Student, Intermediate and Professional Band Instruments: A Brief Comparison

Music is a language all its own. This doesn’t just apply to the notes on the page or the Italian abbreviations and musical terms. You’ll often hear things like “beginner instrument,” “step-up horn” or “pro model” thrown around. While they sound easy enough to understand from context, terms like this aren’t always descriptive enough for non-musicians to get the full meaning behind them. I’ve had several customers say things like:

  • “Will my kid only need a beginner instrument for beginner band?”

      No, you’ll probably play your beginner instrument through middle school and some of high school.

  • “I don’t need a step-up ‘horn’, my child plays sax”

     “Horn” simply refers to any wind instrument, so you’ll hear clarinets and saxes simply called “horns”.

  • “I’m not a professional, I just want a better instrument”

     Professional is just a level of instrument, no one is going to follow up and make sure you’re playing paid gigs with it.

Statements and questions like these all come from not knowing that there are different levels of instruments produced by manufacturers. (What!? A flute is a flute...right?) But what are the real differences between the “levels of instruments”? What justifies the higher cost? Below is a quick outline of the three basic levels of instruments manufacturers will use to classify their instruments.

Good, better, best
What are the differences between student, intermediate, and professional level instruments?

Student Instruments

  • These are the most affordable instruments a manufacturer will offer
  • Emphasis is on a good instrument that balances quality, playability, and price
  • Will usually have fewer features than more expensive instruments
Student Musicians
Student instruments balance ease of playability, durability, and cost

This is what most students will start on. Highly recommended by directors, these instruments are available for rent-to-own or outright purchase and are a great way to get started with music. Manufacturers design these instruments for ease-of-use, durability, and affordability. Your student may eventually “outgrow” this level, but plenty of students play student instruments all through middle and high school.

Intermediate / Step-Up Instruments

  • Merges the affordability of a student instrument with the more advanced features found at the professional level
  • Keeps cost down compared to professional level instruments
  • A great option when you consider some instruments at this level are available for rent-to-own
Intermediate Musicians
Intermediate instruments include many features usually found on professional instruments but at a lower cost

A bit of a misunderstood category. Some feel intermediate instruments are simply beginner horns with older pro features slapped on. That’s a crude and derogatory description. It's also not accurate. Yes, these instruments share features with both student and professional models, but that’s not a bad thing. The pro features found on intermediate instruments are those that make the most difference in tonal characteristics. Important additions, like a solid silver flute headjoint, will not only improve tone quality substantially, but also keep the cost down when compared to a professional instrument. Not everyone chooses to move this level before eventually purchasing a professional instrument. For those that do, they are a budget freindly gateway to a higher level of instrument quality.

Professional Instruments & Beyond

  • Premier, flagship models offered by manufacturers
  • The latest features, best materials, and highest level of attention to detail
  • The sky’s the limit when it comes to price
Professional Musicians
Designed with the advanced musician in mind, these instruments allow for maximum expression, tone, and musicality

Manufacturers aren’t always consistent when it comes to labels at this point. Some call their top of the line factory instruments “custom” while other manufacturers offer truly customizable, made-to-order instruments. For our purposes, we will only consider factory made instruments. These are by no means inferior products compared to truly custom instruments, and offer the very best of what each manufacturer has to offer. Instruments at this level are truly amazing to play and offer the musician a superb level musical expressivity.