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Classification of Instruments

Compilled by Dr. Anikó Fehér

World Music Instrument Collection
Musical instruments
Instrument Gallery
Instrument collection

musical instrument is constructed or used for the purpose of making the sounds of music. In principle, anything that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument. The history of musical instruments dates back to the beginnings of human culture. The academic study of musical instruments is called organology.

The date and origin of the first device of disputed status as a musical instrument dates back as far as 67,000 years old; artifacts commonly accepted to be early flutes date back as far as about 37,000 years old. However, most historians believe determining a specific time of musical instrument invention to be impossible due to the subjectivity of the definition.

Musical instruments developed independently in many populated regions of the world. However, contact among civilizations resulted in the rapid spread and adaptation of most instruments in places far from their origin. By the Middle Ages, instruments from Mesopotamia could be found in the Malay Archipelago and Europeans were playing instruments from North Africa. Development in the Americas occurred at a slower pace, but cultures of North, Central, and South America shared musical instruments.

There are many different methods of classifying musical instruments. All methods examine some combination of the physical properties of the instrument, how music is performed on the instrument, the range of the instrument, and the instrument's place in an orchestra or other ensemble. Some methods arise as a result of disagreements between experts on how instruments should be classified. While a complete survey of the systems of classifications is beyond the scope of this article, a summary of major systems follows.

Ancient systems

An ancient system, 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-Charles 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: string instruments, wind instruments, percussion instruments, and drums.



Victor-Charles Mahillon (March 10, 1841 in Brussels – June 17, 1924 in St. Jean near Cap-Ferrat, Belgium) was a Belgian musician and writer on musical topics. He built, collected, and described more than 1500 musical instruments.

The son of Charles Mahillon, he started working at his father's factory of musical instruments in 1865. In 1869, he started the musical journal L'Echo musical, which ran until 1886.

He was curator of the Conservatoire museum in Brussels from 1879. His classification of instruments was later adopted by Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, and is still in use today.

Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs later took up the ancient scheme and published an extensive new scheme for classification in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914. Their scheme is widely used today, and is most often known as the Hornbostel-Sachs system.

Sachs, Curt

(b Berlin, 29 June 1881; d New York, 5 Feb 1959). American musicologist of German birth. He attended the Französisches Gymnasium in his native city while at the same time taking lessons in piano, music theory and composition with Leo Schrattenholz. He then went to Berlin University and, though he also studied music history with Fleischer, Kretzschmar and Wolf, it was in the history of art that he took the doctorate (1904) with a dissertation on Verrocchio’s sculpture. He then pursued a career as an art historian, helping to edit the Monatshefte für kunstwissenschaftliche Literatur and working at the Kunstgewerbe Museum in Berlin. In 1909, however, he began to devote himself wholly to music. After military service in World War I, Sachs joined Hornbostel at the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and co-authored the seminal article ‘Systematik der Musikinstrumente’ (1914), which laid out a new basis for the systematic classification of Western and non-Western instruments. In 1920 he was appointed director of the Staatliche Instrumentensammlung, which was then attached to the Staatliche Akademie Hochschule für Musik, Berlin. (It became part of the Staatliches Institut für Deutsche Musikforschung in 1935.) Sachs completely reorganized this distinguished collection of musical instruments, having many of the instruments restored so that they could be heard. At the same time he was an external lecturer at the university, becoming reader in 1921 and professor in 1928; he also taught at the Hochschule für Musik and the Akademie für Kirchen- und Schulmusik. In addition he held various advisory posts in German museums and in the official educational establishment. In 1930 and 1932, for example, he was invited to Cairo by the Egyptian government to serve as a consultant on oriental music.

Being Jewish, Sachs was deprived of all his academic positions in 1933; he went to Paris, where he worked with André Schaeffner at the ethnological museum, the Musée de l’Homme (then Musée du Trocadéro), and taught at the Sorbonne. In 1934 he began the series of historical recordings, L’Anthologie Sonore, which provided an introduction to the sound of early music for several generations of students. In 1937 he emigrated to the USA; from 1937 to 1953 he was professor of music at New York University. Besides being a consultant at the New York Public Library, and serving as visiting professor from time to time at various American universities (Harvard, Northwestern and Michigan), Sachs also lectured regularly at Columbia University in New York, where he was made adjunct professor from 1953 until his death. In the last decade of his life he received various honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Hebrew Union College and from the Free University of Berlin; the West German government appointed him an Ordinarius emeritus; the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Musikforschung made him an honorary member; he was president of the American Musicological Society (1950–52) and honorary president of the American Society for Ethnomusicology.

