If you are a long time reader of this blog, you will know that each month I talk about a musical instrument, and within that post I tell you that the instrument belonged to a particular “Family” of instruments. So what do I mean by this?
In short we refer to a number of instruments that have some similarities in what sort of material they are made from or how they are played as being part of a family of instruments. And these families of instruments generally either sit together within an orchestra or other ensemble, or maybe have their own type of ensemble. I wrote mainly about instruments in the woodwind and brass families last year, and will be starting this year with the string family. So what are the families:
Instruments in this family, as the name rather suggests, have strings. It is basically that simple. To make a sound players make the strings vibrate, by moving something like a bow along the string, plucking the string or hitting the string with something. When you think of the string family, you will most likely immediately think of the violin, viola and cello. But there are other string instruments, from more obvious ones like guitars and ukuleles, to instruments that have a place in more than one family – like the piano where strings of various sizes are hit by little hammers; or the harpsichord where strings of various sizes are plucked when the player presses a key on the keyboard. Instruments such as the harp, banjo, mandolin, sitar and bouzouki also find a place within this family.
This is another easy category to define, right? It will be instruments made from wood and which use wind, or rather a player’s breath to make a sound, yes? Well, not exactly. You can see from the picture next to these words that the flute, a member of this family, is made from metal. Woodwind instruments have this name because, yes they do all use wind (a player’s breath) to make a sound, and at one point they or their ancestors were made from wood, though that might not be the case now. But the saxophone is classed as a woodwind instrument, and it has only ever been made from metal – brass in fact.
Woodwind instruments are either flutes (and for a very long time the words flute or recorder were used pretty much interchangeably, so this includes instruments like the recorder, and ocarina) or reed instruments where a player has to blow air through a single reed (clarinet, saxophone) or double reed (oboe, bassoon).
Instruments in the brass family are generally made from metal. (Note the word generally there.) Brass instruments include instruments you have definitely heard of like the trumpet, the trombone, the tuba, the French horn; and a few you might not have heard of, like the euphonium and the serpent. Yes, there really is an instrument called the serpent! Now you would think that they are all made from brass if you thought the name was synonymous with how they are made. Not necessarily so. The ones you will immediately think of, and which feature in a brass band and most modern orchestras generally are or were made from brass, but the instruments in this family are grouped together also for the way that they are played and specifically how musicians need to purse their lips when blowing air into the mouthpieces of these instruments in order to make a sound. The instruments are all made up of various lengths of tubing and use things like slides or valves, as well as the air pressure (how much air blown through the mouthpiece) from the player to change the pitch produced by the instrument.
Percussion instruments are ones which are played by being hit by something, like a drum, glockenspiel or triangle; shaken, like a maraca or scraped like a güiro. Percussion instruments can be tuned, meaning that they are intended to play a particular pitch, or number of pitches; or untuned, meaning that they are not intended to play a particular pitch, and indeed the pitch they play cannot be changed.
Examples of tuned percussion are things like marimbas, glockenspiels, xylophones, tone blocks and even timpani (those huge round drums you will see at the back of an orchestra). Examples of untuned percussion are things like drums, generally, triangles and wood blocks. The piano is often said to be part of this family of instruments as well as it is played by making little hammers hit strings of various sizes within the body of the instrument.
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