Learning About Instruments in a Baby’s World

dori_on_bassBy James Crocker

This piece is from James Crocker’s blog,  There, you can find his continuing series of articles about instruments.

In the very first post of this blog, Starting Out, I suggested anything is a potential musical instrument in the right tiny hands; exploration of a baby’s new world includes listening to the sounds created by hitting, tapping and scraping everything within reach.

Noisy activities like banging on tables and splashing in water are vital to developing active listening. In fact, I would encourage everyone to show such openness and curiosity, not just infants. Even long-time musicians can benefit from playing like a baby from time to time. Hit the table…Listen…Hit it some more…Don’t like the sound? Try another surface…Find a pleasing sound and make it ‘move’ with rhythm… Making music with ‘found sounds’ can be quite liberating.

Musicians can get so deeply invested in their instrument they forget it is just a tool. I am as guilty of this as any and tapping out a groove on a cereal box reminds me my guitar playing is part of a greater musical universe.

While it is true anything can make interesting and musical sounds, at some point a young musician will need to play with ‘real’ instruments. The sounds are more beautiful, varied and complex than the average cereal box. Also, each instrument comes with a repertoire of music to play and teaching methods to motivate and challenge. There are literally thousands of different instruments from which to choose, each with many variations in design and materials.  Where should a beginner begin?

Firstly, what is a musical instrument? The very earliest were also simple found sounds – hit sticks, shaken pebbles in cupped hands, blown shells, shaken seeds in a dried out gourd; and so on.  Early humans soon specifically made and adapted objects for making music, for example: cutting notches in a stick with a sharp stone turns a hitter into a scraper.  These new instruments produced superior tone, greater range and previously unheard timbres.

The search for great sounding objects continues to this day; instrument builders continue to try new designs and materials, and, in recent years, computer technology has expanded the tonal palette infinitely. The sheer number of instruments is overwhelming, so it can be useful to consider similarities. The best-known grouping – strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – makes sense in the context of an orchestra, but is less useful when considering instruments from other traditions and genres.

Musicologists use a more inclusive means of classifying. Based on the Dewey Decimal system, the Hornbostel–Sachs system features five top-level categories, each defined by how sound is produced: chordophones (string vibration), aerophones (air vibration), membranophones (membrane vibration), idiophones (instrument body vibration) and electrophones (electrically-controlled vibration). Each of these categories is split into sub-categories (for example, idiophones can be struck, plucked, friction or blown), which, in turn, are split again, leading to greater and greater levels of specificity.

I will discuss real instruments suitable for older kids at a later date, but for now, here are the five basic ways of making sound demonstrated by my 9-month-old, Lydia. Firstly, aerophones are represented by, perhaps, the most fundamental instrument of all, the voice. Secondly, an elastic band is made to ‘twang’ just like plucking a guitar string. Thirdly, Lydia hits what I call a ‘Tummy Drum’ (laying on my back, my stomach is suspended by my rib cage, like the skin on a drum). Next, Lydia hits and shakes toys to hear their sounds. Finally, a speaker hidden in an electronic toy makes noises when buttons are pushed.


James Crocker is a CMN member from Oakland, CA. We are happy to occasionally feature his very interesting blog articles on the CMN blog. 


  1. Thanks for sharing James.

  2. Great content in posting – it introduced a new perspective for me.

    I also enjoyed the video. Adorable baby – so fun to see her exploring!

  3. The Hornbostel-Sachs system is great for classification of instruments with elementary aged children also. And additionally children can come up with classification schemes for a group of diverse instruments. When they discuss how to group the instruments it gives them a chance to compare & contrast instruments and their sounds. Although we classify instruments by sound, generally, why not classify them by shape or color as a young child sees it. Just some food for thought. Thanks for the nice article.

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