Curt Sachs was a giant among musicologists, as much because of his astounding mastery of a number of subjects as because of his ability to present a comprehensive view of a vast panorama. This latter talent made him a generalist or popularizer in the best sense of the word, a qualification which should not obscure the fact that he developed new fields of inquiry. Indeed his achievement in synthesizing countless facts into a comprehensible whole is all the more impressive since he often dealt with previously unexplored areas. Sachs was one of the founders of comparative musicology (‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’), a forerunner of ethnomusicology, and of modern organology. He not only devised (together with Erich von Hornbostel) the classification scheme for instruments that has gained universal acceptance, but he also wrote a standard dictionary of instruments (1914), a model catalogue of one of the world’s great collections (1922) and an important history of instruments (1940). His studies in the music of the ancient world produced several standard surveys of the field as well as a number of provocative essays. His fascination with the nature of the musical experience led him to an important study of rhythm and tempo, and his concern with the relationship between music and the other arts inspired his world history of the dance and his major cultural historical study, The Commonwealth of Art (1946). Although his methodologies have been criticized for the biases which, as a product of the Berlin ‘cultural-historical’ school, they inevitably inherited, his contributions are still highly valued. Sachs was a great teacher and a warm and vital person, beloved by his many students. He was filled to overflowing with ideas and with energy; the amount of work he produced in his busy life was prodigious.

Hornbostel, Erich M(oritz) von

(b Vienna, 25 Feb 1877; d Cambridge, 28 Nov 1935). Austrian scholar. His parental home was a focus of Viennese musical life (his mother was the singer and Brahms devotee Helene Magnus) and in early youth he studied harmony and counterpoint under Mandyczewski; by his late teens he was an accomplished pianist and composer. After studying natural sciences and philosophy at the universities of Heidelberg and Vienna (1895–9) he took the doctorate in chemistry in Vienna (1900) and then moved to Berlin, where, under the influence of Stumpf at the university, he became absorbed in the study of experimental psychology and musicology, particularly tone psychology. He was an assistant to Stumpf at the Psychological Institute (1905) until its archives became the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv, of which he was director from 1906 to 1933. In 1917 he was appointed professor at the university and in recognition of his achievements he was also given a lectureship without having to write a Habilitationsschrift. His pupils and assistants at the achive who later became prominent scholars included Fritz Bose, George Herzog, Hickmann, Husmann, Kolinski, Lachmann, Marius Schneider, Sachs, Wiora and the American composer Henry Cowell. Collectively they were known as the Berlin School. On being dismissed in 1933 (his mother was Jewish) he fled to Switzerland and then emigrated to New York with his wife and son to accept a lectureship at the New School for Social Research, but failing health obliged him to move to London in 1934. He spent the last months of his life in Cambridge working on a collection of ‘primitive’ recordings at the Psychological Laboratory.With Stumpf and Otto Abraham, Hornbostel initiated the application of the concepts and methods of acoustics, psychology and physiology to the study of non-European musical cultures. Their efforts were decisive in achieving recognition for the newly developed discipline ‘vergleichende Musikwissenschaft’ (comparative musicology). With Abraham, Hornbostel published a series of essays on non-European music (Japanese, Turkish, Indian, Amerindian) based on materials at the Phonogramm-Archiv, and suggested a method for transcribing music from recordings. In 1904 they outlined a programme in comparative musicology similar to that of comparative linguistics. At the Second Congress of the International Musical Society (Basle, 1906) Hornbostel provided sufficient evidence for the use of empirical musicological data in ethnological research. Also in 1906 he undertook field research among the Pawnee Indians in North America, and in subsequent years concentrated on building up the collection at the Phonogramm-Archiv. During World War I his work with the psychologist Max Wertheimer on the physical and psychological basis of sound detectors took him to the major battle fronts and gave him the opportunity to record folk music in prison camps. In 1932 he was a leading participant at the Congress of Arabian Music in Cairo.Despite the breadth and scope of his writings (86 articles and 59 reviews) Hornbostel never published a synthesis of his investigations. Some of his ideas, such as the theory of blown 5ths and the study of scale systems, have met with severe criticism (the former theory was attacked by Bukofzer, Lloyd and Schlesinger, but defended by Kunst). Yet his classification system of instruments (with Sachs, 1914, based on a system earlier proposed by V.-C. Mahillon) and his studies on the psychology of musical perception, the cross-cultural implications of tuning systems, and folk polyphonies remain important to ethnomusicology. His early writings, along with invaluable review articles up to 1960, have been collected and translated in Hornbostel: Opera omnia (1975–). Hornbostel's papers are housed with Max Wertheimer's papers in the special collections of the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, Music Division, New York Public Librar

