Instruments vary in sound and general tone, depending on the materials they are made with, their shape, size, slight model variations, and most importantly – the instrumentalist.
In attempting to describe the various notes that come from the most common instruments, we have covered 43 instruments (String, Wind, Brass, Keyboard, Percussion) and gathered the opinions of instrument players, teachers, sellers, and experts alike to find how one might describe the expected sounds!
In this guide, I will cover the following:
- 43 instruments and their sounds
- The musical range of some instruments
- How one might vary the sound of a particular instrument
Let’s get playing!
Thought to be an origin of early 16th century Spain, the acoustic guitar can project rich, delicate, flamenco, under expert fingerpicking.
With a strum, an aggressive attack produces a loud, clear, presence. With unconventional 12-string acoustic guitars, you’re likely to hear jangly vibrations throughout the wooden body.
To add another layer, an electric guitar can be amplified in such a way that it creates a crisper, punchy, and overall more powerful sound, projecting its fuzzy hum, only broken by the occasional tremolo, wah-wah, and distortion.
Compared to the acoustic and electric guitar, bass guitars usually house four to six heavy strings, which, when strummed, throw thick, resonant tones that capture the other components of a song – bringing it together through a guiding bassline.
Strumming a bass guitar can produce sonorous and soft, or dark and throaty sounds, if you use your thumb or a pick, respectively.
A ukulele produces upbeat, cheery sounds due to the higher harmonics that accompany it.
Whereas a guitar may have a more subtle sound, the banjo creates a twangy “popping”, “snappy” sound that jumps right out at you.
A gentle touch on the strings create a soft, lilting melody that can quickly carry a large distance when the pressure is increased to a strong attack.
Lighter than the tones of an acoustic guitar, the mandolin embodies a woody, chirpy sound, higher in pitch and “glittering” quickly around – producing a tremolo that accompanies the other band instruments.
The viola resembles the violin, differing in size of the instrument body and its strings (both are larger in size).
From a deep, dark and melancholy timbre at C3, to the brighter, sharp, nasal sounds at A4 expressing sentiment and pain, the viola matches other orchestral instruments beautifully.
At the lowest end, with the C string, the cello bellows with a commanding depth, then the D string produces silky, smooth sounds. Finally, at the highest end, the A string brings forth an energetic and shrill note.
The double bass provides the fundamental bass through the mighty, broad-reaching dark tones and sonorous timbre.
Ranging from Cb1 to F#7 (Gb7), the harp delivers melodic arpeggios that glitter and drift to fill a room.
The lower register emits full-bodied, middle register, velvety and harmonious, while the upper register projects brief, delicate bites, wafting through.
When a sitar has the Khullā (open) style Jawāri – the vibrations of strings on the curved bridge – the sitar has been described as a vibrant, loud, buzzing.
A Bandha (closed) Jawāri sitar creates a warm, but dull sound with no buzz.
At the low register, the notes sound hollow, but rich and haunting; the middle register offers graceful, airy sounds.
Lastly, the upper register can produce open, piercing shrills.
The clarinet can sound serious and gloomy, as well as light-hearted and comical. The siren songs a clarinet produces come from a “glissando”.
When it comes to clarinet playing styles, the German style reflects an “old-fashioned church organ” note, and the Oriental style produces a soulful and emotional ‘voice’.
The Roman countries play the clarinet for jumpy, sharper sounds, while the English and US-American clarinet sounds rounded and bodied.
There are four saxophone types: the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, each with a distinct range.
The soprano saxophone sends out a softer, warm, nasal sound; the alto saxophone can be considered “boxy”.
The tenor saxophone has been regarded “more reedy than the trombone and more gutsy than the cello”, closer to the bass oboe.
Finally, with a resonant vibrato, the baritone saxophone can mimic a bassoon, and without the edgy and expressive trombone or clarinet.
Distinct in an orchestra, the oboe ranges from Bb3 to G6 (A6), differing between the Viennese and French oboe.
The notes of an oboe gather in thickness the lower the register, propelling a spirited, reedy expression from the middle register – the most common area used.
Versatile in sound, the oboe is thought to mediate the orchestra, confidently sweeping an audience to the next movement.
This changes again in the upper register where distressed sounds can seem “squeezed” and push through a sensitive and attentive character.
The recorder has a sweet, melodic whistling that sparkles with legato and staccato techniques.
Quieter and with a simpler tone than a flute, the recorder has a chirpy tone that varies between the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sizes.
Half the size of a concert flute, the piccolo ranges from D5-C8, an octave higher than the flute.
When played piano, the piccolo can portray a charming sweetness, juxtaposed with the harsh shrieks cutting the air as one plays the piccolo forte.
A piccolo’s low register is dampened and hollow, whereas its middle register can imitate sing-song bird cries, and the upper register is intense and harsh.
The English horn has a range from E3 to A5 (B5) and the sound is produced by the same principles of an oboe, sending out a full, more impressive, and persuasive sound.
In the lower register, the English horn is mellow and comforting; in the middle register, the English horn can depict melancholy, or contrastingly, light merriment; in the upper register, the notes sting, and cut the air.
The voice of a French horn is one that is endearing and silky, bringing together woodwind and brasswind instruments.
On the one hand, a French horn can be described as bold, bright, and adventurous, and on the other hand, it is full and glossy.
The trumpet’s sound can be heard as “metallic, bright, intense, brilliant, powerful, and stately”.
Though generally perceived as harsh and loud, the trumpet can be thought of as mellow, compared to other brass instruments.
As with the trumpet, the trombone also generates a brassy, strong, grounded, and dramatic tone. The five types of trombones are: bass, alto, soprano, tenor, and contrabass – all subtly distinct in their sound.
