In this article, you will learn about the different types of instruments and their classifications. First, let’s get this question out of the way.
How many types of instruments are there? There are five types of instruments: strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, and keyboards.
Now let’s get into exactly what they are and which instruments are in each instrument family.
If you’re looking for complete lists of instruments of each instrument family then click any of these:
The Different Types Of Instruments
The 5 main types of instrument families:
Instruments that fall under the “strings” category produce sound by employing a vibrating string or strings. The strings can be plucked, bowed, struck, or touched in other ways to make them vibrate.
The performer controls the pitch by controlling the speed of the vibration. The vibration is then sent out to the body of the instrument, where it is amplified in some way.
Instruments are known to us as “brass” and got their name from the material originally used to make them.
However, although most “brass” instruments are still made of brass, some (like the didgeridoo, for example) are made of wood or other materials.
They are considered members of the brass family, though, because of the way the sound is produced: that is, by using the lips to vibrate air as it is blown into the instrument.
Woodwinds can produce sound because when air passes over an edge such as a hole or reed, a vibration occurs. Some instruments made out of brass, such as a saxophone, are woodwinds because of the reed that produces their sound.
Not all woodwind instruments are made of wood. They can also be made of metal, cane, or even clay. Within the woodwind family, there are two subgroups: flutes and reeds.
Percussion instruments produce sound through an impact (the percussive action of one object striking another). The category includes what are thought to be the oldest musical instruments in history.
Percussion instruments can be either pitched (producing an identifiable musical note) or unpitched. They can be used in a musical piece to play either the melody, harmony, or rhythm part.
Sometimes an instrument is considered part of the percussion section of the orchestra, but it is not a percussive instrument. Examples of this case would be a siren or conch shell.
The final member of the musical instrument family is Keyboards. Historically, there have been differences of opinion regarding where instruments such as the piano and the harpsichord fit into the family of instruments.
Some considered pianos to be string instruments. After all, a piano has over 200 strings, and it is the vibration of the strings that is responsible for the piano’s sound.
But the piano has also been thought of as a percussion instrument since it is the percussive action of a hammer against the string that sets off its vibrations.
With the invention of electronically keyed instruments such as electric pianos and synthesizers, it has become common practice to think of all instruments that are played by striking keys as members of the “keyboard” family.
Whereas families are a convenient way of grouping similar instruments together and can be especially useful when setting up an orchestra and when writing and arranging musical compositions, there is another way to group instruments: by classification.
Classification can tell us many things about an instrument, such as its place of origin, its function, or the range of tones that it produces.
Organologists (people who study the science of musical instruments and their classifications) and ethnomusicologists (people who study music in the context of its cultural and social influences) are aided by having a classification system in place. It allows them to better understand how an instrument’s historical development and how it fits into the social milieu.
Musicologists and students also use classification systems to recognize how lesser-known instruments generate tones and other sounds.
Hornbostel-Sachs classification system
A system of classifying musical instruments that are commonly used among ethnomusicologists was developed in 1914 by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs. It is known as the Hornbostel-Sachs system, and it classifies each musical instrument into one of five categories:
- Idiophones: instruments that make sounds by their vibrations (example: xylophone)
- Membranophones: instruments that make sounds using a membrane that vibrates (example: drum)
- Chordophones: instruments that produce sounds by strings that vibrate (example: cello)
- Aerophones: instruments that produce sounds by vibrating columns of air (example: oboe)
- Electrophones: instruments that make sounds utilizing electronics (example: synthesizer).
Within each of these categories, there are additional levels of subcategories. For example, Idiophones are divided into those that are struck, plucked, played by friction, or blown, with an additional group labeled “unclassified idiophones.” Each category and subcategory are numbered in a way that is similar to that of the Dewey Decimal System.
