Introduction to Instruments of the World | Music Arts Toolkit
Ethnomusicologist Gregory Acker introduces students to the four families of world instruments—idiophones, chordophones, membranophones, and aerophones—and shows a variety of instruments, including handmade versions.
There are many different kinds of musical instruments used around the world. In general, instruments are divided into four groups based on how they make sound.
Idiophones are instruments that vibrate without the use of strings or membranes. “Idio” means “self” and “phone” means sounds, so idiophones are “self-sounders.” That means the basic material of the instrument vibrates and makes sound when it is shaken, hit, stamped against the ground or a hard surface, scraped, or plucked. Xylophones are an example of an idiophone. In the segment, Gregory Acker begins by showing a xylophone from Ghana and then shows a homemade instrument made of 2 by 4s cut to varying lengths and attached to foam bases. He then demonstrates how a bar or tube vibrates. He also shows homemade gamelan instruments and thumb pianos. Other examples of xylophones are bells, shakers, triangles, gongs, jaw harps, and woodblocks.
Chordophones are instruments in which the sound is made by the vibration of strings. Chordophones range from simple musical bows to the violin and piano. In the segment, Acker shows a sitar from India. Then he demonstrates a variety of homemade instruments, including a homemade tromba marina (based on a Medieval instrument) and a variety of instruments made using driftwood, including a drift-tar and a driftwood koto. He shows students how to make a chordophone using rubber bands, a box, and a pencil and a cardboard dulcimer.
Membranophones are instruments in which the sound is made by the vibration that results from striking a stretched membrane, skin, or surface. Drums are the most familiar type of membranophones. This category also includes mirlitons—instruments in which the membrane modifies a sound made in some other way, such as a kazoo or a comb covered with paper. In the segment, Acker plays both homemade and authentic African drums. Then he shows how to make simple drums using a plastic bucket or a coffee can and how to achieve a “talking drum effect” by adding water to the coffee can and tilting the can as you strike it.
Aerophones are instruments that make sound as air moves in a tube or across a sharp edge. Aerophones include flutes; reed instruments such as the clarinet, oboe, and saxophone; instruments with cup mouthpieces such as trumpets and horns, and “free aerophones.” In a “free aerophone,” there is no enclosed column of air that vibrates. Instead, the air vibrates around the instrument as it travels through the air, as in a bullroarer. In the segment, Acker demonstrates a didgeridoo and a variety of homemade and non-homemade flutes and recorders, including an Hawaiian nose flute, a Choctaw flute, and a bamboo flute from Indonesia. He shows how to make a bullroarer using a paint stick and string.
1. Use this resource as part of a study of world instruments and instrument families.
2. Use this resource as part of a science unit on sound.
3. Have students explore making music with items not originally intended to be used as instruments. (You might also show the segment The Junkman.)
4. Have students make their own instruments following Acker’s instructions and perform rhythms of music singly and in groups using their instruments.
5. In groups or individually, have students choose or assign them a country and have them research instruments commonly used in that country’s music. Create class charts grouping the instruments by the family to which they belong.
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