, so that the overtones are kept in a strictly harmonic relationship to the fundamental.

Plucking is a method of playing on instruments such as the veena, banjo, ukulele, guitar, harp, lute, mandolin, oud, and sitar, using either a finger, thumb, or quills (now plastic plectra) to pluck the strings.

Instruments normally played by bowing may also be plucked, a technique referred to by the Italian term pizzicato.

Bowing (Italian: arco) is a method used in some string instruments, including the violin, viola, cello, and the double bass (of the violin family), and the old viol family. The bow consists of a stick with many hairs stretched between its ends. Bowing the instrument's string causes a stick-slip phenomenon to occur, which makes the string vibrate.

The third common method of sound production in stringed instruments is to strike the string. The piano and hammered dulcimer use this method of sound production.

Violin family string instrument players are occasionally instructed to strike the string with the stick of the bow, a technique called col legno. This yields a percussive sound along with the pitch of the note. A well-known use of col legno for orchestral strings is Gustav Holst's "Mars" movement from The Planets suite.

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Other methods
The aeolian harp employs a very unusual method of sound production: the strings are excited by the movement of the air.

Some instruments that have strings have attached keyboards that the player uses instead of directly manipulating the strings. These include the piano, the clavichord, and the harpsichord.

With these keyboard instruments too, strings are occasionally plucked or bowed by hand. Composers such as Henry Cowell wrote music that requires that the player reach inside the piano and pluck the strings directly, "bow" them with bow hair wrapped around the strings, or play them by rolling the bell of a brass instrument such as a trombone on the array of strings.

Other keyed string instruments, small enough for a strolling musician to play, include the plucked autoharp, the bowed nyckelharpa, and the hurdy-gurdy, which is played by cranking a rosined wheel.

Steel-stringed instruments (such as the guitar, bass, violin, etc.) can be played using a magnetic field. An E-Bow is small hand-held battery-powered device that magnetically excites the strings of an electric string instrument to provide a sustained, singing tone.

Third bridge is a plucking method where the player frets a string and strikes the side opposite the bridge. The technique is mainly used on electric instruments, because these have a pickup that amplifies only the local string vibration. It is possible on acoustic instruments as well, but less effective. For instance, a player might press on the seventh fret on a guitar and pluck it at the head side to make a tone resonate at the opposed side. At electric instruments this technique generates multitone sounds reminiscent of a clock or bell.

All About Brass Instruments

A brass instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound by sympathetic vibration of air in a tubular resonator in sympathy with the vibration of the player's lips. Brass instruments are also called labrosones, literally meaning "lip-vibrated instruments".

There are several factors involved in producing different pitches on a brass instrument. Slides, valves, crooks (though they are rarely used today), or keys are used to change vibratory length of tubing, thus changing the available harmonic series, while the player's embouchure, lip tension and air flow serve to select the specific harmonic produced from the available series.

The view of most scholars is that the term "brass instrument" should be defined by the way the sound is made, as above, and not by whether the instrument is actually made of brass. Thus one finds brass instruments made of wood, like the alphorn, the cornett, the serpent and the didgeridoo, while some woodwind instruments are made of brass, like the saxophone.

Modern brass instruments generally come in one of two families:

Valved brass instruments use a set of valves (typically three or four but as many as seven or more in some cases) operated by the player's fingers that introduce additional tubing, or crooks, into the instrument, changing its overall length. This family includes all of the modern brass instruments except the trombone: the trumpet, horn (also called French horn), euphonium, and tuba, as well as the cornet, flugelhorn, tenor horn (alto horn), baritone horn, sousaphone, mellophone, and the saxhorn. As valved instruments are predominant among the brasses today, a more thorough discussion of their workings can be found below. The valves are usually piston valves, but can be rotary valves; the latter are the norm for the horn (except in France) and are also common on the tuba.

