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Resource notes and guidelines

Questions and discussion suggestions in this resource are voiced directly to students, allowing them to be more easily presented to the class. Teachers' guidance notes and contextual information are included throughout the resource.

This is one of three resources that focus on the main families of musical instruments. Explore string and percussion instruments using the link below.

The three resources can be used together to explore instruments and the sounds they make across a series of lessons. Or use individual components from the resources to integrate into your own scheme of work.


This resource includes interactive elements that encourage students to make sounds and imagine they are playing instruments. It may be a good idea to sit in an informal area without desks or to clear some space in the classroom.

If you have access to wind instruments, bring them into the classroom for students to see and have a go at. (If students are learning to play the recorder, ask them to bring their recorders into the lesson.) Use the instruments to help to explain their different parts, how they are played, and how they sound.

Wind instruments

Wind musical instruments make a sound by blowing air into them. Sometimes the air is blown in from the musician's mouth. Sometimes it is pumped in through a bag or bellows. 

This painting shows someone blowing into a wind instrument. Look carefully at the painting. What can you see?

Man Playing a Recorder

Man Playing a Recorder

Ben Mathews (1889–1975)

West Northamptonshire Council

  • Can you see the musician?
  • Can you see his face and mouth? Can you see his hands?
  • Can you see the instrument he is playing?
  • Can you see the sheet music he is playing from?
  • What do you think the instrument might be?

The painting is abstracted but if you look carefully you will see that the instrument has holes in it and the musician is covering the holes with his fingers.

The boy in this painting is playing the same instrument. But the painting is more realistic so it might be easier to recognise it.

  • Have you ever had a go at playing an instrument like this?
  • Do you know what this instrument is called?

The Artist's Son Playing the Recorder

The Artist's Son Playing the Recorder c.1935–1936

William Patrick Roberts (1895–1980)

The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

This instrument is called a recorder. By covering the holes with their fingers, musicians can control the sounds it makes.

Teacher notes

Some of your students may have played a recorder before so you could ask them to demonstrate how it is played. Or they could mime how they play their recorders.

How do wind instruments make sounds and notes?

When a musician blows into the mouthpiece of an instrument, the air travels into the pipe of the wind instrument and vibrates. This creates sound. The length of the pipe affects the pitch of the sound. Musicians block or open the holes along the pipe of the instrument with their fingers. This changes the length of the pipe that vibrations travel through and makes the sounds higher or lower.

This BBC video includes an animated diagram that helps to explain how wind travels through a recorder:

Let's look at more wind instruments

These photographs show two more wind instruments.

  • Do you know what they are called?
  • How do you think the musicians make the notes higher or lower?
  • What sort of sounds do you think these instruments might make? Let's hear your ideas – make some noise!

Trumpets vs. saxophones

The photographs show jazz musicians playing the trumpet and the saxophone. Look closely at the photographs.

  • Do you know which instrument is a saxophone and which is a trumpet?
  • How does the saxophone look different from the trumpet?
  • How do they look similar?

Look at the different ways the two musicians are holding and playing their instruments.

  • Pretend you are playing the saxophone. How would you hold it? Where would your hands be?
  • Now pretend you are playing the trumpet. How would you hold it? Where would your hands be?

Differences and similarities

  • The instruments are both made from brass. (Brass is a strong yellow-coloured metal that can be easily moulded to create different shapes.)
  • The instruments both have a mouthpiece (which the musician blows into) and a wider, flared end where the sound comes out.
  • Both instruments have valves or holes in the tube or pipe that the musician blocks or opens with their fingers to make different notes.
  • They are different shapes.

Although both instruments make sound through vibrations that travel down the pipe of the instrument, the sound is made in different ways.

  • The saxophone, like a recorder, has a thin wooden strip in the mouthpiece, called a reed. This vibrates to create the sound when the musician blows into it.
  • A trumpet player makes a buzzing sound with their mouth into the mouthpiece, to create sound.

Teacher notes

Encourage students to discuss the photographs and describe the shapes of the instruments, their different parts and functions and how the musicians are holding and playing the instruments. Explain how the musicians make sounds and notes.

It might help to show students this diagram to help explain the parts of a wind instrument and their functions. (Woodwind and brass instruments are discussed in more detail in the next section of the resource.)

Use the notes and diagram below if helpful. 

Diagram of a trumpet

Diagram of a trumpet

You could ask students:

  • can you spot the pipe, the valves and the mouthpiece?
  • where does the sound come out?
  • what is the wide end of the trumpet (where the sound comes out) called?

When the musician blows into the mouthpiece, the vibrations travel down the pipe of the instruments. Musicians control the pitch of the notes (whether they are high or low) by pressing down the valves. This opens and closes the holes along the pipe of the instrument and changes the length of the pipe that the air is going through and the length of vibrations. Musicians press down different valve combinations to create different notes.

Did you know?

  • Trumpets were used as early as 1500 BC and possibly even earlier! Bronze and silver trumpets were found among the riches in Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt, and trumpets have also been found in Scandinavia and China dating from this time.

View of the South End of the Antechamber

View of the South End of the Antechamber (Tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt, colourised) 1922 & 2015

Harry Burton (1879–1940) and Dynamichrome

Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

  • Early trumpets weren't used to play music but to make loud noises as a signal in battle or hunting.

More trumpets…

Trumpets come in all shapes and sizes. Early trumpets didn't have valves to change the pitch of notes, so the musician had to change the notes with the buzzing noises they made with their mouth.

Look at the trumpets from different places and times in the artworks below.

  • What shapes can you see?
  • How are the trumpets different and how are they similar?

Brass and woodwind families

There are two 'families' of wind instruments: the brass family and the woodwind family.

