Can You Pluck a Violin? | 20 Music Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask

Nov 5 · 12 min read

I have been a piano teacher for over 15 years. I've taught music students old and young, experienced and brand new. I've been asked every question in the book, some of which the student was a little embarrassed to ask. I've tried to compile as many of the questions as I could remember. Some of them won't make sense to you if you're a musician, but you have to remember what it feels like to know nothing about music. Following is a list of fun facts about music, weird questions, and every little musical tidbit I could think of...

  1. How many keys are on a piano?

There are 88 keys on a full-size piano. That's 52 white keys and 36 black keys. If you're shopping for an electric keyboard, you might notice that they come in different size options. Some keyboards have the full 88 keys, some have 61 keys, some 54, and even some in 44 keys. If you're serious about learning to play piano, make sure you're investing in a keyboard that has 88 keys (and even more importantly - weighted keys!)

  1. What are piano keys made out of?

Piano keys used to be made with ivory, which is made from the tusks of elephants. In 1989, there was a world-wide ban on ivory, so it is no longer legal to create or sell pianos (or anything for that matter) that includes the use of ivory. In the United States, it was outlawed even earlier, so ivory stopped being used in the U.S. in the 1970s. Now piano keys are made of wood covered in veneer, so if you have a piano made after the 1960s, there's almost no chance that you're actually "tickling the ivories."

  1. What is a violin bow made out of?

Bows for string instruments (violins, violas, cellos, and basses) are traditionally made out of horsehair. Nowadays, some bows are made from synthetic material, but most are still made from the hair of a horse. Synthetic bows do not sound nearly as good as horsehair bows. The hair is taken from the tail of the horse and is typically from a horse that lives in a colder climate, which ensures that it has thicker and stronger hair. Only white horsehair is used because bleaching damages the hair.

  1. What's the difference between flat and minor?

This question wouldn't make sense to someone who has been studying music for a while, but it's a question that I hear from beginners quite a bit. Students typically learn about the concept of "major" and "minor" pretty early on. It's a fun concept to learn in elementary school music class because it engages students in listening to the "feeling" of a sound. Major chords have a "happy" feeling, whereas minor chords have a more "sad" feeling. When music students learn about "sharps" and "flats" for the first time, they often confuse that with major and minor. In short, the difference is that minor is referring to a scale or chord that is made up of several notes that sound "sad" together. "Flat" is a symbol placed next to a note to make it a half-step lower. You can read more about this on #13.

  1. Why are there black keys on the piano?

This is always a fun question to answer. If a piano was laid out differently, with all the same notes, but all white keys in a row, it would technically still work, and you could still make the same music... But imagine trying to find your place on the piano without any black keys to let you know where you are! It would be like being lost in a desert. That's what's so great about the piano. It's the perfect diagram of music. The sharp and flat notes are on the black keys, and the natural notes are on the white keys. String and horn players don't get that luxury - this is one of the reasons that I recommend kids learn piano before they try other instruments. Piano is the best way for students to really get a grasp on how music works, and to really "see" what's going on.

  1. Can you pluck a violin?

Yes, you can pluck any string instrument. This is called "pizzicato." Musicians in orchestra often switch between "pizz" and "arco" in their music, which means to use the bow again.

  1. What's the difference between 'wind' instruments and 'woodwind' instruments?

They're the same thing! "Wind" is just a cool nickname for "woodwind."

  1. What's the difference between brass instruments and woodwind instruments?

This is one of the most confusing things, especially if you haven't played or seen these instruments. From a distance, most of these should be called brass because they're shiny and metallic, right? Well actually, woodwinds get their name from the wooden reed that's inside the mouthpiece of their instrument, giving the instrument a "woody" tone.

List of Brass Instruments:

  • Trumpet
  • Trombone
  • Tuba
  • Euphonium
  • Baritone
  • Flugelhorn
  • Cornet
  • Bugle
  • Contrabass Bugle
  • Many more...

List of Woodwind Instruments

  • Soprano Saxophone
  • Alto Saxophone
  • Tenor Saxophone
  • Bass Saxophone
  • Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • Oboe
  • Flute
  • Piccolo
  • Fife
  • Recorder
  • Many more...
  • Note: Some of these instruments actually do not have a wooden reed, such as flute and piccolo, but are still considered woodwinds because of the way the sound is produced, pushing air across open holes versus forcing air with lip vibrations through a mouthpiece.
  1. What instrument family is the piano in?