Slide brass instruments use a slide to change the length of tubing. The main instruments in this category are the trombone family, though valve trombones are occasionally used, especially in jazz. The trombone family's ancestor, the sackbut, and the folk instrument bazooka are also in the slide family.

Keyed or Fingered brass instruments used holes along the body of the instrument, which were covered by fingers or by finger-operated pads (keys) in a similar way to a woodwind instrument. These included the cornett, serpent, ophicleide, keyed bugle and keyed trumpet. They are more difficult to play than valved instruments.
Bore taper and diameter.

Cylindrical vs. conical bore
While all modern valved and slide brass instruments consist in part of conical and in part of cylindrical tubing, they are divided as follows:

Cylindrical bore brass instruments are those in which approximately constant diameter tubing predominates. Cylindrical bore brass instruments are generally perceived as having a brighter, more penetrating tone quality compared to conical bore brass instruments. The trumpet, baritone horn and all trombones are cylindrical bore. In particular, the slide design of the trombone necessitates this.

Conical bore brass instruments are those in which tubing of constantly increasing diameter predominates. Conical bore instruments are generally perceived as having a more mellow tone quality than the cylindrical bore brass instruments. The "British brass band" group of instruments fall into this category. This includes the flugelhorn, cornet, tenor horn (alto horn), horn, euphonium and tuba. Some conical bore brass instruments are more conical than others. For example, the flugelhorn differs from the cornet by having a higher percentage of its tubing length conical than does the cornet, in addition to possessing a wider bore than the cornet. In the 1910s and 1920s, the E.A. Couturier company built brass band instruments utilizing a patent for a continuous conical bore without cylindrical portions even for the valves or tuning slide.

Whole-tube vs. half-tube

The second division, based on bore diameter in relation to length, determines whether the fundamental tone or the first overtone is the lowest partial practically available to the player:
Whole-tube instruments have larger bores in relation to tubing length, and can play the fundamental tone with ease and precision. The tuba and euphonium are examples of whole-tube brass instruments.

Half-tube instruments have smaller bores in relation to tubing length and cannot easily or accurately play the fundamental tone. The second partial (first overtone) is the lowest note of each tubing length practical to play on half-tube instruments. The trumpet and horn are examples of half-tube brass instruments.

All About Woodwind Instruments

Woodwind instruments are a family of musical instruments within the more general category of wind instruments. There are two main types of woodwind instruments: flutes and reed instruments (otherwise called reed pipes). What differentiates these instruments from other wind instruments is the way in which they produce their sound.  Examples are a saxophone, a bassoon, piccolo and others.

Flutes produce sound by directing a focused stream of air across the edge of a hole in a cylindrical tube. The flute family can be divided into two sub-families: open flutes, and closed flutes.

To produce a sound with open flutes, the player is required to blow a stream of air across a sharp edge that then splits the airstream . This split airstream then acts upon the air column contained within the flute's hollow causing it to vibrate and produce sound. Examples of open flutes are the transverse flute, panpipes and ocarinas. Ancient flutes of this variety were often made from tubular sections of plants such as grasses, reeds, and hollowed-out tree branches. Later, flutes were made of metals such as tin, copper, or bronze. Modern concert flutes are usually made of high-grade metal alloys, usually containing nickel, silver, copper, or gold.
To produce a sound with a closed flute, the player is required to blow air into a duct. This duct acts as a channel bringing the air to a sharp edge. As with the open flutes, the air is then split; this causes the column of air within the closed flute to vibrate and produce sound. Examples of this type of flute include the recorder, and organ pipes.

Reed instruments
Reed instruments produce sound by focusing air into a mouthpiece, which then causes a reed, or reeds, to vibrate. Similar to flutes, Reed pipes are also further divided into two types: single reed and double reed.

Single-reed woodwinds produce sound by placing a reed onto the opening of a mouthpiece (using a ligature). When air is forced between the reed and the mouthpiece, the reed causes the air column in the instrument to vibrate and produce its unique sound. Single reed instruments include the clarinet, saxophone, and others such as the chalumeau.

