When someone is ready to dive into the world of music, the first step is picking which band instruments to learn. While there are plenty of musicians out there who can play two, three, or even more different musical instruments, it’s definitely easier for budding players to start with just one.
Once you’ve determined that you’re born to be a musician, you now need to decide what kind of musician you will be. Different instruments have different levels of difficulty and different personalities. Some instruments can easily be a standalone performer, while others do better in a band.
Before you commit to your first instrument, use this guide to find out which one best suits your commitment level, budget, and musical personality.
Why Play Band Instruments?
Whether you’re starting as a novice musician at nine- or 99-years-old, the benefits of taking to an instrument are extensive.
On the childhood level, getting involved in band is great for developing minds. Learning to play an instrument helps with patience, memory, and hand-eye coordination. Playing an instrument doesn’t come with nearly as many risks as school athletics do, and while being a singer is a natural-born talent, any child can learn to play an instrument with enough dedication.
Adults who take up the piano, clarinet, guitar, or whatever their instrument of choice will also see improvement in their memory, especially pre-dementia patients and the elderly. It’s a great hobby for the retired that keeps the hands mobile and limber.
Are Instruments Expensive?
While this generally varies greatly depending on the instrument you choose, the answer is often, unfortunately, yes. Most professional-level instruments have a price tag high enough that it thwarts interested musicians from ever starting up the hobby.
The good news is that there are a lot of rental and leasing options available from music stores and schools, which makes becoming a musician much more affordable, especially if you’re new and aren’t sure you’re going to love it yet.
All in all, there are countless reasons to learn how to play an instrument, and… well, we will get back to you when we think of a reason not to!
The Types of Band Instruments
Before you hone in on the perfect musical instrument for you, you’ll first want to pick a musical class. The majority of all band instruments fall into these categories: strings, wind, brass, and percussion.
While some consider other categories, including keyboards and guitars, to also be valid classifications, we will stick with these basic four for now.
Simply put, a string instrument is one whose sound is made by the musician causing the strings to vibrate. This can be done with a bow, a pick, or with the fingers. Strategically played, the strings release their different tones in rhythm to create music.
A brass instrument is, not surprisingly, one that is made out of brass. Its signature resonating sound is made by forcing air through pursed lips into a metal mouthpiece. The combination of the vibrating lips and the air traveling through the instrument’s metal tubing creates the sound, and manipulation of its valves creates the tones and music.
This classification is commonly referred to as reed instruments, because the classic wood instrument sound is produced by blowing air across a reed (a thin piece of wood that vibrates when the player’s breath is forced across it). Musicians can choose different sizes and rigidities of the reeds for their own playing comfort, and the sound is influenced by covering and uncovering holes on the instrument’s body.
When an instrument must be struck, scraped, or tapped by sticks, beaters, or the player’s hands, that makes the instrument a member of the percussion family. Percussion instruments are often considered the pacesetters of a band, and other instruments follow the pace and rhythm set by the beat of the percussion instrument.
Which String Instrument Should You Pick?
If you’ve decided that the string family—which is considered a staple in the band instruments that make up a symphony or orchestra—is right for you, you now need to pick a member of the string class.
- The violin is the most petite member of the string family, making it the most mobile and the most popular. This option can be easily transported on subways, through crowded hallways, and carried by hand. It is also the highest in pitch, and is known for its warbling, almost mournful-sounding octaves. The violin can be played sitting or standing, with the end tucked under the chin for stability.
- The viola is the violin’s slightly larger cousin, with a familiar sound that’s just a little more deep and throaty in tone. If you’re looking for a more sombre-sounding instrument than the violin, but still value its mobility, the viola is a perfect choice for you, since it can still be easily transported. This instrument can be played sitting or standing, too, based on the musician’s personal preference.
- The cello is the next step as we move down the octaves in the string family. It’s quite a bit bigger and heavier than the viola and violin, and is understandably a much deeper and resonating sound. If you want to play a string instrument that can fill a room with large sound, the cello is a great choice. While it can only be played in the sitting position, this instrument comes in many different sizes to accommodate players of different ages and heights.
- The string bass is our final stop in the string family. As the largest in size and lowest in tone, this deep-voiced and rich-sounding instrument is definitely the forceful undercurrent of the string instrument family. Similar to the cello, this option can only be played in the sitting position, and its size and weight make transport of this instrument difficult.
Picking a Brass Instrument for Beginners
Are you partial to Taps, the famous military trumpet solo? Or, are you a fan of the boisterous brassy sounds of swing jazz? If so, an instrument from the brass family would be perfect for you.
