A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make musical sounds. In principle any object that produces sound can be a musical instrument – it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument. The history of musical instruments dates to the beginnings of human culture. Early musical instruments may have been used for rituals: such as a trumpet to signal success on the hunt, or a drum in a religious ceremony. Cultures eventually developed composition and performance of melodies for entertainment.
The date and origin of the first device considered a musical instrument is disputed. The oldest object that some scholars refer to as a musical instrument, a simple flute, dates back as far as 67,000 years. Some consensus dates early flutes to about 37,000 years ago.
Musical instruments are also often classified by their musical range in comparison with other instruments in the same family. These terms are named after singing voice classifications:
- Soprano instruments: flute, violin,soprano saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, oboe, piccolo
- Alto instruments: alto saxophone, french horn, english horn, viola, alto horn
- Tenor instruments: trombone, tenor saxophone, guitar, tenor drum
- Baritone instruments: bassoon, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, cello, baritone horn
- Bass instruments: double bass, bass guitar, bass saxophone, tuba, bass drum
Some instruments fall into more than one category: for example, the cello may be considered tenor, baritone or bass, depending on how its music fits into the ensemble, and the trombone may be alto, tenor, baritone, or bass and the French horn, bass, baritone, tenor, or alto, depending on the range it is played in. Many instruments have their range as part of their name: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone horn, alto flute, bass guitar, etc. Additional adjectives describe instruments above the soprano range or below the bass, for example: sopranino saxophone, contrabass clarinet. When used in the name of an instrument, these terms are relative, describing the instrument’s range in comparison to other instruments of its family and not in comparison to the human voice range or instruments of other families.
Musical instrument construction is a specialized trade that requires years of training, practice, and sometimes an apprenticeship. Most makers of musical instruments specialize in one genre of instruments; for example, a luthier makes only stringed instruments. Some make only one type of instrument such as a piano. Whatever the instrument constructed, the instrument maker must consider materials, construction technique, and decoration, creating a balanced instrument that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Some makers are focused on a more artistic approach and develop experimental musical instruments, often meant for individual playing styles developed by the maker himself.