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Double-reed instruments use two precisely cut, small pieces of cane bound together at the base. This form of sound production has been estimated to originate in the middle to late Neolithic period; its discovery has been attributed to the observation of wind blowing through a split rush. The finished, bound reed is inserted into the instrument and vibrates as air is forced between the two pieces (again, causing the air within the instrument to vibrate as well). This family of reed pipes is subdivided further into another two sub-families: exposed double reed, and capped double reed instruments.

Exposed double-reed instruments are played by having the double reed directly between the player's lips. This family includes instruments such as the oboe, cor anglais (also called English horn) and bassoon, and many types of shawms throughout the world.

On the other hand, Capped double-reed instruments have the double reed covered by a cap. The player blows through a hole in this cap that then directs the air through the reeds. This family includes the crumhorn.

The modern orchestra's woodwind section typically includes: flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. The piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon are commonly used supplementary woodwind instruments. The section may also on occasion be expanded by the addition of saxophone(s).

The concert band's woodwind section is typically much larger and more diverse than the orchestra's. The concert band's woodwind section typically includes: piccolo, flutes, oboes, B♭ clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons, alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophone. The cor anglais, E♭ clarinet, alto clarinet, contra-alto clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, and soprano saxophone are also used, but not as frequently as the other woodwinds.

All About Percussion Instruments

A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater (including attached or enclosed beaters or rattles); struck, scraped or rubbed by hand; or struck against another similar instrument. The percussion family is believed to include the oldest musical instruments, following the human voice.

The percussion section of an orchestra most commonly contains instruments such as timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and tambourine. However, the section can also contain non-percussive instruments, such as whistles and sirens, or a blown conch shell. Percussive techniques can also be applied to the human body, as in body percussion. On the other hand, keyboard instruments, such as the celesta, are not normally part of the percussion section, but keyboard percussion instruments such as the glockenspiel and xylophone (which do not have piano keyboards) are included.

Percussion instruments are most commonly divided into two classes: Pitched percussion instruments, which produce notes with an identifiable pitch, and unpitched percussion instruments, which produce notes or sounds without an identifiable pitch.

Percussion instruments may play not only rhythm, but also melody and harmony.

Percussion is commonly referred to as "the backbone" or "the heartbeat" of a musical ensemble, often working in close collaboration with bass instruments, when present. In jazz and other popular music ensembles, the pianist, bassist, drummer and sometimes the guitarist are referred to as the rhythm section. Most classical pieces written for full orchestra since the time of Haydn and Mozart are orchestrated to place emphasis on the strings, woodwinds, and brass. However, often at least one pair of timpani is included, though they rarely play continuously. Rather, they serve to provide additional accents when needed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, other percussion instruments (like the triangle or cymbals) have been used, again generally sparingly. The use of percussion instruments became more frequent in the 20th century classical music.

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In almost every style of music, percussion plays a pivotal role. In military marching bands and pipes and drums, it is the beat of the bass drum that keeps the soldiers in step and at a regular speed, and it is the snare that provides that crisp, decisive air to the tune of a regiment. In classic jazz, one almost immediately thinks of the distinctive rhythm of the hi-hats or the ride cymbal when the word "swing" is spoken. In more recent popular music culture, it is almost impossible to name three or four rock, hip-hop, rap, funk or even soul charts or songs that do not have some sort of percussive beat keeping the tune in time.

Because of the diversity of percussive instruments, it is not uncommon to find large musical ensembles composed entirely of percussion. Rhythm, melody, and harmony are all represented in these ensembles.

All About Pianos

The piano is a musical instrument played using a keyboard, which is a row of keys (small levers) that the performer presses down or strikes with the fingers and thumbs of both hands. Invented in about 1700 (the exact date is uncertain), the piano is widely employed in classical, jazz, traditional and popular music for solo and ensemble performances, accompaniment, and for composing and rehearsal.

