If you are interested in playing any instrument, there are a lot of things to think about when in comes to ease of access, what genre you will end up playing, and just generally what you would enjoy the most. This post can even help you if you are a parent who is trying to find out what instrument will work best for your child, and you want to consider every possibility. I am going to break everything down into the main instrument categories: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion to provide some more information on what these instruments really do. Let’s get started!
The most common string instruments in an orchestra include the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. They are all known to be played using a bow made with horsehair stretched across wood that is drawn across the strings to create sound.
This is the smallest of all the strings in size and the highest in register. When the orchestra plays as a group, the violin often gets the coveted melody line because of its higher pitch and ability to stand out amongst the lower strings. When looking for solo repertoire on the violin, you will not be disappointed. There has never been a shortage of solo violin music in the history of classical music, and there is plenty of music in various playing levels and genres to choose from.
Suggested Beginner Age: 3+ years old. There are many different violin sizes to accommodate the tiniest of humans. Many great violinists begin at a very young age, and it is not uncommon to see a 3 year old starting violin lessons.
Price: A good quality full-sized starter violin could cost between $200 and $800, but smaller sizes may cost less. Terra Sounds offers rentals for all sizes at $50 for an 8-week period, and we recommend renting until the student is ready for a full-sized instrument.
The viola is very similar to the violin, and it is held in the same position between the shoulder and chin. The viola is slightly larger than the violin, and it is in a slightly lower register. If you are hoping to play in an orchestra, the viola will generally fill in some of the richer melodies between the very low strings and the violin. Solo repertoire has not always been extensive, however there has been a great influx of viola solo music since the 19th and 20th centuries, which makes for some varied and rich music to choose from.
Suggested Beginner Age: 10-12+ years old. Because the viola is similar to the violin, many people choose to switch from the violin to the viola when they get older, because the larger size makes it difficult for a small child to play.
Price: A good quality full sized starter viola could cost between $200 and $800, but smaller sizes may cost less.
The cello is quite different than the violin and the viola because it has a much deeper sound and is held between the legs. The performer must sit in a chair with the cello positioned between the knees and draw the bow horizontally across the strings. The register of the cello is an octave lower than the viola, which gives it a deeper and fuller sound in the orchestra. As a cellist, you can expect to have a good balance of the melody line and the more rhythmic underlying harmonies. Solo music for the cello is very rich and plentiful, the most well known of these being J.S Bach’s Six Cello Suites.
Suggested Beginner Age: 9+ years old. Because of the size of the cello, it would be difficult for a small child to play the instrument.
Price: A good quality student cello will probably cost within the $1000 range, but could cost much more as quality goes up. Beginner students are encouraged to rent until they are ready for a full-sized instrument.
The double bass is the lowest of all the strings, and by far the largest. It can be played sitting on a tall stool or standing with the instrument held up to your side. In choosing the double bass, you will play primarily the rhythmic and deeper toned parts in an orchestra. In terms of solo repertoire, there is a fair amount, but not near the volume of violin solo repertoire. However, if you are interested in playing the double bass, but are not looking to play in a big orchestra, this instrument is very versatile and can be used in jazz improvisation, rock, pop, and many other genres!
Suggested Beginner Age: 12+ years old. While it is possible to get a 1⁄2 sized bass to start out, the double bass will still be quite large for a younger child.
Price: A reasonable beginner upright bass would cost you around $1500.
Woodwind instruments can be similar to string instruments in tone and register, but each type of woodwind creates a very different sound. They are played by blowing into the top of the instrument against a thin piece of wood called a reed (the flute is an exception to this!), and as a whole, they fill melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic roles in the orchestra.
The flute is a wind instrument that you hold to your lips horizontally, and it produces an airy and flowing tone. Many flutists also end up playing the piccolo as well, which is smaller and plays an octave above the flute. They both have the same fingerings, which makes it almost a 2 for 1 deal! The flute, along with many woodwinds, has a lot of opportunities for soloistic sections within symphonies and concertos. There is a good amount of flute solo repertoire to choose from, and you would love this instrument for its gentle tone and melodic abilities.
Suggested Beginner Age: 7+ years old. This age is mostly dependent on whether or not the student’s hands are large enough to span the length of the instrument.
Price: You could probably find a good starter flute between $150 and $300.
The oboe is a double reed instrument typically made out of wood that has a very unique and bright sound. The oboe reed is very important in creating a clear sound, and having a few good ones in your collection is essential for achieving the desired sound. There are plenty of well-known symphonies that contain beautiful oboe solos, and a fair amount of oboe sonatas and concertos to choose from for the soloist. For further research, you could hear the unique sound of the oboe in Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”!