- The peppiest and smallest in stature of the brass classification is the trumpet. (Technically, even smaller yet is the coronet, but the differences between these two band instruments are so slight that beginners need not worry about differentiating them.) When you hear that signature light, robust brass sound, you are most likely listening to a trumpet player. Its size and heft make it perfect for travel and street play, too.
- If you’re looking for a more somber and deep sound than the trumpet offers, its larger and more fickle relative the French horn may be a better option for you. While some users complain that this instrument is more awkward to hold and certainly more difficult to learn and master, the sound that this horn can produce is well worth it. While this option can be played in the standing or sitting position, smaller users may find the instrument gets too heavy after extending holding, and may stick to sitting or using a support strap.
- Many musicians are drawn to the versatile, moderately toned sounds of the trombone. This is a nicely balanced instrument with a unique feature that sets it apart from others: rather than producing notes with valves or keys, the player must move a slide to change the pitch.
- At the lowest end of the brass pitch scale we find the tuba (and its closely similar sibling the sousaphone). This large, stationary instrument has a resonating and full-bodied sound that is distinguishable among all the band instruments for its depth.
Exploring the Wind Instruments
The wind family is often considered the leads of the band instruments. This diverse classification usually plays the chorus of an ensemble, with the other classifications supporting them. Here are a few popular wind instrument options.
- The soprano of the wind family is the flute, which is a slim, cylindrical instrument that produces a high, lilting, melodious sound. It can probably be considered the most mobile of all the musical instruments out there, outside of pocket-sized options like the harmonica. A flute, even in its case, can be slipped easily into a shoulder bag, backpack, or locker. If you’re curious about even higher pitched sounds than the flute can offer, look into its petite cousin, the piccolo.
- The clarinet is arguably one of the most beginner-friendly instruments out there, since its notes and scales are easy to use and doesn’t need a strong sense of pitch. This instrument’s octave ranges from warbling and high down to resonating and throaty, making it a fun instrument to explore for soloists who want to envelope several different sounds in one instrument. While this wind option is also portable, most cases require it to be disassembled into segments for convenient travel. If you want to explore a deeper sound that still uses the clarinet voice, consider its bigger sibling, the bass clarinet.
- As a beginner-level musician, the oboe may look like a strange version of the clarinet to you, but it truly holds its own with its uniqueness. Where the clarient and other wind instrument uses one reed, the oboe uses two, which completely transforms its sound. If you want to stand out in a symphony, the oboe is the way to go.
- The saxophone is the largest and heftiest of the wind family, and many musicians argue that it’s the most essential. As a staple in many styles of music from jazz to marching band, the saxophone has many varieties, including tenor and alto, so you can explore several options. The saxophone is a lively and wide-ranged instrument that can add to a band or captivate a crowd on its own.
The World of Percussion Instruments
There’s a reason that percussion instruments are considered the heartbeat of music. Without this family, it would be extremely difficult to set the rhythm for a song. If none of the above classifications have appealed to you, you may enjoy being a percussionist.
- The drums are notably the most popular instruments that come to mind when thinking of percussion. Drums—of which there are a multitude of shapes, sizes, and tones—are technically called membranophones, because their sounds are made by striking a thinly stretched membrane. The vibrations from that motion, in turn, resonate throughout the shell of the drum. Drums can be used by themselves, but most drummers use a drum set. A set contains different sizes of drums, like snare and bass, to create a variety of percussion sounds.
- The piano is a beloved instrument to many musicians. It can put on a stunning performance all on its own or act as the backbone in a band. Definitely the largest and heaviest instrument out there, this is a stationary instrument, unless you consider reduced options like the keyboard. While many pianists have a deep love and passion for their practice, you may want to give your interest in the piano a lot of consideration before you commit to it. Mastering this instrument takes years for most people, it’s sheer size and weight makes it an ordeal to move, it’s sensitive to needing tune-ups and professional servicing, and there generally aren’t a whole lot of leasing or renting options out there.
- Last, but certainly not least, there are a multitude of accessory percussion instruments to choose from, which add accents and variety to music. While these instruments generally don’t require intensive lessons or practice, consider adding a tambourine, the bells, cymbals, or the cowbell to your musical collection.
After You’ve Picked Your Instrument
Now that you’ve picked the instrument that’s right for you, it’s time to dedicate yourself to a learning plan. Mastering music takes a lot of time and commitment, so make sure to explore all of the training options before you pick one.
From professional face-to-face lessons to self-guided learning with books and videos, to joining a music class at your local community college, there are lots of paths you can take to suit your lifestyle. With plenty of practice and hard work, you’re on your way to being a regular Beethoven!