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What Are the Five General Groups of Musical Instruments?

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Western musical instruments can be classified into five broad categories: strings, woodwinds, percussion, keyboards and brass. Depending on the type of music being played, one type of instrument will be more or less prominent than other types. For instance, a jazz band may have more brass and percussion, while a classical orchestra may have many more strings.


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Strings are instruments such as violin, guitar, harp and bass. They are played either by strumming or plucking the strings with the fingers, which is the case for guitars and harps, or by gliding a bow across the strings, for violins and cellos. In the case of a stand-up (or acoustic bass), all three methods may be used to play the instrument.


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Woodwinds are instruments such as bassoons and oboes. They are played by blowing air into a reed, which is attached by a wind pipe to the instrument, which has valves situated along its length to regulate the flow of air. Woodwinds are constructed of wood, which gives them a distinct sound.


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The most commonly known form of percussion instruments are drums. However, triangles and cymbals are also considered to be percussion instruments. Percussion instruments are struck with drumsticks or the flat palm of the hand to produce sound. Cymbals are struck against one another to produce sound, or they can be struck with a drumstick, or brushed with a percussion brush.


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The most common forms of keyboards are pianos and organs. However, a harpsichord, an instrument dating from the middle ages, is also considered a keyboard instrument. Electronic keyboards are often used in modern jazz, contemporary, classical and other forms of music.


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Brass instruments take their name from the material most often used to make them. Trumpets and saxophones are common examples of brass instruments. Sometimes brass and woodwinds are classified together as wind instruments; however, the playing technique is different. While both woodwinds and brass are played by blowing air into the instrument, brass instruments do not use reeds, although saxophones may have shaped mouthpieces attached to the end of the instrument.

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