Musical Instruments of the World

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11256

Where can you take didgeridoo lessons or learn jibara technique? Instruments and music tell us a lot about cultures. Sample some "different" instruments, and create a musical passport as a project!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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You are familiar, of course, with the trumpet, the guitar, the kettle drum, and the harmonica. There are probably many instruments, though, that you've never heard of before. Take a look at this instrument, courtesy of ebay.

  • Do you know what this is?
  • What does it look like it's made from?
  • What do you think it sounds like?

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Ethnomusicologists (wow, that's a seven-syllable word) travel the world to collect musical instruments, artifacts, and recordings. Let's practice some of the basic concepts they use, then take a virtual tour of the world of musical instruments!

Musical instruments are the tools people create to make music.

Really, anything that makes sound can be considered a musical instrument. That table near you could make a fine drum, for instance. The experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen once famously composed a musical piece for helicopters, Karlheinz Stockhausen "Helicopter String Quartet" (below):

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Most cultures have devised traditional instruments, each instrument with its own special timbre or sound, and with its own refined techniques of play.

The tried-and-true method of classifying musical instruments is to group them according to the four traditional families of instruments found in an orchestra: woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion.

Can you write down two or three instruments found in each of those categories? Share your thoughts and discuss with a parent or teacher:

  • What features cause instruments to be grouped into each category?
  • What instruments can you think of that don't fit into any of these categories?

Ethnomusicologists, the scholars who study the music of the world, have come up with different ways to classify musical instruments. Each classification system has focused on different traits to form instrument families, and some have tried to group instruments that didn't seem to fit the old system.

Read the article, Classifying Musical Instruments, retrieved from Write down each of the five classifications and take notes to answer these questions:

  • What traits characterize each instrument group?
  • What is an example of each?

Share your list of musical instrument categories with a parent or teacher. Reflect on the following questions and discuss:

  • Can you think of other instruments that fit into each category?
  • How is this classification system different from the four-family system of woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion?
  • Why is it useful to group instruments at all?

Musical instruments are extraordinary cultural artifacts: they not only express their own unique sounds, they have their own visual beauty, like small works of art.

For many cultures in the world, musical instruments are a part of identity, and their sound becomes the sound of a people.

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