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Musical instrument classification

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Musical instrument classification

List of musical instruments by Hornbostel-Sachs number

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At various times, and in various different cultures, various schemes of musical instrument classification have been used. The most commonly used system in use in the west today divides instruments into string instruments, wind instruments and percussion instruments. However other ones have been devised, and some cultures also use different schemes.

The oldest known scheme of classifying instruments is Chinese and dates from the 4th century BC. It groups instruments according to what they are made out of. All instruments made out of stone are in one group, all those made out of wood in another, those made out of silk are in a third, and so on.

More usually, instruments are classified according to how the sound is produced. The system used in the west today, dividing instruments into wind, strings, and percussion, is of Greek origin. The scheme was later expanded by Martin Agricola, who distinguished plucked string instruments, such as guitars, from bowed string instruments, such as violins. Classical musicians today do not always maintain this division (although plucked strings are grouped separately from bowed strings in sheet music), but there is a distinction made between wind instruments with a reed (woodwind instruments) and wind instruments where the air is set in motion directly by the lips (brass instruments).

There are, however, problems with this system. Some rarely seen and non-western instruments do not fit very neatly into it. The serpent, for example, an old instrument rarely seen nowadays, ought to be classified as a brass instrument, as a column of air is set in motion by the lips. However, it looks more like a woodwind instrument, and is closer to one in many ways, having finger-holes to control pitch, rather than valves. There are also problems with classifying certain keyboard instruments. For example, the piano has strings, but they are struck by hammers, so it is not clear whether it should be classified as a string instrument, or a percussion instrument. For this reason, keyboard instruments are often regarded as inhabiting a category of their own, including all instruments played by a keyboard, whether they have struck strings (like the piano), plucked strings (like the harpsichord) or no strings at all (like the celesta). It might be said that with these extra categories, the classical system of instrument classification focuses less on the fundamental way in which instruments produce sound, and more on the technique required to play them.

An ancient system of Indian origin, dating from at least the 1st century BC, divides instruments into four main classification groups: instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating strings; instruments where the sound is produced by vibrating columns of air; percussion instruments made of wood or metal; and percussion instruments with skin heads, or drums. Victor Mahillon later adopted a system very similar to this. He was the curator of the musical instrument collection of the conservatoire in Brussels, and for the 1888 catalogue of the collection divided instruments into four groups: strings, winds, drums, and other percussion. This scheme was later taken up by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs who published an extensive new scheme for classication in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914. Their scheme is widely used today, and is most often known as the Sachs-Hornbostel system (or the Hornbostel-Sachs system).

The original Sachs-Hornbostel system classified instruments into four main groups:

  1. idiophones, such as the xylophone, which produce sound by vibrating themselves;
  2. membranophones, such as drums or kazoos, which produce sound by a vibrating membrane;
  3. chordophones, such as the piano or cello, which produce sound by vibrating strings;
  4. aerophones, such as the pipe organ or oboe, which produce sound by vibrating columns of air.

Later scholars added a fifth category, electrophones, such as theremins, which produce sound by electronic means. Within each category are many subgroups. The system has been criticised and revised over the years, but remains widely used by ethnomusicologists and organologists.

Metal idiophones are frequently called metallophones. See also Lamellaphone.

Instruments by range

Western instruments are also often classified by their musical range in comparison with other instruments in the same family. These terms are named after singing voice classifications:

  • Soprano instruments: flute, recorder, violin, trumpet
  • Alto instruments: oboe, alto flute, viola, French horn
  • Tenor instruments: clarinet, English horn, trombone
  • Bass instruments: bassoon, double bass, bass clarinet, tuba

Some instruments fall into more than one category: for example, the cello may be considered either tenor or bass, depending on how its music fits into the ensemble, and the trombone may be alto, tenor, or bass and French horn bassbaritone, tenor or alto, depending on on which range it is played.

Many instruments have their range as part of their name: soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, baritone horn, alto flute, bass flute, alto recorder, bass guitar, etc.

Other classifications

Various (groups of) instruments are known after a common, though often not exclusive, type or sphere of use, such as signal instrument.


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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