Voice and instruments

Your body is your first very own instrument!

But there are other instruments we can use to make music as well: stringed instruments, woodwind instruments, percussion instruments, and brass instruments. There are also unique instruments that people make in countries around the world that don’t fit as well into these categories, like a little flute that is shaped like a tree frog and makes a tree frog chirping sound!

Here is information and ideas for teaching about different musical voices (instruments).

What is an instrument family?

You belong to a family. As part of your family, you may resemble someone else. You might look like your mom or your dad. There are different families of instruments, and the instruments in each family resemble each other. Their voices are each different, but they have a common type of sound.

Stringed Instrument Family: “When you look at a string instrument, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that it’s made of wood, so why is it called a string instrument? The bodies of the string instruments, which are hollow inside to allow sound to vibrate within them, are made of different kinds of wood, but the part of the instrument that makes the sound is the strings, which are made of nylon, steel or sometimes gut. The strings are played most often by drawing a bow across them. The handle of the bow is made of wood and the strings of the bow are actually horsehair from horses’ tails! Sometimes the musicians will use their fingers to pluck the strings, and occasionally they will turn the bow upside down and play the strings with the wooden handle.

The strings are the largest family of instruments in the orchestra and they come in four sizes: the violin, which is the smallest, viola, cello, and the biggest, the double bass, sometimes called the contrabass. (Bass is pronounced “base,” as in “baseball.”) The smaller instruments, the violin and viola, make higher-pitched sounds, while the larger cello and double bass produce low rich sounds. They are all similarly shaped, with curvy wooden bodies and wooden necks. The strings stretch over the body and neck and attach to small decorative heads, where they are tuned with small tuning pegs.” (Oregon Symphony: Instruments of the Orchestra: The String Family)

Woodwind Instrument Family: “The instruments in this family all used to be made of wood, which gives them their name. Today, they are made of wood, metal, plastic or some combination. They are all basically narrow cylinders or pipes, with holes, an opening at the bottom end and a mouthpiece at the top. You play them by blowing air through the mouthpiece (that’s the “wind” in “woodwind”) and opening or closing the holes with your fingers to change the pitch. Metal caps called keys cover the holes of most woodwind instruments.

The mouthpieces for some woodwinds, including 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 bassoon use a double reed made of two pieces joined together. Just as with the stringed instruments, the smaller woodwinds play higher pitches while the longer and larger instruments play the lower notes. The woodwind family of instruments includes, from the highest sounding instruments to the lowest, the piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon.” (Oregon Symphony: Instruments of the Orchestra: The Woodwind Family)

Percussion Instrument Family: “The percussion family is the largest in the orchestra. Percussion instruments include any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped. It’s not easy to be a percussionist because it takes a lot of practice to hit an instrument with the right amount of strength, in the right place and at the right time. Some percussion instruments are tuned and can sound different notes, like the xylophone, timpani or piano, and some are untuned with no definite pitch, like the bass drum, cymbals or castanets. Percussion instruments keep the rhythm, make special sounds and add excitement and color. Unlike most of the other players in the orchestra, a percussionist will usually play many different instruments in one piece of music. The most common percussion instruments in the orchestra include the timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, maracas, gongs, chimes, celesta and piano.” (Oregon Symphony: Instruments of the Orchestra: The Percussion Family)

Brass Instrument Family: “If you think the brass family got its name because the instruments are made of brass, you’re right! This family of instruments can play louder than any other in the orchestra and can also be heard from far away. Although their early ancestors are known to have been made of wood, tusks, animal horns or shells, today’s modern instruments are made entirely of brass. Brass instruments are essentially very long pipes that widen at their ends into a bell-like shape. The pipes have been curved and twisted into different shapes to make them easier to hold and play.

“Like the woodwind family, brass players use their breath to produce sound, but instead of blowing into a reed, you vibrate your own lips by buzzing them against a metal cup-shaped mouthpiece. The mouthpiece helps to amplify the buzzing of the lips, which creates the sound. Most brass instruments have valves attached to their long pipes; the valves look like buttons. When you press down on the valves, they open and close different parts of the pipe. You change the pitch and sound by pressing different valves and buzzing your lips harder or softer. The brass family members that are most commonly used in the orchestra include the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and the tuba.” (Oregon Symphony: Instruments of the Orchestra: The Brass Family)

Here are some instruments you may not have ever seen before:

Array mbira:

Glass harmonica:


Lessson ideas:

Explain what an instrument family is.

Show pictures and/or video and/or actual instruments. Allow the children to handle some instruments and try out their sounds.

Explore how different instruments from each family sound by playing them, playing audio or video clips. Invite someone (even a child) who plays an instrument to demonstrate playing their instrument. Here is a fabulous website with recordings of each instrument, created by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Ask: Which one sounds the most like you? Which one would you like to learn to play? Which ones are your favorites? If you were writing a song about the wind at night, which instrument would you use? What if you were writing about rain? What if your song were about a stampede of elephants? A flight of butterflies? Why might you choose more than one kind of instrument?

Play excerpts from songs that demonstrate the voices of different instruments. Here are some ideas:

Harp: (String family) “Song in the Night” by Carlos Salzedo. (Share the video below of Yolanda Kondonassis playing this song, beginning at 8:42.) This song that shows how the harp can make sounds that you might hear at night. After listening, ask: Which night sounds did you hear?

Violin (String family): “Chaconne” (pronounced “shack-un”) by Bach (final movement of Partita 2 in D Minor) performed by Joshua Bell. After watching, ask: “What does the sound of the violin make you think of? Is the violin’s voice high or low? Does Mr. Bell look like he enjoys playing it? What did you feel as you listened? What do you think he feels as he played different parts of the song? What kind of notes did he play notes in this song (fast? slow? high? low?) What might make this instrument harder or easier to play?

Flute: (Woodwind family) In the first video below, James Galway talks about when he first learned to play flute. (I would use only the first bit until after he talks about playing on his way to school.) The second video after that is James Galway playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Ask: Which insect did this song sound like? Was it fast or slow? Do you think the flute is the right voice for this song? What parts of the body do you use to play the flute? Does it look hard or easy? The final video is “Nocturne” by Chopin (“show-pan”) played by Jasmin Choi. It is quite a contrast from the busy bee buzzing in the song before it! “Nocturne” means a song that makes you think about the night–kind of like a lullaby. It is usually very peaceful, like this song. You can close your eyes and imagine you are resting. Questions you could ask: How does this peace make you feel? Do you think the flute is a good instrument for this song? How is it different from the harp song about the night?

Clarinet: (Woodwind family) Martin Altrov plays the same song as in the video above, but on a different instrument in the same family: the clarinet. Which voice do you prefer for this song, “Nocturne” by Frederic Chopin (pronounced “show-pan”)?

Marimba: (Percussion Family)
Evelyn Glennie is a deaf percussionsit who shows that you if you listen carefully by feeling the vibrations, you can learn how to make beautiful music. She plays barefoot sometimes because it helps her feel the vibrations better. She can even play with other instruments–even a whole symphony–because she is so good at listening! She plays on the drums and the marimba in this video:

(Start at 6:54 for just the marimba.)

More questions you could ask about instruments:

How does the size and shape of an instrument affect its sound? Go here.