Suggested Beginner Age: 11+ years old. It is important that the student’s hands are big enough to take on the proper position and the front adult teeth are well formed.
Price: A good starter oboe could fall anywhere between $600 and $1500.
The clarinet is a single reed instrument that has a very mellow sound, and is sometimes considered “the viola of the winds” because of their similar registers and tone. It looks very similar to the oboe at first glance, and it made from similar materials. Although there are a few different clarinets in the family, the most common is the B-flat clarinet, but you may also take up the A clarinet in your journey as well. In an orchestra, there are typically 2 clarinetists, though it is an incredibly versatile instrument to play - concert bands, marching bands, and symphony orchestras all require a clarinetist, and it is widely used as a solo instrument in classical music, jazz, klezmer, and other styles.
Suggested Beginner Age: 11+ years old. Similar to the oboe, it is important that the student’s adult front teeth are well formed, and hands are big enough to handle the instrument.
Price: $600-$1000 is a good starting price range for a decent student clarinet, and we recommend going with the best option from a well-known brand (Buffet, Yamaha, Selmer, etc) that you can afford. Rental options are available as well throughout the Chicagoland area.
The bassoon is a double reed instrument, and is the largest of these woodwinds with a very low and hollow sound. It is formed from a long pipe doubled in half for the musician’s comfort (otherwise it would be close to 9 feet long), and it will typically fill in the lower harmonies in an orchestra.
Suggested Beginner Age: 12+ years old. Because of the size and weight of the instrument, it is more common for kids to start playing after the age of 12.
Price: A student bassoon could start as high as $3000.
Brass instruments are all played by buzzing your lips into the mouthpiece and pressing down valves that open and close to change the pitch of the instrument. The brass section has the potential to be the loudest in an orchestra, and can easily overpower the sound of the strings and woodwinds.
The trumpet has the highest register of the wind instruments and is very well known historically to be used as an alarm, a call to war, and an emblematic addition to parade music. In the orchestra, the trumpet will soar above the lower brass instruments with its high register and bright sound. There are typically 2 to 4 trumpets in an orchestra, and they play everything from melody to harmony to the supporting rhythm. The trumpet changes pitch using three valves and, like the other brass instruments, you play this by buzzing your lips into the mouthpiece. If you’re not interested in the orchestra scene, the trumpet is often used in jazz, with lots of opportunities for improvisation and time in the spotlight!
Suggested Beginner Age: 8+ years old. Any student younger than this might physically not be able to play the instrument and hold the correct position.
Price: It would be safest to aim somewhere above the $300 range when looking for a student trumpet. There are many rental options throughout the Northshore area -- please don't hesitate to get in touch with us if you are looking for recommendations.
The French horn is a very unique looking instrument, with complex tubing twisted into an overall circular shape. The French horn will typically produce a smooth and mellow sound, but is also able to produce a more shrill and harsh tone at the upper register. A lot of people consider this instrument to be the hardest to play, so if you are up to a challenge, this one might pay off for the better!
Suggested Beginner Age: 8+ years old. While they do make smaller sized French horns, this is the most common starting age, and the formation of the front teeth is a big factor in whether or not the instrument can be played.
Price: While it is very possible to buy a student horn for $100-$200, I would recommend investing in an instrument closer to the $600-$1000 range.
The trombone is well known simply for the way it is played, and the U-shaped pipe that is manipulated to change the pitch. This instrument plays similar pitches to the cellos and bassoons, and there are typically 3 trombonists in the orchestra, often playing in harmony with each other.
Suggested Beginner Age: 8+ years old. The instrument requires a lot of lung endurance and physical ability to move a large sliding valve.
Price: It would be safe to start in the $400-$700 range for a beginner trombone.
The tuba is the largest of the brass instruments, and it produces the deepest tone which anchors the deepest harmony for the whole orchestra. There is usually only one tuba player in an orchestra, and it is played sitting down. Because of the tuba’s size, it takes a lot of air to make a sound, so I would recommend this to someone with strong lungs!
Suggested Beginner Age: 8+ years old, due to the size of the tuba.
Price: Expect to spend somewhere around $3000 on a good beginner instrument.
