The rules say the following regarding musical instruments (PH p.154):

Each type of musical instrument requires a separate proficiency.

Since this text is an annotation for the equipment list on the same page, one might assume that a "type of musical instrument" refers to entries from the list. So "flute", "horn" and "pan flute" would all be distinct proficiencies.

However, Pipes of Haunting and Pipes of the Sewers both require that (DMG p.185):

You must be proficient with wind instruments to use these pipes.

This suggests that the much broader class of "wind instruments" is a "type of musical instrument" for the purpose of proficiency.

Bards choose proficiency in three musical instruments. What are their choices?


4 Answers 4


The scope of "types of instrument" is illustrated by the PHB

The full text of the passage you quote from says:

Musical Instrument. Several of the most common types of musical instruments are shown on the table as examples. If you have proficiency with a given musical instrument you can add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to play music with the instrument. A bard can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus, as described in chapter 10. Each type of musical instrument requires a separate proficiency.

Here it is clear that 'types of musical instrument' are precisely those given in the table, namely: Bagpipes, Drum, Dulcimer, Flute, Lute, Lyre, Horn, Pan flute, Shawm, Viol.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it does show the scope of 'types of instrument' - each entry is both a "type" and a "given instrument" as per the rule above, and can be used as a basis for selecting other appropriate (types of) instrument.

The magical item descriptions are meant to be inclusive

The magical item entries you give by contrast are meant to be more inclusive than proficiency with one narrow 'type of instrument'. "Wind instruments" as given in the spell descriptions include the 'types of instrument': bagpipes, flute, horn, pan flute, shawm, or any other wind instrument suitable for your setting. So if you have any of those proficiencies, you are good to go. The magical item description is not however meant to be a key to understanding what 'types of instruments' are - this term is illustrated clearly enough in the PHB.


I suspect there is some wording here that's a holdover from earlier versions of D&D, when instruments were grouped into types within the perform skill as follows:

  • Keyboard instruments (harpsichord, piano, pipe organ)
  • Percussion instruments (bells, chimes, drums, gong)
  • String instruments (fiddle, harp, lute, mandolin)
  • Wind instruments (flute, pan pipes, recorder, shawm, trumpet)

So the skill Perform (Wind instruments) would allow you to both play your own masterwork bagpipes and activate the Pipes of Haunting.

Whether someone forgot that instruments are no longer grouped together, or someone forgot to group instruments, I don't know. But until the errata comes out, I would use the above groupings to determine who can use magical instruments.

The example instruments in 5e are all early instruments, so you could also choose other early instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy or sackbut.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ imho this is a great frame-challenging answer! See: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3318/… I hadn't considered that it might just be a historical holdover, but it certainly is possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 16:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ can you say exactly which earlier versions of D&D you have in mind, ideally with a book reference? \$\endgroup\$
    – harlandski
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 16:31
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @harlandski See the D&D 3e Perform skill, e.g. d20srd.org/srd/skills/perform.htm \$\endgroup\$
    – Sebkha
    Commented Apr 19, 2015 at 13:49

The two Pipe magic items require the following.

You must be proficient with wind instruments to use these pipes

Since Wind instruments are not defined as a game term we have to look to what it means in English.

I recommend looking at the the following Wikipedia article on Wind Instruments.

Along with the Woodwind article due to D&D 5e's focus on medieval settings.

If you limit the choice of musical instruments to those in the Player's Handbook the following are wind instruments

Flute, Horn, Pan Pipe, and Shawm.


While the quoted list is about items, i will read it as a guideline for classes of instruments.

A bard who can play a lyre can probably play an harp too, because they have a similiar technique. Instead a bard that can play a lute would have an hard time with a cello performance: in guitar (classical one at least) you don't use the bow to make the strings play.

You could use the following simplified classification to define classes, and apply them other instruments by similiarity.

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS. They are classified according to [a] symphony orchestra, into three main groups. PERCUSSION: Tuned: Xylophone, tubular bells timpani; Untuned: Triangle, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, gong, bass drum. WIND: Woodwind: Recorder, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, double bassoon; Brass: Trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba. STRING: Bowed: Violin, viola, violencello, double bass; Struck: Piano; Plucked: Harp, guitar. Image by Elisa Herrara, CEIP Colón

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ Image needs more cowbell. (Also, saxophone, bugle, glockenspiel, etc.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Foon
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 20:32
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ While this is a great answer if the question was "how are musical instruments classified into groups in real life?", it doesn't exactly help when dealing with D&D rules that are known to play quick and dirty with realism. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 9:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Theik The descriptions of the magic pipes use the words "wind instruments" - which are not themselves defined by the rules. Since we thus have to look for the natural English definition of wood instruments, this guide is as good as any. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Sep 3, 2021 at 21:22

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