Although the piano is not portable and is often expensive, its versatility, wide range, ability to play chords, ability to play louder or softer, the large number of musicians trained in playing it and its ubiquity in performance venues and rehearsal spaces have made it one of the Western world's most familiar musical instruments.

An acoustic piano usually has a protective wooden case surrounding the soundboard and metal strings, and a row of 88 black and white keys (52 white keys for the notes of the C Major scale and 36 shorter black keys, which are raised above the white keys, for the "accidental" notes, which are the sharp and flat notes needed to play in all 12 keys). The strings are sounded when the keys are pressed or struck, and silenced by a damper when the keys are released. The notes can be sustained, even when the keys are released, by the use of pedals at the base of the instrument. Unlike two of the major keyboard instruments that preceded the piano, the pipe organ and the harpsichord, the weight or force with which a performer presses or strikes the keys changes the dynamics and tone of the instrument.

Pressing one or more keys on the piano's keyboard causes a padded hammer (often padded with firm felt) to strike the strings. The hammer rebounds from the strings, and the strings continue to vibrate at their resonant frequency. These vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a soundboard that amplifies by more efficiently coupling the acoustic energy to the air. When the key is released, a damper stops the strings' vibration, ending the sound. Although an acoustic piano has strings, it is usually classified as a percussion instrument rather than as a stringed instrument, because the strings are struck rather than plucked (as with a harpsichord or spinet); in the Hornbostel-Sachs system of instrument classification, pianos are considered chordophones. With technological advances, Electric pianos (1929), electronic (1970s), and digital pianos (1980s) have also been developed. The electric piano became a popular instrument in the 1960s and 1970s genres of jazz fusion and rock music.

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The word piano is a shortened form of pianoforte, the Italian term for the instrument, which in turn derives from gravicembalo col piano e forte and fortepiano. The Italian musical terms piano and forte indicate "soft" and "loud" respectively, in this context referring to the variations in volume produced in response to a pianist's touch on the keys: the greater the velocity of a key press, the greater the force of the hammer hitting the strings, and the louder the sound of the note produced.

In the period from about 1790 to 1860, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes that led to the modern form of the instrument. This revolution was in response to a preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound, and made possible by the ongoing Industrial Revolution with resources such as high-quality piano wire for strings, and precision casting for the production of massive iron frames that could withstand the tremendous tension of the strings. Over time, the tonal range of the piano was also increased from the five octaves of Mozart's day to the seven octave (or more) range found on modern pianos.

Modern acoustic pianos have two basic configurations, the grand piano and the upright piano, with various styles of each. There are also specialized and novelty pianos, electric pianos based on electromechanical designs, electronic pianos that synthesize piano-like tones using oscillators, and digital pianos using digital samples of acoustic piano sounds.

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Grand Pianos
In grand pianos, the frame and strings are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. The action lies beneath the strings, and uses gravity as its means of return to a state of rest.

There are many sizes of grand piano. A rough generalization distinguishes the concert grand (between 2.2 and 3 meters long, about 7–10 feet) from the parlor grand or boudoir grand (1.7 to 2.2 meters long, about 6–7 feet) and the smaller baby grand (around 1.5 metres (5 feet)).

All else being equal, longer pianos with longer strings have larger, richer sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings. Inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (known as partials or harmonics) sound sharp relative to whole multiples of the fundamental frequency. This results from the piano's considerable string stiffness; as a struck string decays its harmonics vibrate, not from their termination, but from a point very slightly toward the center (or more flexible part) of the string. The higher the partial, the further sharp it runs. Pianos with shorter and thicker string (i.e., small pianos with short string scales) have more inharmonicity. The greater the inharmonicity, the more the ear perceives it as harshness of tone.

