Classification of Musical Instruments

Originally, the classification of musical instruments was done by the Sach-Hornbostel system, which was designed and created by Curt Sachs and Eric von Hornbostel in 1914. Their system had four major categories, and as instruments evolved, a fifth category was added. The Sach-Hornbostel system is still used today in the classification of musical instruments. Sachs’ system was designed and instruments categorized by the sound that they produce and through vibrations.

Most of the western musical instruments are classified in categories that are used for vocal classification. For instance, violins, flutes and trumpets would be classified as Soprano instruments; oboes, horns and violas as Alto instruments; trombones as Tenor instruments and tubas and bassoons would fall under Bass Instruments. It is all fair and well, but sometimes, classifying instruments is not that easy. Cellos can be seen as both bass and as tenor, and baritones can fall under either alto or tenor. Some instruments can be put into categories due to their names, such as alto saxophone, bass guitar and bass flutes, which makes classifying instruments a simpler task. Another way to group various instruments is through the same system used in western orchestras such as percussion instruments, strings, brass and woodwind instruments.

But the most preferred and generally used method, even by musicologists, is the Sach-Hornbostel system. The Sach-Hornbostel system works with five categories, namely Idiophones, Chordophones, Membranophones, Aerophones and later Electrophones was added. Idiophones consists basically of instruments that can be shaken, plucked or struck. Different categories exist with in the main division. To name a few, there are Plucked Idiophones instruments such as harps, Rubbed Idiophones such as harmonicas, Percussion Idiophones such as drums, Shaken Idiophones such as maracas, and many more.

Membranophones produce sounds from a piece of stretched skin and together with its sub-categories, can include musical instruments such as drums, tambourines and kettledrums. Aerophones are basically wind instruments due to the sound they produce being made by vibrating air, such as flutes, oboes and horns. Reed instruments such as clarinets and saxophones also fall into this category. Chordophones are string instruments and include lutes, harps, guitars and banjos. The name of the last category, Electrophones, is self-explanatory. Any instrument that is played with electric power, such as electric pianos and guitars, falls within this category.

There are so many different ways to classify an instrument that it is up to the musician to decide which they are more comfortable with. But knowing the Sach-Hornbostel system is an advantage, at it is a universally used system.