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An introduction to a classification system for all musical isntruments.

A Romanian translation of this module is available at Web Hosting Geeks .


There are two common ways to classify musical instruments. One way is to group them as they are in a Western orchestra : strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. This method is more widely recognized, particularly among non-musicians, and it is very useful in its traditional setting, Western classical and art music . However, it is difficult or confusing to apply to the many non-orchestral instruments.

The other way, first published in 1914 by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, is to group instruments according to how their sounds are produced. This method can be used to classify any instrument and is now preferred by most musicologists. The Hornbostel-Sachs method is more specific, more inclusive, and more accurate:

  • More specific - Categories are subdivided into smaller and smaller categories, making a sort of family tree of related instruments (related by function, not by history).
  • More inclusive - Any instrument can be categorized.
  • More accurate - Instruments are grouped according to how sounds are produced, not according to which instruments the composer is likely to group them with in the music or which orchestra member is likely to play them.

The major categories are chordophones , aerophones , membranophones , and idiophones . Some musicologists also include a separate category for electrophones . Here is an introduction to the major groups in each of these categories. Familiar instruments in each category are mentioned when possible; some categories, while very popular around the world, will not have any specific instruments that are widely familiar.


In a chordophone , the sound is made by vibrating strings. The main groups of chordophones are classified according to the relationship between the strings and the resonator. ( Resonators pick up the original vibrations and vibrate sympathetically with them, amplifying the original sounds and altering them so that they sound more musical.) Subcategories depend on how the string is played (plucked or bowed for example), and types of resonators.

A banjo is classified as a plucked lute chordophone.
Harps are one of the main subcategories of chordophone.

    Chordophone categories

  • In zithers , the strings are stretched across, over, or inside a resonator, or between two resonators. The resonator can be a hollow tube, a gourd, a board, a hollow box, or even a pit in the ground. Some have fingerboards with or without frets; some have a keyboard with a complex mechanism; many are simply a multitude of strings strung from one end of the resonator to the other. The strings can be struck (as in a piano or hammered dulcimer) or plucked (harpsichord or Appalachian dulcimer).
  • In lutes , the strings stretch across the resonator and up a neck. They may be plucked (guitar, banjo) or bowed (violin, fiddle)
  • In lyres , the strings leave the resonator at right angles to an edge and run to a cross bar that is held away from the resonator(as in the classical Greek lyre that is so often used as a symbol of music).
  • In harps (like the orchestral harp and the Irish harp), the strings leave the resonator at a slant (smaller than a right angle) up to a neck connected to the resonator.
  • In a musical bow , the string or strings are stretched from one end of a wooden bow to the other. Some have resonators, but many don't. They can be plucked or bowed (with a second, smaller bow).

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, A parent's guide to band. OpenStax CNX. Jun 25, 2007 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10428/1.1
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