Drums & Percussion
By definition, percussion instruments are those which are struck or scraped by a mallet or other beater. There are several instruments that must be mastered by an orchestral percussionist, some of which include: timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, and tambourine. Although this is not a complete list of percussion instruments, the instruments listed include both pitched and unpitched percussion. Pitched percussion includes the keyboard instruments, that can contribute to melody and harmony in the orchestra, while unpitched percussion will provide rhythmic lines. If you are looking for an instrument that will always have something new to offer, and an irreplaceable spot in the orchestra, percussion is definitely something to look into.
Along with orchestral percussion, you could also choose to play a drum set. If you choose this path, you might find yourself in a rock band, pop group, or jazz session. While the drums usually tend to take a back seat to vocals and other soloistic instruments, you will find a good amount of epic drum solos in music of various styles.
Suggested Beginner Age: Students can begin to learn percussion from the time they can move on their own, and you might find that your child is drawn to percussive sounds at a young age. In terms of formal lessons, a student 6+ years old might have a more developed attention span for lessons.
Price: Because of the wide range of percussion instruments, a lot of people depend on the instruments provided by school or other organizations instead of purchasing each instrument on their own. However, to purchase your own stick and mallet student set, you could probably spend close to $100. A full student drum set will set you back $700-$1000. As always, be sure to consult your instructor prior to making a purchase.
Technically, this is considered a percussion instrument, but if you ask a pianist they will probably disagree. The piano is a great instrument to start on because it really lets you visualize every single note and the distance between different pitches. In addition to this, there is so much solo piano repertoire out there at all different levels that you will likely never find yourself without something new and inspiring to play.
Suggested Beginner Age: 6+ years old. At this age, kids will likely be enrolled in Kindergarten, which means they are used to having a teacher direct lessons.
Price: Piano prices can vary tremendously, depending on the brand, model, age, and condition of the instrument. Terra Sounds has partnered with Steinway Piano Gallery to provide our students with great deals on some of the best instruments in the world. Rental options are also available. Electric pianos & keyboards are generally not recommended, as they lack the authentic touch, feeling, and sound of a real acoustic piano, and don't allow the student to develop correct piano technique.
A lot of people say that they wish they could sing, but their voice just isn’t good enough. Well I am here to tell you that anybody can sing! The vocal cords are just another muscle that need to be worked, and if you can build up those muscles and train your ear to recognize different pitches, then you can sing. The biggest perk to being a vocalist is that you don’t even have to carry an instrument around with you - all you need is yourself and your music! There are so many directions to go if you want to become a singer. You could go into opera, show tunes, pop, rock, jazz, rap, or almost any other genre. There are always opportunities to develop your own voice, sound, and personal touch.
Suggested Beginner Age: Of course, kids can sing from a very young age, but many students begin voice lessons around 6+ years old.
Price: Free! You will likely need to purchase sheet music, but the instrument is right there with you already.
The guitar is another really versatile instrument, and there are many different types of guitars and guitarists. Typically, a guitar will have 6 strings that you will pluck with a pick or with your fingers. It is often used in jazz, rock, pop, country, and other mainstream genres, and you can also find a great deal of classical guitar music. If you’re looking for an instrument that can constantly change and grow with your big ideas, the guitar may be the right one for you.
Suggested Beginner Age: 6+ years old. While you may need to purchase a smaller sized instrument, a determined 6 year old could really benefit from starting this instrument at a young age.
Price: If you’re just dipping your toes into the wild world of guitar, it might be wise to start in the $100-$200 price range, and upgrade to a higher price range if lessons are successful!
The saxophone is not typically found in an orchestra setting, but you have probably heard this instrument in some of your favorite songs on the radio. It will often be heard with prominent solos in jazz, pop, reggae, funk, and other popular music. This instrument seems to marry the worlds of the woodwinds (it is played with a reed) and brass (it is made with brass), which gives it a very unique and powerful sound somewhere between a clarinet and a trumpet.
Suggested Beginner Age: 8+ years old. A beginner student needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the horn.
Price: You can expect to spend about $2000 on a brand new student saxophone, such as the Yamaha YAS-23. There are many used saxophones out there as well, but be sure to consult your instructor for recommendations before you buy.
This list surely does not include every instrument that is possible to play, but it does provide a solid overview of some of the main families of instruments, and what each instrument has to offer. Regardless of what instrument you choose to play yourself, the beauty of playing music in an ensemble is creating a sound that is unique to the group, and to each individual.
Blog post written by Kayla Patrick. Photography by: Manuel Nageli, Matthijs Smit, Jack Sharp, Gabriel Gurrola, and Mariusz Prusaczyk.