The bass trombone is satiny and jazzy, while the alto trombone is brighter, lighter, and more trumpet-like.
he soprano trombone produces the highest pitch, resembling an “angry wasp and a person yelling”; the tenor trombone is silky and soars; and the contrabass is known to sound dramatic and compelling!
The three tubas are the contrabass tuba with the lowest pitch; the baritone horn, with the range covered also by a trombone.
Finally, there’s the euphonium (or tenor tuba), which is able to play a higher range similar to that of a bass trombone to produce a smooth, “dark, rich, warm, and velvety” tune.
The bagpipes are an instrument that appears to evoke a strong emotional response in teary-eyed listeners, as the soulful epic reaches their ears.
There are over 30 varying bagpipe types globally, which all have unique attributes. The Scottish bagpipes, for example, are bossy and boisterous, while Irish bagpipes are gentle and temperate.
Thought to emulate the calls of a dingo or kookaburra, the didgeridoo is unique in that where it may lack in the variation of notes, it definitely doesn’t lack in rhythmic diversity and overall sound.
Interestingly, a didgeridoo made by a smooth bore produces flat, ‘pure’ notes that are less appealing to the human ear, while the irregular bore created by termites will spit out ‘full’, resonant notes one can feel.
A piano can be thought of as having a palatable bright, mellow, colorful, even, and large presence.
The ‘gold standard’ of the elegant sound we can expect from a piano is one that is clear, only used to define a piano piece that features Ideal Sustain and complex tones.
Electric keyboard and Synthesizer
Polyphony and multitimbrality are possible, and the tonal character adjusts to the pressure applied to a key – subtle with slight pressure, and brilliant when the key is pressed with some force.
Various effects applied on an electric keyboard can generate funky, layered, distorted, “electric”, and synthetic, sounds.
The synthesizer itself has the ability to imitate any other instrument, and can appear to generate quirky, silvery, and groovy sounds.
Take a look at some of the best keyboards for beginners here!
Organs can be heard as an amalgamation of “smashing glass”, “seaweed on a gently-ebbing tide”, “balls of fluff with spikes sticking out of it”, and “a blazing (or fiery) trumpet”.
The largest pipe billows out a low rumble, while other pipes can impersonate the sounds of a brass band, obnoxious tuba, snappy and playful trumpets, and an ensemble of orchestra instruments.
With a thwack, snares can be described as tight, crackly, snappy, and metallic. Bass drums can bounce with a boom, thud, or slap; hi-hats can come across as a tinny, sudden chime; cymbals can be clangy, glassy, or pingy, with a lingering shimmer.
There are even electronic drum kits!
A common member in a drum set-up, cymbals have their own sounds and these can be described as bright, smoky, gong-like, splashy, live, trashy (where the harmonic profile sounds similar to white noise), clangy, and thin (in the sense of a light, tinny sound).
Many are familiar with the rattling and jingling of a tambourine, absent of any following resonance – since the head is held tightly.
Characteristic of gypsies and angels, the tambourine lends a brilliant festive spirit, accompanying any tune or serving as its own.
Maracas can be identified by their shaky, sandy, clumsy rattling when you shake them. When hit by a hand, maracas can make a bang.
Whereas when shaken back and forth, they give the glimmery and grainy, expressive sound we are accustomed to.
The triangle can be described as sounding “metallic, resonant, and bright”, adding an element of excitement and jest to any piece of music.
The salient ringing of a triangle pierces any accompanying music, owing its distinct sound to the difference in the quality of tone by changing how it’s struck.
A xylophone ranges from F4 to F8 and releases a decisive, sharp, and bright timbre with each strike of the mallet.
Naturally, a xylophone will be described as sounding wooden, as well as accentuated, bubbling, incisive, ticking, and bouncy.
The mallet used to thump a xylophone can differ in diameter and hardness, creating a dichotomy of superficial, harsh cries, and darker, hushed, yet still distinct, notes.
While the marimba and xylophone can look identical, the marimba produces soft tones and is tuned differently.
The vibraphone ranges from three to three and a half octaves, sending oscillating and pulsating sounds through a room.
The set of fans in the pipe tone holes can spin, creating a vibraphone-specific resonating sound.
The vibraphone also has a pedal and using it elicits a reverberance like a piano, whereas disuse can bring forth sudden, dry staccato.
The timpani has various ranges of pitch depending on the diameter, but generally, their range reaches B1 to C4.
Timpani are struck by mallets that can be of wood, cork, flannel, or hard felt. The cork mallet generates a dark sound while using wood mallets results in more definite, clear notes.
The ideal sound from a bongo is a “lively pop”.
To change the sound of the bongos, you can switch the strike with three fingers for a heaviness that is faint with only one, or slap more aggressively to prompt a snare drum snap. Bongos will cut through instrumentals boldly and confidently – creating a perky and exuberant atmosphere.
Congas are larger than bongos and as expected, have a larger depth and lower, vibrant tone. Congas are gentler and blend with other instruments, typically carrying its accompaniments.
Owing to the thin goatskin that drapes the head of the djembe drum, the discernible sound produced is a quick high-pitch tone, interspersed with crisp, swift slaps.
The three main sounds – the bass, tone, and slap – allow a djembe to embody a weighty echo with the bass, “like purring” with the tone, and “fire” with the slap.
Similar to other drums, the Cajon allows variation in sound via movement of the hands around the different sections of the box.
The edges provide a higher, clearer tone, while the center gives a lower, woody pitch, similar to a bass drum.
Each instrument features unique sounds that separate it from a symphony or band of other instruments.
Where some are in nature loud and aggressive, others are more subtle and require solo parts or variation in playing style to truly shine.
Overall, an instrument’s sound can be altered to some degree through the technique or composition of an instrument – down to its core materials!