Musical Instruments: History And Types Of Instruments

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 23, 2022

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An instrument is a tool used by musicians to make music. It can be as simple as a wooden stick used to hit something to create sound, or as complicated as a piano. Anything that is used to make music can be called an instrument.

In music, an instrument is a musical tool used to make musical sounds. Instruments can be played by musicians and musical instruments can be played by performing musicians or musical groups. The term “musical instrument” can also be used to make a distinction between the actual sound-making device (e.g., a flute) and the musician who plays it (e.g., a flautist).

In this article, I’ll explore what that means and share examples of different types of instruments.

What is an instrument

Musical Instruments


A musical instrument is any object used to make sweet music! Whether it’s a shell, a plant, or a bone flute, if it can make a sound, it’s a musical instrument.

Basic Operation

  • To make music with a musical instrument, you gotta get interactive! Strum a string, bang a drum, or blow into a horn – whatever it takes to make sweet music.
  • You don’t need to be a musical genius to make music with a musical instrument. All you need is a bit of creativity and the will to make some noise!
  • Musical instruments come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be made from all sorts of materials. From shells to plant parts, if it can make a sound, it can be a musical instrument!
  • Don’t worry if you don’t know the modern notion of “making music” – just make some noise and have fun!

Archaeological Evidence of Musical Instruments

Divje Babe Flute

Back in 1995, Ivan Turk was just a regular ol’ Slovenian archaeologist, minding his own business, when he stumbled upon a bone carving that would change the world forever. This bone carving, now known as the Divje Babe Flute, had four holes that could be used to play four notes of a diatonic scale. Scientists estimated that the flute was between 43,400 and 67,000 years old, making it the oldest known musical instrument and the only one associated with Neanderthals. Some archaeologists and ethnomusicologists, however, weren’t convinced.

Mammoth and Swan Bone Flutes

German archaeologists weren’t gonna be outdone by their Slovenian counterparts, so they went searching for their own ancient musical instruments. And they found ’em! Mammoth bone and swan bone flutes, to be exact. These flutes were dated back to 30,000 to 37,000 years old, and were much more widely accepted as being the oldest known musical instruments.

The Lyres of Ur

In the 1920s, Leonard Woolley was digging around in the Royal Cemetery in the Sumerian city of Ur, when he stumbled upon a treasure trove of musical instruments. This included nine lyres (the Lyres of Ur), two harps, a silver double flute, a sistrum and cymbals. There was also a set of reed-sounded silver pipes, which is believed to be the predecessor of the modern bagpipe. All of these instruments were carbon-dated to between 2600 and 2500 BC, so it’s safe to say they were used in Sumeria by then.

Bone Flutes in China

Archaeologists in the Jiahu site of central Henan province of China found flutes made of bones that were estimated to be 7,000 to 9,000 years old. These flutes were some of the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated, multinote musical instruments ever discovered.

A Brief History of Musical Instruments

Ancient Times

  • Ancient folks were pretty crafty when it came to making music, using rattles, stampers, and drums to get the job done.
  • It wasn’t until later that they figured out how to make melody with instruments, starting with two stamping tubes of different sizes.
  • Eventually, they moved on to ribbon reeds, flutes, and trumpets, which were labeled for their function rather than their appearance.
  • Drums were especially important in many African cultures, with some tribes believing them to be so holy that only the sultan could look upon them.

Modern Times

  • Musicologists and musical ethnologists have tried to figure out the exact chronology of musical instruments, but it’s a tricky business.
  • Comparing and organizing instruments based on their complexity is misleading, since advancements in musical instruments have sometimes reduced complexity.
  • Ordering instruments by geography is also not reliable, as it can’t always be determined when and how cultures shared knowledge.
  • Modern music histories rely on archaeological artifacts, artistic depictions, and literary references to determine the order of musical instrument development.

Classifying Musical Instruments

Hornbostel-Sachs System

  • The Hornbostel-Sachs system is the only classification system that applies to any culture and provides the only possible classification for each instrument.
  • It divides instruments into four main groups:

– Idiophones: Instruments that produce sound by vibrating the primary body of the instrument itself, such as claves, xylophone, guiro, slit drum, mbira, and rattle.
– Membranophones: Instruments that produce sound by a vibrating a stretched membrane, such as drums and kazoos.
– Chordophones: Instruments that produce sound by vibrating one or more strings, such as zithers, lutes, and guitars.
– Aerophones: Instruments that produce a sound with a vibrating column of air, such as bullroarers, whips, flutes, recorders, and reed instruments.