Idiophones, such as the xylophone and rattle , produce sound by vibrating themselves; they are sorted into concussion, percussion, shaken, scraped, split, and plucked idiophones.

Membranophones, such as drums or kazoos , produce sound by a vibrating membrane; they are sorted into predrum membranophones, tubular drums, friction idiophones, kettledrums (timpani), friction drums, and mirlitons.

Chordophones, such as the piano or cello, produce sound by vibrating strings; they are sorted into zithers , keyboard chordophones, lyres , harps, lutes, and bowed chordophones .

Aerophones, such as the pipe organ or oboe, produce sound by vibrating columns of air; they are sorted into free aerophones, flutes, organs, reedpipes, and lip-vibrated aerophones .

Sachs later 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.

An idiophone is any musical instrument which creates sound primarily by way of the instrument vibrating itself, without the use of strings or membranes. It is the first of the four main divisions in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification (see List of idiophones by Hornbostel-Sachs number). Idiophones are probably the oldest type of musical instrument (not counting the human voice). In the early classification of Victor-Charles Mahillon, this group of instruments was called autophones.

Most percussion instruments which are not drums are idiophones. Hornbostel-Sachs divides idiophones into four main sub-categories. The first division is the struck idiophones (sometimes called concussion idiophones). This includes most of the non-drum percussion instruments familiar in the west. They include all idiophones which are made to vibrate by being hit, either directly with a stick or hand (like the wood block , singing bowltriangle or marimba), or indirectly, by way of a scraping or shaking motion (like maracas or flexatone). Various types of bells fall into both categories.

The other three sub-divisions are rarer. They are plucked idiophones, such as the jew's harpamplified cactuskouxiandan moi, music box or mbira (lamellophone / thumb piano); blown idiophones, of which there are a very small number of examples, the Aeolsklavier being one; and friction idiophones, such as the singing bowl, glass harmonicaglass harpturntableverrophone,daxophonestyrophonemusical saw, or nail violin (a number of pieces of metal or wood rubbed with a bow).

Other classifications use six main sub-categories: Concussion Idiophones are instruments that produce sound by being struck against one another. Percussion idiophones produce sound by being struck with a non-vibrating foreign object. Examples of non-vibrating objects are mallets, hammers, and sticks. Rattle idiophones are shaken. Scraper idiophones are instruments that are scraped with a stick or other foreign objects to give off a sound. Plucked idiophones produce sound by plucking a flexible tongue from within the instrument itself. Lastly, Friction idiophones are rubbed to increase vibration and sound intensity.

Idiophones are made out of materials that give off unique sounds. The majority of idiophones are made out of glass, metal, ceramics, and wood. Idiophones are considered part of the percussion section in an orchestra.

A number of idiophones that are normally struck, such as vibraphone bars and cymbals, can also be bowed.

membranophone is any musical instrument which produces sound primarily by way of a vibrating stretched membrane. It is one of the four main divisions of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification.

Most membranophones are drums. Hornbostel-Sachs divides drums into three main types: struck drums, where the skin is hit with a stick, the hand, or something else; string drums, where a knotted string attached to the skin is pulled, passing its vibrations onto the skin; and friction drums, where some sort of rubbing motion causes the skin to vibrate (a common type has a stick passing through a hole in the skin which is pulled back and forth).

In addition to drums, there is another kind of membranophone, called the singing membranophone, of which the best known type is the kazoo. These instruments modify a sound produced by something else, commonly the human voice, by having a skin vibrate in sympathy with it.

chordophone is any musical instrument which makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points. It is one of the four main divisions of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification.

What many would call string instruments are classified as chordophones. Violins, guitars, lyres and harps are some examples. However, the word also embraces instruments that many westerners would hesitate to call string instruments, such as the musical bow and the piano (which, although sometimes called a string instrument, is also called a keyboard instrument and a percussion instrument).