This is your classic tomato situation... is it a vegetable or a fruit? Some people argue that the piano is a string instrument because the mechanism on the inside of the piano is composed of a series of strings, but technically the piano is in the percussion family because the way the sound is produced is actually the hammers hitting the strings.

  1. Is there a difference between a classical guitar and an acoustic guitar?

Classical guitars and acoustic guitars look very similar, but they are actually different in a few key ways. Classical guitars have smaller bodies and wider fingerboards than acoustic guitars. They also use nylon strings instead of steel strings. You can put nylon strings on a standard acoustic guitar (this is a great idea for beginning guitar players to make it less painful on the fingers), but you cannot put steel strings on an acoustic guitar. Classical guitarists also hold their instrument differently than other guitarists, with the neck pointed at a higher angle.

  1. What does "pitchy" or "out of tune" mean?

You've heard critics claiming that a singer or instrumentalist is "pitchy" or "out of tune." You may have even heard people claim that someone is "sharp" or "flat." What this means is that the note or notes being produced are somewhere between the note that is intended and its next-door neighbor. For instance, if a singer should be singing a C, and instead is half way between C and C#, that singer is "sharp," "pitchy," or "out-of-tune." Of course, it gets worse. Sometimes a singer or instrumentalist can be even further from the intended note. You don't necessarily have to have trained ears to detect this. Most people can hear these situations, and even if they don't know what's technically going on, they know it's "bad."

  1. What does "singing in harmony" mean?

Essentially, "harmony" refers to when 2 or more notes are happening at the same time that sound good together. These notes should be part of the same chord, or be passing tones that are part of the same scale. A good experiment if you have a friend and a piano... Sing a "3rd" away from each other, meaning that you're 2 notes away. For instance, if one of you sings C and the other sings E, it will be pretty! That's harmony! If you both sing the same note, that's called "unison."

  1. What are flat and sharp?

The easiest way to explain flat and sharp is by looking at a piano. If you are playing a white note, you are playing a "natural" note. To go one half step "sharp" would mean to play the closest black note to your right. To play one half step "flat" would be to play the closest black note to your left. For instance, "G" or "G Natural" is between Gb (left) and G# (right).

Now here's where it gets really crazy. Gb is the same note as F#. G# is the same as Ab. Every black note has 2 names. Notes that have the same sound and 2 different names, like G# and Ab, are called enharmonic notes.

  1. What do major and minor mean?

Major and minor are 2 different types of scales or chords. Major sounds happy, and minor sounds sad.

  1. What's the difference between a major chord and a major scale?

This is a question that comes up a lot when I'm teaching because sometimes when I ask a student for "major," they don't know whether I'm talking about the scale or the chord. To put it very simply, a scale is a series of notes played in a row, and a chord is 3 or more notes played together that make a specific sound. The chord actually comes from the scale. For instance, if you take a C major scale, the notes are C D E F G A B C. If you want to play a C major chord, you would take the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of that scale, or C E and G.

If we wanted to do the same example but with minor, a C minor scale is: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C. And here is a C minor chord: C Eb and G (the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degrees of that scale).

  1. How many musical scales are there?

There are more scales than you could possibly dream of! The typical scales that a music student learns are:

  • Major Scale
  • Natural Minor Scale (derived from the same notes)
  • Harmonic Minor Scale (Natural Minor with an adjusted 7th degree)
  • Melodic Minor Scale (Natural Minor with adjusted 6th and 7th degrees)
  • Blues Scale
  • Major Pentatonic Scale
  • Minor Pentatonic Scale
  • Chromatic Scale

Then if a student gets into more advanced studies, they might come across the following:

  • Neopolitan Scales
  • Hungarian Scales
  • Bebop Scale
  • Altered Scale
  • All 7 Modes
  1. What's a "mode" in music?

"Modes" are typically learned by jazz students, and can be explained in a relatively simple way... but it's not so simple. Here are the first 3 to give you an idea...

