Most Popular Musical Instruments

Person playing a violin
Person playing a violin

Lists vary, but piano, guitar and violin are perennial favorites

Musical instruments are often separated into five categories: woodwind, brass, string, keyboard and percussion. Many musicians would add the human voice as a category—and music lovers the world over might be quick to argue that the human voice is the ultimate musical instrument.

At last count, nobody knows for sure how many different kinds of musical instruments exist. The Institute of Musical Instrument Technology lists hundreds, from the alphorn to celesta to euphonium to lute to ratchet to viola to zither.

Three instruments—piano, guitar and violin—are routinely included on top 10 lists of the most popular for beginners and professionals alike. The first official piano broke the sound barrier, so to speak, when Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian instrument builder, produced a “harpsichord with soft and loud” in 1698.

The oldest known guitar-style instrument, a 3,500-year-old, three-stringed tanbur, belonged to an Egyptian singer-songwriter named Har-Mose. Bowed string instruments in Europe date back to the 9th-century lira of the Byzantine Empire, but the first violins of note originated in northern Italy in the 1530s with luthier, Andrea Amati.

Fast facts about the piano
  • New pianos need tuning four times a year, twice a year for older instruments
  • 750,000 new pianos are made every year
  • More than 20 million Americans play piano—not all of them well
  • Franz Liszt might be the greatest pianist of all time
  • Martha Argerich

    Martha Argerich is probably the best-known female pianist of the modern era

  • Pianos come in two basic types: upright and grand, the latter built for faster playing
  • Stretched piano strings in a concert grand exert nearly 30 tons of steely tension
  • John Lennon’s Steinway Model Z sold for $2.1 million
  • A piano has 12,000-plus parts with 10,000 of them moving
Fast facts about the violin
  • Playing the violin consumes 170 calories per hour, more if you’re doing jumping jacks
  • Violin strings were once called catgut even though they were made from sheep innards
  • Modern strings are made from steel and various synthetics and even come plated in silver
  • Niccolò Paganini might be the greatest violinist of all time
  • Emilie Autumn

    Emilie Autumn is probably the best-known female metal violinist of the modern era

  • Maple, spruce, ebony, willow and rosewood trees provide materials for violins
  • Electric violins are played by many accomplished violinists
  • Spiders don’t play violin, but the brown recluse has a violin graphic on its thorax
  • Made in 1741, the Vieuxtemps-Stoutzker reputedly sold for more than $18 million in 2013
Fast facts about the guitar
  • Household names, George Beauchamp and Adolph Rikenbekerom, invented the electric guitar in 1931
  • Seven-string guitars are called gypsies
  • Leo Fender, creator of Fender-brand guitars, played the saxophone
  • Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix typically arrive together as the greatest guitarists of all time
  • Joan Jett

    Joan Jett is often listed as the greatest female electric guitarist ever

  • Don’t forget acoustic masters, Django Reinhardt and Chet Atkins
  • Bob Marley’s Washburn, valued at $1.2 million, is a Jamaican national treasure
  • Uli Jon Roth‘s seven-string, 33-fret “Mighty Wing” features a six-octave range, whatever that means
  • Some authorities believe 50 million people play guitar worldwide—not all of them well
To learn more about the A.F.A. in Music at Inver Hills, contact:

Admissions Team
College Center

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