Inharmonicity requires that octaves be stretched, or tuned to a lower octave's corresponding sharp overtone rather than to a theoretically correct octave. If octaves are not stretched, single octaves sound in tune, but double—and notably triple—octaves are unacceptably narrow. Stretching a small piano's octaves to match its inherent inharmonicity level creates an imbalance among all the instrument's intervallic relationships, not just its octaves. In a concert grand, however, the octave "stretch" retains harmonic balance, even when aligning treble notes to a harmonic produced from three octaves below. This lets close and widespread octaves sound pure, and produces virtually beatless perfect fifths. This gives the concert grand a brilliant, singing and sustaining tone quality—one of the principal reasons that full-size grands are used in the concert hall. Smaller grands satisfy the space and cost needs of domestic use.

Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are vertical. Upright pianos are widely used in elementary schools, high schools, music conservatories and university music programs as rehearsal and practice instruments and they are popular models for in-home purchase. The hammers move horizontally, and return to their resting position via springs, which are susceptible to degradation. Upright pianos with unusually tall frames and long strings are sometimes called upright grand pianos. Some authors classify modern pianos according to their height and to modifications of the action that are necessary to accommodate the height.

All About Guitars

The guitar is a musical instrument classified as a string instrument with anywhere from 4 to 18 strings, usually having 6. The sound is projected either acoustically or through electrical amplification (for an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar, respectively). It is typically played by strumming or plucking the strings with the right hand while fretting (or pressing against the frets) the strings with the fingers of the left hand. The guitar is a type of chordophone, traditionally constructed from wood and strung with either gut, nylon or steel strings and distinguished from other chordophones by its construction and tuning. The modern guitar was preceded by the gittern, the vihuela, the four-course Renaissance guitar, and the five-course baroque guitar, all of which contributed to the development of the modern six-string instrument.

There are three main types of modern acoustic guitar: the classical guitar (nylon-string guitar), the steel-string acoustic guitar, and the archtop guitar. The tone of an acoustic guitar is produced by the strings' vibration, amplified by the body of the guitar, which acts as a resonating chamber. The classical guitar is often played as a solo instrument using a comprehensive finger-picking technique. The term "finger-picking" can also refer to a specific tradition of folk, blues, bluegrass, and country guitar playing in the United States.

Electric guitars, introduced in the 1930s, use an amplifier that can electronically manipulate and shape the tone. Early amplified guitars employed a hollow body, but a solid body was eventually found more suitable, as it was less prone to feedback. Electric guitars have had a continuing profound influence on popular culture.
The guitar is used in a wide variety of musical genres worldwide. It is recognized as a primary instrument in genres such as blues, bluegrass, country, flamenco, folk, jazz, jota, mariachi, metal, punk, reggae, rock, soul, and many forms of pop.

Acoustic guitars
Acoustic guitars form several notable subcategories within the acoustic guitar group: classical and flamenco guitars; steel-string guitars, which include the flat-topped, or "folk", guitar; twelve-string guitars; and the arched-top guitar. The acoustic guitar group also includes unamplified guitars designed to play in different registers, such as the acoustic bass guitar, which has a similar tuning to that of the electric bass guitar.

Classical guitars
Classical guitars, also known as "Spanish" guitars, are typically strung with nylon strings, plucked with the fingers, played in a seated position and are used to play a diversity of musical styles including classical music. The classical guitar's wide, flat neck allows the musician to play scales, arpeggios, and certain chord forms more easily and with less adjacent string interference than on other styles of guitar. Flamenco guitars are very similar in construction, but they are associated with a more percussive tone.

Electric guitars
Electric guitars can have solid, semi-hollow, or hollow bodies; solid bodies produce little sound without amplification. Electromagnetic pickups convert the vibration of the steel strings into signals, which are fed to an amplifier through a patch cable or radio transmitter. The sound is frequently modified by other electronic devices (effects units) or the natural distortion of valves (vacuum tubes) or the pre-amp in the amplifier.