Here is an example of how the Idiophone classification is divided up (with examples of representative instruments in parentheses):
- 1 Idiophone
- 11 Struck idiophones
- 111 Directly struck idiophones
- 111.1 Concussion Idiophones or clappers
- 111.11 Concussion sticks or sticks of clap (clapstick)
- 111.12 Concussion plaques or plaque clappers (paiban)
- 111.13 Concussion troughs or trough clappers (devil chase)
- 111.14 Concussion vessels or vessel clappers (spoons)
- 111.141 Castanets
- 111.142 Cymbals
- 111.2 Percussion Idiophones
- 111.21 Percussion sticks or bars
- 111.211 Individual percussion sticks
- 111.212 Sets of percussion sticks in a range of different pitches combined into one instrument
- 111.22 Percussion plaques
- 111.221 Individual percussion plaques
- 111.222 Sets of percussion plaques
- 111.23 Percussion tubes
- 111.231 Individual percussion tubes
- 111.232 Sets of percussion tubes
- 111.24 Percussion vessels
- 111.241 Gongs
- 111.241.1 Individual gongs
- 111.241.2 Sets of gongs.
- 111.242 Bells
- 111.242.1 Individual bells
- 111.242.11 Resting bells whose opening faces upward (standing bell)
- 111.242.12 Hanging bells suspended from the apex
- 111.242.121 Hanging bells without internal strikers
- 111.242.122 Hanging bells with internal strikers
- 111.242.2 Sets of bells or chimes (chimes)
- 111.242.21 Sets of resting bells whose opening faces upward
- 111.242.22 Sets of hanging bells suspended from the apex
- 111.242.221 Sets of hanging bells without internal strikers
- 111.242.222 Sets of hanging bells with internal strikers
- 112 Indirectly struck idiophones
- 112.1 Shaken idiophones or rattles
- 112.11 Suspension rattles
- 112.111 Strung rattles
- 112.112 Stick rattles
- 112.12 Frame rattles (flexatone)
- 112.121 Pendant rattles
- 112.122 Sliding rattles
- 112.13 Vessel rattles
- 112.2 Scraped Idiophones
- 112.21 Scraped sticks
- 112.211 Scraped sticks without a resonator
- 112.212 Scraped sticks with resonator
- 112.22 Scraped tubes
- 112.23 Scraped vessels
- 112.24 Scraped wheels – cog rattles
- 112.3 Split idiophones
- 12 Plucked idiophones
- 121 In the form of a frame
- 121.1 Clack idiophones
- 121.2 Guimbardes and jaw harps
- 121.21 Idioglot guimbardes
- 121.22 Heteroglot guimbardes
- 121.221 Individual heteroglot guimbardes
- 121.222 Sets of heteroglot guimbardes
- 122 In the form of a comb
- 122.1 With laced on lamellae
- 122.11 Without resonator
- 122.12 With resonator
- 122.2 With cut-out lamellae (music box)
- 13 Friction idiophones
- 131 Friction sticks
- 131.1 Individual friction sticks
- 131.2 Sets of friction sticks
- 131.21 Without direct friction
- 131.22 With direct friction
- 132 Friction plaques
- 132.1 Individual friction plaques
- 132.2 Sets of friction plaques
- 133 Friction vessels
- 133.1 Individual friction vessels (singing bowl)
- 133.2 Sets of friction vessels
- 14 Blown idiophones
- 141 Blown sticks
- 141.1 Individual blown sticks
- 141.2 Sets of blown sticks (melodeon)
- 142 Blown plaques
- 142.1 Individual blown plaques
- 142.2 Sets of blown plaques
- 15 Unclassified idiophones.
The second classification is Membranophones. Membranophones make sounds by vibrations produced on a stretched membrane. This group includes all drums, as well as instruments we don’t usually think of as having a membrane, such as a kazoo.
Within this classification, there are five subcategories: struck (directly, such as the kettle drum, snare drum, timpani, or indirectly, such as the rattle drum); plucked; played by friction (as in the friction drum with stick or cord and the hand friction drum); singing membranes (free kazoos and vessel or tube kazoos), and unclassified.
The third classification is Chordophones. A chordophone makes sound by the vibration of a string (or more than one string) stretched between two points. Included in this group are string instruments such as those in the violin family, and many keyboard instruments.
Chordophones are comprised of the following subgroups: simple chordophones or zithers (bar, tube, raft, board, trough, and frame); composite chordophones (lutes, harps, and harp lutes); and unclassified. The piano is considered a simple chordophone; specifically a board zither. Violins, guitars, mandolins, balalaika, harps, etc. fall under the composite chordophone subcategory.
