How Woodwind Instruments Work

A flute, a clarinet, and a saxophone.

Woodwinds are one of the major families of instruments in use today. Woodwinds are basically defined as hollow tubes, which, when blown on one end, produce a sound. Most wind instruments have keys or fingerholes to vary the pitch of the sound, and different methods may be used to create the basic sound.


Single Reed (Clarinet/Saxophone)

The single reed produces a sound by vibrating against the mouthpeice when blown. The reed is held down by a metal ligature. Reeds are very sensitive, and must be cared for to produce the right tone.

Single reed mouthpiece

Double Reed (Oboe/Bassoon)

The double reed uses two reeds, tied together, to make a sound. The sound it produces is somewhat nasal, and can be very difficult to build, maintain, and play. Most double reed players make their own reeds. The tight opening of the double reed means that the musician can play long phrases in one breath.

double reed mouthpiece

Transverse Flute (Flute)

A transverse flute works by blowing air across a hole, much like blowing across a bottle makes a sound. It is one of the oldest ways to produce sound from a wind instrument. Transverse flutes are usually held horizontally.

Transverse flute mouthpiece

Whistle (Recorder)

The whistle is very similar to a transverse flute. Instead of a blowhole, air is blown into the end, past an opening further down the instrument, creating roughly the same effect.

Whistle mouthpiece

Playing Different Notes

Different notes are created by shortening or lengthening the air column inside the instrument. This is usually acheived by covering certain holes on the instument, either with keys or fingers.
The air column extends to the first open hole. Try this interactive diagram of a flute – click on the blowhole or keys to see how the air column and the pitch of the note is affected.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Benjamin Hollis.

How Brass Instruments Work

A trumpet, a trombone, and a tuba.

Brass instruments are any tube that can be played with the lips. They’re not always brass, as instruments like the Aborigine digeridoo, and the conch shell, are made of wood, and shell, respectively. However, most modern brass instruments have a long, cone-shaped tube and flaring bell. Usually the tube is coiled in order to make it easier to hold. Often they have valves or other mechanisms to extend the range of notes that can be played with the instrument.

Making Sound

Modern brass instruments produce sound through a metal mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is similar on most brass instruments, usually varying only in size. Sound is produced by placing the lips on the mouthpiece and blowing while vibrating the lips. The larger the mouthpiece, the lower the sound of the instrument.

Playing Different Notes

By tightening or loosening the lips, it is possible to produce different notes. However, few notes can be created this way. To overcome the problem, brass instruments have lots of tubes, which can be selected with valves in order to change the lenght of the instrument, and thus the pitch of the note. Instruments like the trombone directly modify the length of the instrument with an adjustable slide.

Use this trumpet to see how the instrument can be lengthened to lower the pitch. Click on the mouthpiece or any key to see the airflow and hear a note. Notice that the more tubing the air has to pass through, the lower the note.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Benjamin Hollis.

How Stringed Instruments Work

A guitar, a violin, and a shamisen.

Some of the simpler instruments are the string instruments. String instruments make sound with vibrating strings, and the pitch is modified by the thickness, tension, and length of the string. String instruments can be played in many ways, and come in many variations. String instruments range from the simple lyre, to the modern guitar, violin, and piano. All rely on the sound of strings.

Making Sound

All string instruments make sounds with tensioned strings. Longer strings produce a lower tone than shorter ones. Tighter strings produce a higher sound than looser ones. Thicker strings produce a lower sound than thinner strings. That is why, even though all the strings on a guitar are the same length, they all sound a different note. String instruments can be plucked, bowed, or in the case of the piano, struck. Bowing allows very long, sustained notes with interesting dynamics. Electric guitars use magnetic pickups to convert vibration to an electric signal. String instruments must be tuned perfectly by tightening or loosening their strings.

Playing Different Notes

Different notes are produced in different ways by string instruments. Instruments like the zither, harp, and piano have sets of parallel strings, one for each note, that can be sounded individually, or together to make chords. Instruments like the guitar or violin use the fingers to lengthen or shorten the lengths of strings, to produce different pitches. You can try with this imaginary one-stringed, four-fret guitar. Just click on a fret to see how it affects the pitch.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Benjamin Hollis.

How Percussion Instruments Work

A guitar, a violin, and a shamisen.

Percussion instruments are the simplest, and most primitive musical instruments. The easiest definition of a percussion instrument is something that produces a sound through being struck. Percussion instruments are usually rythm or accent instruments, although instruments like bells, xylophone, or glockenspiel can play melodies. Since they are so simple, percussion instuments are extremely varied – from symbols and maracas to normal drums and vibraphones. A symphony orchestra usually has many different percussion instruments for each piece played.

Making Sound

Percussion instruments make sound by being hit. Drums have a hollow body that amplifies the noise of a stretched membrane being hit. Some instruments are shaken, like the maracas. Others resonate when hit, like bells. Yet others, like cymbals, just plain make a noise when they’re hit. Percussion instruments can even be odd things like ratchets or castanets.

Playing Different Notes

While different notes are not usually played on percussion instruments, drums are usually tuned to a specific note. They are tuned by tightening or loosening the head of the drum. The tighter the drum, the higher the note. Some drums are also arranged so different pitches can be played. The larger the drum, the lower the pitch. You can try this out with the four tom-toms below. Just click a drum to hear it. Note that bigger drums are lower than smaller ones.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Benjamin Hollis.

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