Instrumentally Speaking

Hi, everyone. This is Liza. I seem to have instruments on the mind right now because of what my students have been studying in recent weeks, so I thought I would post a few ideas I use in my classroom to familiarize students with the instrument families. I don't know about you, but we all have the old standby activities we have used for years and for me they can get old fast...Peter and the Wolf, Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Zin Zin a Violin, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, instrument bingo (when there is a sub), and the list goes on. Over the last few years I have tried to come up with some new and more interesting (for me AND the students) ways to review instruments in each family not only aurally but also visually. If any blog readers have fantastic new ideas on this topic, I would love to hear them in the comments!

In my school's curriculum, kindergarteners learn about classroom instruments and the 4 orchestral instrument families and then in every other grade 1st through 5th, each grade concentrates specifically on two of the families, so by 5th grade they've studied each family in depth twice. Here are a few ideas I have used recently. Some of these are great for a sub, even a non-music sub...or for those days when the teacher is sick and can't sing. I'm on my 2nd round of antibiotics right now myself.

Instrument Family Manipulatives
I make a manipulative similar to this for each family. The instrument pictures and names are printed on card stock, but then cut apart the names into individual squares. Staple either a baggie or an envelope to the back of each instrument picture card and put the little pieces with the names into the envelop or bag. These manipulatives can then be used for many different activities.

1. Students work with partners (as practice) or alone (as assessment) to identify the instruments by placing the name of the instrument on top of its picture.
2. Students work on aural rather than visual identification. Play a short example of an instrument and students then place a bingo chip (or the name card for that instrument) on the instrument pic they heard.
3. Students review facts about the instruments in the family. For example: Which instruments are bowed? Which are plucked? Which come from China? Which are typically used in an orchestra? Which have 4 strings?

4. Students can categorize instruments by family (one page has Strings,Woodwind, Brass, Percussion then you cut apart instrument pictures from all of the families) or categorize percussion instruments as woods, metals, or membranes (one page has woods, metals, and membranes printed on it, then cut apart pictures of various percussion instruments).

Instrument 4 Corners
This adaptation of the 4 corners game can also be played in many ways to practice visual and aural ID of instruments.

1. Hang pictures only of the instruments from a family around the music room. Call out an instrument name (and/or shows a sign with the word) and students walk to the correct instrument called.

2. Hang signs with only the names of the instruments only and then show the class a picture of an instrument and students walk to the correct name for that picture.

3. Hang signs with both the pictures and names of the instruments around the music room and then play a short example of that instrument and students walk to the correct instrument.

4. Hang signs with the names of the four instrument families around the room then shows pictures of various instruments and students walk to the correct family in which that instrument belongs.

When we first play any version of this game it is just practice and I joke about "tricking" the students who go to the wrong place in the room. Once students become more familiar with the instruments it can be played as an elimination game in which students who go to the wrong instrument or sign must sit on the carpet and be out for the rest of that round, but if they are sitting nicely on the carpet they may rejoin us when we play the next round. My students have become amazingly accurate at identifying instruments in the families both visually and aurally and are now much more capable of identifying specific instruments heard in other listening lessons we do. They will play this game over and over with joy.

 Instrument Basketball
1. Tape pictures of the instruments from the family being studied on small boxes and mark 2 tape lines on the floor, the 2 point shot line, and the 3 point shot line.

2. Divide the class into 2 teams and a student from each team comes up to play. Call out the name of an instrument. Students had to decide whether to try a 2 point shot (closer to the boxes) or a 3 point shot (farther away).

3.Students have to not only know the correct instrument, but also make it into the box to earn points for their team. (I don't comment on whose answer was correct or incorrect until both teams' players shoot so as not to influence the 2nd player's instrument choice). Teammates on the carpet are not allowed to give help/call out or their team forfeits points for that turn.

4. You can also play this with instrument family boxes, show a pic of an instrument, and they shoot into the box for the correct family. Although I haven't done it yet, I suppose you could have them play this game for aural practice as well.

Individual Answer Baggies and Flip Card Packs
I make up baggies that are individual answer packs to use for various things such as quick non-paper, pencil assessment. I have baggies with instrument pictures for each instrument family (baggies each include all of the instruments from that family students are familiar with) and I have instrument flip card packs as well, for instance a pack of 4 cards that say String, Brass, Woodwind, Percussion or a pack that says Wood, Metal, Membrane that are hole punched and on one of those book rings. Then instead of a whole group game like the above activities, students can practice or be assessed alone or with a partner on the carpet. I've found them quite useful for many things.

1. I might play a short sample of an instrument and students have to flip their flip card to show me if the instrument they heard was a string, brass, woodwind, or percussion instrument. (Or show a picture, or say the instrument name as in previous activities)

2. We might do a rapid fire review in which I name instruments and students identify and hold up the picture for that instrument from their baggie as quickly as they can. (Or for aural ID as before)

Instrument Cakewalk
1. Place instrument picture cards (cardstock preferable for durability) in a circle on the floor. There should be enough pictures to equal the number of students in the class.

2. As music is played on the stereo, students walk around the outside of the circle. When music stops, all students place feet on one of the cards.

3. The teacher then draws an instrument name out of the hat  and asks, "Who has the ____? If the child standing on that card can identify their instrument I give them a sticker. I often use the rule that students who get 2 stickers in a round sit out until we play another round so others have a better chance to have their instrument called.

Those are some of my recent ideas. What ideas do YOU have for helping students identify instruments? I would love to hear your creative, new ideas.


  1. Thanks for your blog post! I've struggled with where and how to add instrument identification past classroom instruments into my curriculum. I've mostly focused on it in fourth and fifth, because those are the grades I take the the symphony. I'll definitely be adding some of these ideas!

  2. A few years back I purchased an awesome software program that has helped immensely with aural and visual identification of instruments (orchestral and world). It also includes great resources for all of the musical elements. It's called Daydream Education. At the time I purchased it, it was based solely out of the UK, which made it difficult to use for some concepts (particularly with rhythmic terminology). However, they now have the American version, which I also purchased. The kids LOVE it. Plus, it has great little games the students can play to test their aural identification skills, which is a quick and fun way for me to check for understanding :)

  3. Jennifer, I've never heard of Daydream Education but I'll check it out now. Thanks! Lindsey, in my charter schools which instrument families are studied in which grades is tied into what units are being studied in that grade. For instance, my students begin recorder in 2nd grade (I see every grade every day and students can be in band in 3-5, thus recorder in 2nd). They also do a unit on the Harlem Renaissance in their regular classroom, so we study jazz in 2nd grade music. We study woodwind and brass families in this grade and jazz musicians who play those instruments, and students learn to improvise on their recorders and do simple scat. In 1st grade at my school students study Chinatown (which is near my school) and my school has a population of students from China, Japan, and Who are Tibetan. So we study Chinese and Japanese music in 1st grade. We learn about string and percussion families and instruments from China and Japan that are in these families. Students learn to play simplified taiko drumming (taiko rhythm syllables are much like at and titi and accessible to younger students). That's why you see the inclusion of erhu, pipa, and guzheng in my example picture on the post. I think it helps a lot to find natural places in your curriculum where it makes sense to focus on a particular family and then students learn in more depth across the curriculum, if you know what I mean. Maybe it would help to think of it that way.

  4. Wow. I just saw how long my reply comment was above. Sorry!!!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I wrote a blog post about Daydream Education if you're interested in learning more. You can find it here:

    I would LOVE to have my students every day! I see mine twice a week for 25 minutes. My students are always saying, "Music class is over already!" I can't help but feel guilty when I know they want to spend more time in my class.


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