They can be

rubbed, frictioned with a bow (violin, hurdy gurdy)

plucked, strummed (citeratambura, harp, koboz, guitar)

beated, striked (cimbalomütőgardon=beaten gardon, piano)

Hornbostel-Sachs divides chordophones into two main groups: instruments without a resonator that is an integral part of the instrument and instruments with such a resonator. Most western instruments fall into the second group, but the piano and harpsichord fall into the first. Hornbostel and Sachs' criterion for determining which sub-group an instrument falls into is that if the resonator can be removed without destroying the instrument, then it is classified as 31. The idea that the piano's casing, which acts as a resonator, could be removed without destroying the instrument, may seem odd, but if the action and strings of the piano were taken out of its box, it could still be played. This is not true of the violin, because the string passes over a bridge located on the resonator box, so removing the resonator would mean the strings had no tension.

Electric string instruments often have an electromagnetic pickup with which the sound can be amplified. The electric guitar is the most famous example, but there are new instruments like the overtone koto who make use of the new possibilities that pickups offer.

How chordophones work?

When you pluck the instrument the string vibrates. There is usually something that makes the sound reverberate such as the body of a guitar or violin. The strings are set into motion by either plucking (like a harp), strumming (like a guitar), by rubbing with a bow (like a violin or cello), or by striking it (like a piano or berimbau). Some common chordophones are the banjo, the dulcimer, the fiddle, the guitar, the harp, the lute, the piano, the ukulele, the viola and the violin.

An aerophone (from gr. ἀ ήρ "air" and φωνή "voice") is any musical instrument which produces sound primarily by causing a body of air to vibrate, without the use of strings or membranes, and without the vibration of the instrument itself adding considerably to the sound. It is one of the four main classes of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification.

Hornbostel-Sachs divides aerophones by whether vibrating air is contained in the instrument itself or not.

The first class includes instruments where the vibrating air is not contained by the instrument itself, such as the bullroarer. Such instruments are called free aerophones. This class includes free reed instruments, such as the harmonica, but also many instruments unlikely to be called wind instruments at all by most people, such as sirens and whips.

The second class includes instruments where the vibrating air is contained by the instrument. This class includes almost all the instruments generally called wind instruments - including the didgeridoo, and brass instruments in the west, such as the flute,sheng, the oboe and the trombone.

Additionally, very loud sounds can be made by explosions directed into, or being detonated inside of resonant cavities. Instruments such as the calliope (and steam whistle), as well as the pyrophone might thus be considered as instruments, despite the fact that the "wind" or "air" may be steam or an air-

The fifth group, electrophone category was added to the Hornbostel-Sachs musical instrument classfication system by Sachs in 1940, to describe instruments involving electricity. Sachs broke down his 5th category into 3 subcategories: electrically actuated acoustic instruments; electrically amplified acoustic instruments; instruments in which make sound primarily by way of electrically driven oscillators, such as theremins or synthesizers, which he called radioelectric instruments. Francis William Galpin provided such a group in his own classification system, which is closer to Mahillon than Sachs-Hornbostel. For example, in Galpin's 1937 book A Textbook of European Musical Instruments, he lists electrophones with three second-level divisions for sound generation ("by oscillation," "electro-magnetic," and "electro-static"), as well as third-level and fourth-level categories based on the control method. Sachs himself proposed subcategories 51, 52, and 53, on pages 447-467 of his 1940 book The History of Musical Instruments. However, the original 1914 version of the system did not acknowledge the existence of his 5th category.

Present-day ethnomusicologists, such as Margaret Kartomi, and Terry Ellingson (PhD dissertation, 1979, p. 544) suggest that, in keeping with the spirit of the original Hornbostel Sachs classification scheme, of categorization by what first produces the initial sound in the instrument, that only subcategory 53 should remain in the electrophones category. Thus it has been more recently proposed that, for example, the pipe organ (even if it uses electric key action to control solenoid valves) remain in the aerophones category, and that the electric guitar remain in the chordophones category, and so on.

Thus, in present-day ethnomusicology, an electrophone is considered to be only musical instruments which produce sound primarily by electrical means. It is usually considered one of five main categories in the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification (though it is not actually present in the scheme published in 1914).