What Kind of Instrument is a Piano?

What Kind of Instrument is a Piano?

At the Rochester Conservatory of Music, we get a lot of questions about music and instruments. Sometimes, it’s the most straightforward questions that provide the most insight about a subject. One of the greatest debates in music can be condensed into a simple question: “What kind of instrument is a piano?”

Typically, determining an instrument’s class is relatively easy. All you have to do is ask some simple questions. Do you blow into the instrument and it’s made of wood? Then you have a woodwind. Is the instrument a horn or made of brass? Then it’s in the brass instrument family. Similarly, if you hit your music maker with a stick, it’s a percussion instrument. And if it has strings, it belongs in the strings category. Or does it?

As instruments become more sophisticated, they become harder to classify. The classification of the piano is a hotly-debated topic. Using the simple criteria explained above, pianos could fit into two categories. And though there is an official answer, it’s counterintuitive, which leads people to argue about which classification is more appropriate for one of the most popular instruments.

If you ask the average person what kind of instrument a piano is, the most common response you will be the strings category. This answer makes sense at first blush since most people know that pianos contain long strings that produce the sound you hear when the keys are played. However, just because it has strings doesn’t make it an instrument in the strings family. As stated before, it’s counterintuitive.

Rather than look at the strings in the piano, the classification is determined by the way these strings are played. When you press a note on the keyboard, a hammer strikes the string that produces the note. Since sound comes from something hitting another object, the piano is a percussion instrument. It’s a percussion instrument where instead of striking a drum, you’re striking a string. This method of playing makes a piano distinct from violins and cellos that are played with a bow, and it’s different from guitars or other stringed instruments that are plucked.

It’s theoretically possible to reach inside the piano and pluck the strings yourself, but it’s not the standard way to play the piano, and you won’t be able to play traditional piano compositions. For some people, the fact that the strings are struck is less important than the fact that the instrument has strings. It’s why there is a never-ending debate among music enthusiasts about which classification is more appropriate.

Whether it’s a percussion or stringed instrument, pianos are undeniably beautiful music-making machines. It doesn’t matter what category an instrument belongs in so long as you can enjoy the sounds it makes.

If you want to learn how to play the piano, the Rochester Conservatory of Music has classes for students of all ages, including adults. We offer lessons in private classes as well as group sessions. Learning to play the piano is relaxing, enjoyable, and you can meet people who love music as much as you do.


If you’re interested in taking a class at the Rochester Conservatory of Music, send us a message online to learn more about a course.

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