Other Classification Systems

  • Ancient Hindu system named the Natya Shastra divided instruments into four main groups:

– Instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating strings.
– Percussion instruments with skin heads.
– Instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating columns of air.
– “Solid”, or non-skin, percussion instruments.

  • 12th-century Europe by Johannes de Muris divided instruments into three groups:

– Tensibilia (stringed instruments).
– Inflatibilia (wind instruments).
– Percussibilia (all percussion instruments).

  • Victor-Charles Mahillon adapted the Natya Shastra and assigned Greek labels to the four classifications:

– Chordophones (stringed instruments).
– Membranophones (skin-head percussion instruments).
– Aerophones (wind instruments).
– Autophones (non-skin percussion instruments).

Musical Instrument Players

What is an Instrumentalist?

An instrumentalist is someone who plays a musical instrument. This could be a guitarist, pianist, bassist, or drummer. Instrumentalists can come together to form a band and make some sweet tunes!

The Life of an Instrumentalist

Being an instrumentalist is no easy feat. Here’s what you can expect:

  • You’ll be spending a lot of time practicing. Hours and hours of practice!
  • You may only be performing for a few hours a day, but you’ll be spending a lot of time preparing for those performances.
  • You’ll need to be a multi-instrumentalist if you want to make it big.
  • You’ll need to be prepared to travel. You’ll be going to lots of different places to perform.
  • You’ll need to be prepared to work hard and stay focused. It’s not all fun and games!

Uses of Musical Instruments

Historical Uses

  • Musical instruments have been around since the dawn of time, and have been used for a variety of purposes, like entertaining concert audiences, accompanying dances, rituals, work, and even medicine.
  • In the Old Testament, there are plenty of references to instruments being used in Jewish worship, until they were excluded for doctrinal reasons.
  • Early Christians in the eastern Mediterranean also used instruments in their services, but it was frowned upon by ecclesiastics.
  • Instruments are still banned in some places, like Islamic mosques, traditional Eastern Orthodox churches, etc.
  • However, in other places, instruments play an important role in rituals, like in Buddhist cultures, where bells and drums are used in religious ceremonies.

Magical Properties

  • Many cultures believe in the magical properties of instruments.
  • For example, the Jewish shofar (a ram’s horn) is still blown on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and it’s said that when Joshua blew the shofar seven times at the siege of Jericho, the walls of the city fell flat.
  • In India, it’s said that when Krishna played the flute, the rivers stopped flowing and the birds came down to listen.
  • In 14th century Italy, it’s said that the same thing happened when Francesco Landini played his organetto.
  • In China, instruments were associated with the points of the compass, the seasons, and natural phenomena.
  • The Melanesian bamboo flute was believed to have the power to bring people back to life.

Medieval Europe

  • Many instruments used in medieval Europe came from western Asia, and they still had some of their original symbolism.
  • Trumpets, for example, were associated with military operations, and were also used to establish kings and nobles, and were seen as a sign of nobility.
  • Kettledrums (originally called nakers) were often played on horseback, and are still used in some mounted regiments.
  • Trumpet fanfares, which are still heard on ceremonial occasions, are a remnant of medieval practice.

Types of Musical Instruments

Wind Instruments

These babies make music by blowing air through them. Think trumpets, clarinets, bagpipes and flutes. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Brass: Trumpets, trombones, tubas, etc.
  • Woodwind: Clarinets, oboes, saxophones, etc.


These instruments make music by plucking lamellas made from different materials. Think Mbira.

Percussion Instruments

These bad boys make music by being struck. Think drums, bells and cymbals.

String Instruments

These instruments make music by being plucked, strummed, slapped, etc. Think guitars, violins and sitars.


This one’s a no-brainer – the human voice! Singers make music by airflow from the lungs setting the vocal cords into oscillation.

Electronic Instruments

These instruments make music through electronic means. Think synthesizers and theremins.

Keyboard Instruments

These instruments are played with a musical keyboard. Think pianos, organs, harpsichords and synthesizers. Even instruments that don’t usually have a keyboard, like the Glockenspiel, can be keyboard instruments.


In conclusion, musical instruments are a great way to create music and express yourself. From primitive instruments made from found objects to modern instruments made from high-quality materials, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, don’t be afraid to explore the world of music and find the instrument that’s right for you!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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