  • Instruments in the brass family are all made from brass.
  • Instruments in the woodwind family can be made from wood, metal or plastic, but what links them is that they all have a reed which is usually made from wood. The reed is a strip of wood that vibrates to make the sound.

Although the saxophone is a brass instrument it has a wooden reed in the mouthpiece. This vibrates when the musician blows into the mouthpiece and produces the sound. Because it has a wooden reed, it is classified as a woodwind rather than a brass instrument.

Trumpets don't have a reed and are made only from brass so they are classified as brass instruments. They are played by blowing air through nearly closed lips to make a buzzing sound which starts a vibration in the air column.

  • Have a go at pursing your lips and making a buzzing sound.

Hugh Masekela (1939–2018), Cambridge, 1993

Hugh Masekela (1939–2018), Cambridge, 1993

Brian Foskett (1940–2017)

National Jazz Archive

Watch the short videos below to explore more instruments from the brass and woodwind families.

Introducing the bagpipes

Not all wind instruments are played by blowing air into them through a mouthpiece.

Piper George Findlater (1872–1942), VC

Piper George Findlater (1872–1942), VC

Richard Copeland Weatherby (1881–1953)

National Museums Scotland

  • Do you know what the instrument being played in the painting above is called?
  • How do you think the sound is made?
  • What do you think it sounds like? Go on make some noise!

About bagpipes

Teacher notes

Ask students to discuss the video and how the musician is playing the bagpipes. Encourage them to think about what they have learnt so far in this resource – how sound is made in wind instruments – and apply this to the bagpipes. Use the notes below if helpful.

Bagpipes, sound and music

Bagpipes have a bag, two or more pipes and a mouthpiece (or 'blowpipe').

The pipes have wooden reeds inside them which create the sound. One of the pipes is called a chanter. This has holes in it that are covered and uncovered to play different notes. The notes are changed by pressing valves on the pipes. The other pipe is called a drone which makes a constant sound that harmonises with the tune.

The musician blows air into the bag through the mouthpiece. They then use their arm to pump the wind into the pipes. By storing the wind in the bag, the musician can control the air going into the pipe. This means there can be a constant flow of wind – and the sound doesn't stop when the musician takes a breath!

Did you know?

We might think of bagpipes as a Scottish instrument. But bagpipes have been played across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East for centuries.

  • Can you spot the bagpipes in this painting from southern India?
  • Can you see what the other musicians are playing?
  • How would you dance to bagpipe music? Let's see your bagpipe dance!


Make a music and mood drawing or painting

At the beginning of the resource, we looked at an abstracted artwork showing a musician playing an instrument. Artists often try and put feelings and moods across in their artworks, as well as simply what something looks like.

Ask students to look at the painting again.

Man Playing a Recorder

Man Playing a Recorder

Ben Mathews (1889–1975)

West Northamptonshire Council

  • What is the mood of the painting?
  • Do you think the musician is playing a happy song or a sad song?
  • How have they used colours and shapes to suggest this?

The dark colours make the painting seem melancholy. The abstracted shapes and spikey hands of the musician create a disjointed, tense mood.

Look at other abstracted artworks showing musicians. Ask students what they think the mood of each of the artworks is and how the artists have used colours, shapes and mark-making (brushstrokes) to create the mood.

Task students with creating an abstracted artwork to express music and mood. 

Gathering ideas

Provide students with a piece of paper and crayons or pencils.

Choose two pieces of music with very different moods and play these for your class. (These could be for example classical, pop or jazz music.) Play the music for a minute or two and ask students to listen with their eyes closed. 

  • Task students with thinking of words to describe how the music sounds and feels. It might help to ask them to think of the music in relation to physical movements – how would they move to the music? Or to think of animals or types of weather that the music reminds them of. They could discuss their ideas as a class or in small groups.
  • Then ask them to translate the sounds of the music and how it makes them feel into marks or shapes on their paper. (Shapes could be round or curved or wiggly, or geometric with straight edges and corners. Marks could be scribbly or quick dashes or slow and meandering lines or doodles.)

Creating the artwork

Now ask students to choose one of the pieces of music and create an artwork in response to it. This could be a painting or drawing, depending on what materials you have available (and how messy you want to get!).

They could make an abstracted picture of a musician playing an instrument – using colours and marks to suggest the mood of the music.


Jazz 1996

Mary-Louise Coulouris (1939–2011)

NHS Lothian Charity – Tonic Collection

Or they could have a go at creating a completely abstract artwork using shapes, colours and mark-making to suggest the mood of the music.


Jazz 1985

Anthony Frost (b.1951)

Cornwall Council

  • Encourage them to look at the shapes and marks they made in response to the music.
  • Encourage them to think of colours that might match the mood of the music.


Make your own wind instruments

Have a go at making wind instruments using everyday materials and recycled waste. Here are some ideas:

Plastic bottle instruments

You will need: plastic bottles and water

  • Collect different-sized plastic bottles (such as small water or juice bottles, or shampoo bottles).
  • Blow over the top of the bottle to create a sound. Bigger bottles will make lower notes and smaller bottles, higher notes.
  • Now add water to the bottles at different levels. How does this change the notes?

Drinking straw pan pipes

You will need: 6 to 8 drinking straws per student, sticky tape, thick paper or card.

  • Place the straws in a row next to each other onto a strip of thick paper or card around 4 cm wide. The card should be placed around 2 cm from one end of the straws.
  • Use tape to stick the straws onto the card. 
  • Add another piece strip of paper on top of the row of straws to secure them.
  • Then use a large pair of scissors to cut diagonally along the row of straws so that you end up with straws of different lengths.
  • Blow into the straws. The longer straws will create lower-pitched sounds and the smaller straws will create higher-pitched sounds.

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