The fourth classification, Aerophones, includes:
Free aerophones: displacement free, interruptive free, and plosive aerophones. There are several divisions within each of these subgroups. For example, within interruptive free, there are reeds (concussion, percussion, free-reed, band reed, and mixed sets of reeds). Instruments that fall under sets of free reeds include accordion, harmonica, pipe organ, and reed pipes.
Non-free aerophones: edge-blown aerophones or flutes, reed aerophones, trumpets, and mixed sets of wind instruments. The Western concert flute is a type of edge-blown aerophone, as is the Xun, which is vessel-shaped. The whistle, recorder, and ocarina also fall under the edge-blown category.
Reed aerophones include the oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and saxophone, as well as lesser-known instruments such as the bawu and hulusi.
The trumpet group includes natural trumpets such as conch shells, didgeridoos, and bugles, as well as keyed trumpets (ophicleide), slide trumpets (trombone, bazooka), and valved trumpets (trumpet, French horn, euphonium, baritone horn, tuba, and saxhorn family).
Mixed sets of aerophones: This is the last subcategory within the aerophones classification.
The fifth classification, Electrophones, includes any instrument that generates sound using an electrical connection. It was not part of the original Hornbostel-Sachs system, but it was added in 1940 by Sachs.
Within Electrophones, there are three subcategories: electrically actuated acoustic, electrically amplified acoustic, and those that produce sound via electrically-driven oscillators (such as synthesizers and theremins). Sachs referred to the last group as “radioelectric instruments.”
One of the drives behind Hornbostel and Sachs’ development of their system was to create a more cross-cultural compilation, as opposed to one that was tied to any particular country or culture.
Reinhard classification system
Musicologist Kurt Reinhard invented this classification system in1960, based on only two criteria: single-voice or multiple-voice. Within these two categories, however, he further subdivided instruments according to their ability to change pitch and by tonal continuity (discontinuous, such as the drum, vs. continuous, such as the violin).
Schaeffner classification system
In 1932, André Schaeffner came up with a system whereby instruments are classified in one of two categories. I: instruments that produce sound by vibrating a solid, and II: instruments that produce sound by vibrating air.
Mann classification system
A system based on physics was proposed in 2007 by Steve Mann that is an extension of the Schaeffner system in that it considers solids and air but goes beyond that to include liquids, plasmas, and an idea called “quintessence” having to do with the expansion of the universe. Music generated by electronics and optics falls into the quintessence category.
Other classification systems
Tonal range: Instruments also have been classified by singing voice categories (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, and lower than bass). However, some instruments bridge more than one category. A trombone, for example, can play in the alto, tenor, or bass tonal ranges.
Function: Instruments can be classified based on the function they serve (festive, military, signal, religious, etc.). For example, a trumpet, gong, or drum can be used as a signal. Or, an instrument can be classified according to the role it serves within an orchestra, band, or another music group.
Ethnic or geographic origin: In this system, instruments are classified based on their cultural background (Greek, Chinese, Latin, etc.).
Non-European and Non-Western: There are numerous other classification systems from India, ancient Persia, Turkey, China, and the countries of Africa. In the Philippines, one method uses a gentleness/strength dichotomy; in Indonesia, socio-historical factors are taken into account; in China, the oldest known scheme of grouping instruments was by material, including stone, wood, silk, and bamboo.
It seems that every culture around the world has developed some type of system to classify their musical instruments. One might wonder why a classification system for musical instruments is needed. There are many reasons why such a system can be useful.
Having a classification system in place is helpful for composers and performers. It helps to understand where a particular instrument fits within the scheme of things, and which other instruments are most closely related to it. Previously unfamiliar instruments can be made known, new links among instruments can be discovered, and creative ways of using combinations of instruments can be generated.
It is also invaluable to those who study the relationship between music and culture, and to researchers delving into the topic of musical instruments over the centuries.
Music educators, as well, benefit from having a classification system, which enables and facilitates teaching and discussion. And, an organized system that includes instruments from all over the world is an important part of establishing and curating museums like the Music Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
A detailed and complete classification system for musical instruments helps us know more about the world of music and to appreciate its complexity and diversity.