A History of Musical Instruments

By Tim Lambert

Musical Instruments in the Ancient World

The Egyptians played many instruments. They played castanets, drums, and bells. They also played stringed instruments like the harp, the lyre (a kind of vertical harp), and the lute. They also played wind instruments like flutes and trumpets. The Egyptians also played a rattle called a sistrum.

The Greeks played stringed instruments like the harp and the lyre. They also played a large lyre called a Kithara. Its strings were plucked with a plectrum. The Greeks also played wind instruments like the syrinx or panpipes, which were made of reeds of different lengths. They also played cymbals.

The Romans had similar musical instruments, the lyre, and harp, the trumpet, and flutes. The Romans also played the bagpipes and they made organs. n In ancient times people played animal horns but in Bronze Age Scandinavia they played metal horns called lurs.

A Roman mosaic of a lyre

Musical Instruments in the Middle Ages and Tudor Times

In the Middle Ages and Tudor Times, harps and transverse flutes were popular instruments. So were drums, cymbals, and tambourines. Often the musicians played the pipe and tabor. The left hand played the pipe and the right hand accompanied by a drum, which hung from the belt. People also played a reed instrument called a shawm. They also played the recorder.

In the Middle Ages, people also played a string instrument called a rebec with a bow. Originally an Arab instrument the rebec reached Europe in the 11th century. However, the rebec went out of fashion in the Renaissance. The violin was developed in the first half of the 16th century. In the Middle Ages, the lute was also a popular stringed instrument. (The lute was originally an Arab instrument called al ud, which means the wood). There was also a small lute called a mandora.

Furthermore, it is believed the Arabs introduced the guitar into Europe. It probably came to Spain first. The violin was developed in the first half of the 16th century. Also in Tudor Times, the cello appeared. So did the viola and the double bass.

In the Middle Ages organs were commonly used for church music and, of course, they have been ever since. Furthermore, from the 12th century, people in Europe played the bagpipes. They also played the hurdy-gurdy from that time. Also in the Middle Ages, people played the triangle.

In the late Middle Ages, the harpsichord was developed. It continued to be popular in Tudor times. Also popular was a small harpsichord called a virginal. Another instrument was the psaltery, a flat box with strings plucked with quills. Similar to the psaltery was the dulcimer in which strings were beaten rather the plucked.

At first, trumpets were straight but in the 15th century, they became looped. The trombone was invented in the 15th century. (In England it was called the sackbut). The trombone is an Italian word. It means a large trumpet.

The xylophone comes from Southeast Asia but it was played in Europe by the early 16th century. Its name comes from the Greek words xylon, meaning wood, and phone meaning sound.

Modern Musical Instruments

The French horn developed in the 17th century from hunting horns. The oboe was invented in the mid-17th century. The bassoon also dates from the mid-17th century. The clarinet was invented around 1700. Then around 1711, Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano. Glockenspiel means ‘bell play’ in German. During the 18th century steel bars sometimes replaced bells and the modern glockenspiel developed. Meanwhile, by the 18th century, the Russians were playing the balalaika.

It is believed the banjo was originally African. It was taken to North America by slaves and was popular with them in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Italy, the mandolin developed in the 18th and 19th centuries (its name means ‘little almond’), and the ukulele developed in Hawaii in the 1880s.

Many new musical instruments were invented in the 19th century. The harmonica was invented in the early 19th century. The tuba was also developed in the early 19th century. The accordion was invented in 1829 so was the concertina. Also in the early 19th century valves were added to the trumpet and in 1846 Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone.


Electric guitars were developed in the 1920s and 1930s and the first synthesizer was made in 1945.

Last revised 2024