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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Musical Instruments : The Science of Sound

An exploration of the way sound is produced by some of the instruments in the Museum's collection.

Musical instruments can be a source of enjoyment and entertainment as we listen to them or play them. They can also be a means by which to explore the science of sound production. They all produce sound by means of vibrating air columns, but they accomplish that in many different ways. We categorize them generally as Percussion, Wind, or String instruments depending on how they make their sounds.

Percussion instruments can be struck, plucked, shaken or rubbed to produce the vibrations that produce sound. They are officially categorized as Idiophones or Membranophones:

In Idiophones, the body of the instrument itself vibrates and produces sound (cymbals, rattles, even musical glasses where a wet finger is rubbed against a glass rim to create vibrations that makes sound).

Membranophones have a stretched membrane, often made from animal skin, that is struck to cause the vibrations to make their sounds (drums or any parts of an instrument that are hit to create a sound vibration).

Wind instruments are officially called Aerophones and their sounds are created by a column of air, usually human breath, which is set vibrating. All Aerophones are really reed instruments, but are categorized according to what kind of reed they use:

Woodwinds use reeds made of cane, either double reeds that are blown into alone (oboe, bassoon) or single reeds that are attached to a mouthpiece (clarinet, saxophone). Blowing on the reeds sets them vibrating and that creates the vibrating air column that makes the sound.

Brass instruments, although not always made of brass, make use of the lips that “buzz” into a mouthpiece, starting the air vibrating in that way to produce a sound (trumpet, horn, tuba).

Since the sound of an organ is produced by pressurized air that goes through pipes or reeds built into the instrument, the organ is considered an Aerophone.

String instruments are officially given the name Chordophones because they utilize taut chords (strings) that are plucked, bowed, tapped, rubbed or even blown to produce sound. Strings can be made out of gut, animal hair, silk, metal, natural fibers or plastic. Their sounds can be very soft unless they have some sort of hollow soundbox to amplify the sound, and a soundboard on top of that, as on a violin or banjo.

Many types of instruments are classified as Chordophones, such as harps, lutes, violins, and even hurdy-gurdys. Since pianos and harpsichords have strings that are plucked (by keys), they are included in the Chordophone family.

Created By

Alice Miller

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