  • Ionian is the easiest mode to understand, because it is the same as a major scale. The easiest way to play an Ionian is to play from C to C on the piano, all white notes. That's a C Ionian Scale, or a C Major Scale.
  • Dorian is a nice and minor sounding mode. The easiest way to play a dorian mode is to play a D Dorian Scale, which means to play from D to D on the piano. That's D Dorian! But I don't let my students get away from stopping there. What if you need to play a C Dorian? The best way to understand a Dorian mode is that it's like a natural minor scale with a raised 6th degree. If you know your minor scales, that will help you play Dorian easily in any key
  • Phrygian is a pretty funky sounding mode. Play E to E on the piano - that's E Phrygian. A better way to think about it is that it's like a natural minor with a lowered 2nd degree.
  • Lydian - F to F on the piano. A better way to think about it is like a major scale with a raised 4th degree.
  • Mixolydian - G to G on the piano. This is like a major scale with a lowered 7th degree.
  • Aeolian - A to A on the piano. This is the same as a natural minor scale.
  • Locrian - B to B on the piano. This one is the weirdest sounding of all. Instead of comparing this to a major or minor scale (which would involve too many adjustments), I like to think about this as a scale starting on "ti" or the 7th degree of the scale. If you're going to skip learning any of the modes, this would be the one.
  1. What is music theory?

When I was in middle school, I said something about music theory and my friend (who was not a musician) said "I don't have a theory," which made me laugh. She was offended, but I honestly thought she was being hilarious. That was the first of many moments in my life when I realized that not everyone knows the same things about music as I do. It's really easy to forget that and then end up in a situation where people have no idea what you're talking about.

Despite what my friend assumed at the time, Music Theory isn't just your theory about music. Music theory is the math of music. It can span from the simplest concepts like identifying the treble clef to super-advanced concepts that you'd probably only come across if you were a student at a music college. One example of music theory that most people experience is the theory associated with rhythm - quarter notes, half notes, etc. (do you remember "ta-ta-titi-ta" from elementary school music class?) Music theory can seem boring, but once you make the connection, you'll realize how important it is (and it can actually be quite exciting to learn). If you want to learn a little more, check out my article: What is Music Theory?

  1. What does it mean when a song is "in a key?"

If you read #15, you understand what a scale is, and how a chord could go along with that scale. If you have a song in a specific key, that song is based on notes in that scale, and chords that are built from notes in that scale. If you are playing a song in the key of C for instance, the keyboardist will be playing only white notes (yes, C major is the major key that is all white notes, that's why you hear about that key more than any other). The chords being played will likely be C major, F major, and G major (if it's a rock song). If someone wants to change the song to the key of F#, the keyboardist will find themselves playing almost all black notes, and the chords will now be F# major, B major, and C# major.

  1. What does it mean when an instrument is "in a key?"

This is the most confusing concept of all, and still puzzles many musicians (unless of course they play a wind or brass instrument). Most instruments are in the "key of C" which, for the sake of this explanation, means they're "normal" instruments. But because of the nature of some brass and woodwind instruments, many of these instruments are in different "keys." For instance, an alto saxophone is in the key of Eb (E flat). What this means is that when they play a C on their instrument, it's actually what everyone else would hear as an Eb. This means that the alto saxophone is a "transposed" instrument. The tenor sax is in the key of Bb, so when a tenor saxophone plays a C, it's what everyone else hears as Bb. If a band director tells an entire band to play C, you would hear a cacophony of different notes. Now if a band director tells everyone to play "concert C" then everyone would be playing true C. Instrumentalists who play transposed instruments know how to play "concert notes" as well, meaning playing them the way they really sound.

Why are instruments transposed? It seems a little unnecessarily complicated, doesn't it? Well, it is actually more complicated for the conductor or the composer, because they have to be able to decode many different keys at the same time. For the instrumentalists, the transposed instruments can be a little confusing, especially if the instrumentalist is coming from playing another instrument. There are a few explanations for this crazy system. The first involves the nature of the instrument. Horns are essentially tubes, and therefore have a specific note that they produce before being manipulated. When these instruments were first developed, they only played the harmonic series on that note, and therefore weren't able to play in every key, so several versions of each instrument were made in different keys. As time went on, favorites were chosen and valves were developed, creating new solutions to those problems. Another thing to think about is that depending on the range of an instrument, keeping it in the "concert" key would make the music almost impossible to read because it would be off of the staff. This also makes it easier for instrumentalists who double on other instruments - for instance, many alto saxophone players also play the clarinet. As inconvenient as it may seem, having these instruments in different keys actually solves more problems than it causes.


Explaining music to non-musicians or brand new music students can be disorienting for people who have known it for so long. It's hard to remember what pieces of information are common knowledge, and which ones are only known by music nerds like us. I realize that some of these explanations probably just raise more questions, but I hope that I was able to at least shed some light on some of those weird music-related questions that you wish you knew how to ask.

Leslie Rayborn
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