Classification of Musical Instruments

Sachs-Hornbostel System

Curt Sachs (1881 - 1959) was a German musicologist known for his extensive study and expertise on the history of musical instruments. Sachs worked alongside Erich Moritz von Hornbostel (1877 - 1935), an Austrian musicologist and expert on the history of non-European music. Their collaborative work is now known as the Sachs-Hornbostel system, a method of classifying musical instruments according to the type of vibrating material used to produce sound.

Classification of Musical Instruments

Idiophones - Musical instruments in which a vibrating solid material is used to produce sound. Examples of solid materials used in such instruments are stone, wood and metal. Idiophones are differentiated according to how you make it vibrate. Such as:


  1. Concussion - A pair of similar instruments that are struck together or struck against each other to create sound. Examples: cymbals, castanets


  2. Friction - Instruments that produce sound when rubbed. An example of these are musical glasses in which the musician rubs his moistened fingers on the rim of the glasses to produce sound.


  3. Percussion - Musical instruments that produce sound by striking or using a striker. Examples: xylophones, triangles, bells, gongs, steel drums


  4. Plucked - Also known as linguaphones, these are musical instruments that need to be plucked to create sound, such as the Jew's harp in which the player plucks the "tongue" of the instrument.


  1. Scraped - As the name implies, these are instruments that when scraped, produce sound. Examples of these are cog rattles and washboards.


  2. Shaken - Musical instruments that need to be shaken to create sound. A perfect example are maracas which are believed to have been invented by native Indians of Puerto Rico.


  1. Stamping - Instruments that produce sound when stamped on a hard surface, such as the shoes used by tap dancers.


  2. Stamped - When sound is produced by the material itself that's being stamped on.

Membranophones - Musical instruments that have vibrating stretched membranes or skin that produce sound. Membranophones are classified according to the shape of the instrument.


  1. Kettle Drums - Also known as vessel drums, these are rounded at the bottom and may be tunable or non-tunable. The vibrating membrane is either laced, nailed or glued to the body and the player uses his hands, a beater or both to strike it.


  2. Tubular Drums - Are further classified into barrel, cylindrical, conical, double conical, goblet, hourglass and shallow. Tubular drums may either be tunable and nontunable. Like the kettle drums, it may be played by using both the hands or a striker and the vibrating membrane is either laced, nailed or glued to the body.


  3. Friction Drums - Instead of striking, the stretched membrane vibrates when there is friction. These are non-tunable and the player uses a cord or stick to create sound.


  4. Mirlitons - Unlike other musical instruments belonging to the membranophones, mirlitons are not drums. The membranes produce sound with the vibration of a player's voice or instrument. Mirlitons are non-tunable, a good example of this type are kazoos.


  1. Other membranophones are called frame drums in which the skin or membrane is stretched over a frame such as tambourines. Also, pot drums and ground drums fall under the membranophone category.
Aerophones - Music instruments which produce sound by a vibrating mass of air. This is more commonly known as wind instruments and there are three basic types:
  1. Brasswinds - Made of metal, particularly brass, these instruments create sound through the vibration of a player's lips on the mouthpiece. The air that passes from the player's lips goes to the air column of the instrument and thus creates sound. Examples: trombone, trumpet, tuba
  1. Woodwinds - Originally made of wood but now other materials have also been used. On reed instruments like the saxophone and the clarinet, a thin material is placed on the mouthpiece so that when the player blows into it the air is forced to go to a reed and sets it to vibrate. In double-reed instruments such as bassoons and oboes, the material placed on the opening of the mouthpiece is thicker. In woodwinds such as flutes, the player blows air into the edge of a mouthpiece thus creating sound.
  2. Free-reed - Refers to wind instruments that has a freely vibrating reed and the pitch depends on the size of the reed. A good example of this type of instrument is the accordion.

Chordophones - Music instruments that produce sound by means of a stretched vibrating string. There are 5 basic types based on the strings' relationship with the resonator. When a string vibrates, the resonator picks up that vibration and amplifies it giving it a more appealing sound.


  1. Musical bows - May or may not have resonators; the strings are attached and stretched over a wooden bow.


  2. Harps - The strings aren't parallel to the sound board.


  1. Lyres - The strings run through a crossbar holding it away from the resonator. Lyres may either be bowed or plucked.


  2. Lutes - These instruments have necks; the strings are stretched across a resonator and travel up the neck. Lutes may be bowed or plucked.


  3. Zithers - Have no necks; strings are stretched from one end of the board to another end. Zithers may be plucked or struck.

Chordophones also have subcategories depending on how the strings are played. Examples of chordophones played by bowing are double bass, violin and viola. Examples of chordophones that are played by plucking are banjo, guitar, harp, mandolin and ukulele. The piano, dulcimer and the clavichord are examples of chordophones that are struck.

Electrophones - Refers to music instruments that produce sound electronically or produce its initial sound traditionally and then amplified electronically. Some examples of instruments that produce sound electronically are electronic organs and electronic synthesizers. Electric guitars and electric pianos are examples of traditional instruments that are electronically amplified.

In conclusion, when we speak of music instruments of the Western orchestra we refer to them as brass, percussion, strings and woodwinds.

But if we want a more accurate classification of music instruments we refer to the Sachs-Hornbostel System which categorizes each instrument according to how the sound is produced and what material is used to produce sound.