Please, note that our definitive URL (locator) is:
You should automatically be redirected to that address.

If you want to link, make a reference or add our website to your list of favourites: use always

All other addresses will be deleted soon.

If you still see this message, CLICK HERE.




Renaissance Workshop Company
The foremost manufacturer of early musical instruments worldwide

| Home | Press releases | About us | Products | Price List | Order, Shipping & Payment | Services | Encyclopedia | Bookstore | Search |




Products by category
(click to open/close the category)


Musical Instruments
(click to open/close the list)
Spares & Tools
(click to open/close the list)
Musical instrument classification

(back to the encyclopaedia index)

At various times, and different cultures, various schemes of classification have been used.

The most common system in use in the west today is of Greek origin and divides instruments according to how the sound is produced: string, wind and percussion instruments. The scheme was later expanded by Martin Agricola, who distinguished plucked strings, from bowed strings. Deeper subdivisions distinguish wind instruments into brass and woodwinds.

There are, however, problems with this system. Some non-western instruments do not fit very neatly into it. There are also problems with classifying 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. It might be said that with these extra categories, the classical system of classification focuses more on the technique required to play them.

In 1914 Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs published an extensive new scheme for classication. The original Sachs-Hornbostel system classified instruments into four main groups. Later was added a fifth category (electrophones). Within each category are many subgroups. The system has been criticised and revised over the years, but remains widely used by ethnomusicologists and organologists.

  • Aerophones, which produce sound by vibrating columns of air, such as the pipe organ or oboe. Aerophones are grouped according to what causes the air to begin vibrating.

    • Whistles, the air is blown at a sharp edge in the instrument (as in recorders as well as police whistles). The pipes of an organ have a sharp edge like a whistle, but the air is blown with something other than a mouth or nose, usually a bellows of some sort.

    • Blowhole instruments, the air is blown across the sharp edge at the blowhole. When the instrument is tube-shaped, the blowhole can be in the end ("end-blown", as in panpipes), or in the side of the instrument ("side-blown", as in a fife).

    • Reed instruments, the vibration of a reed or reeds begins the air vibration. In single reed (saxophone, for example) and double reed (oboe) instruments, the one or two reeds are part of the mouthpiece. In free-reed instruments (such as bagpipes, harmonica and accordion), the single or double reeds are mounted somewhere inside the instrument and there can be many of them - sometimes a different reed for every pitch.

    • Cup mouthpiece instruments, the player buzzes the lips against the mouthpiece, causing a sympathetic vibration in the air inside the instrument (bugle, conch shell).

    • Free aerophones cause vibrations in the air around them rather than inside them (bull-roarers, toy spinning tops).

  • Chordophones, which produce sound by vibrating strings, such as the piano or cello. The main groups of chordophones are classified according to the relationship between the strings and the resonator (the resonator or soundbox, vibrates sympathetically with the original vibrations, amplifying and altering the original sound). Subcategories depend on how the string is played (plucked or bowed for example), and types of resonators.

    • Zithers, the strings are stretched across, over, or inside a resonator, or between two resonators. The resonator can be a hollow tube, a gourd, a board, a hollow box, or even a pit in the ground. Some have fingerboards with or without frets; some have a keyboard with a complex mechanism; many are simply a multitude of strings strung from one end of the resonator to the other. The strings can be struck (as in a piano or hammered dulcimer), plucked (harpsichord or Appalachian dulcimer) or rubbed (hurdy-gurdy).

    • Lutes, the strings stretch across the resonator and up a neck. They may be plucked (guitar, banjo) or bowed (violin, fiddle)

    • Lyres, the strings leave the resonator at right angles to an edge and run to a cross bar that is held away from the resonator.

    • Harps, the strings leave the resonator at a slant (smaller than a right angle) up to a neck connected to the resonator.

    • Bows. In a musical bow the string or strings are stretched from one end of a wooden bow to the other. Some have resonators, but many don't. They can be plucked or bowed (with a second, smaller bow).

  • Idiophones, when the vibration of the instrument itself that is the main source of the musical sound. Idiophones are classified according to what you do to them to make them vibrate. Metal idiophones are frequently called metallophones. And if they are made of a sheet of metal, lamellaphones.

    • Percussion idiophones are hit with sticks, beaters, or clappers (bells, steel drums, xylophone).

    • Shaken idiophones are shaken (maracas, eggs, jingle bells).

    • Concussion idiophones are played by clashing two of them together (castanets, claves, spoons).

    • Friction idiophones are made to vibrate by rubbing them (as when you make a wine glass ring by rubbing its rim).

    • Scraped idiophones are played by scraping a stick across a set of notches or corrugations on the instrument (guiro, washboard).

    • Stamping idiophones are stamped on the ground, floor, or hard surface (tap shoes are in this category).

    • Stamped idiophone. If the main sound is coming from the surface that is being stamped on.

    • Plucked idiophones have a thin tongue of metal or bamboo that vibrates when plucked (jew's harp, thumb piano).

  • Membranophones, which the sound begins with the vibration of a stretched membrane across a resonator, such as drums or kazoos. Membranophones are usually classified according to the basic shape of the resonating body of the instrument.

    • Tubular drums are divided into cylindrical, conical, barrel, long, waisted (hourglass-shaped), goblet (with a stem at the base), and footed (with feet around the edge of the bottom).

    • Kettledrums or vessel drums have rounded bottoms.

    • Frame drums, when the membrane is stretched over a frame, usually making a wide, shallow instrument (tamborine)

    • Friction drums come in a variety of shapes. Instead of beating on the membrane, the player runs a stick through a hole in the membrane.

    • Mirlitons. These are the only membranophones that are not drums. The membrane is made to vibrate by blowing air across it (kazoos).

  • Electrophones, their sound is both produced and amplified by electronic circuits (electric organ, synthesizer, theremin, a record).


Instruments by range

Western instruments are also often classified by their musical range, although 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):

  • 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

Many names of instruments actually designate a family with different voices; for example: soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone...


Clasificación de los instrumentos músicos

Dado que casi cualquier objeto puede utilizarse como instrumento y que son innumerables los que han sido específicamente diseñados para producir música no resulta fácil una clasificación. Esa es la causa de que se hayan propuesto clasificaciones en función de muchos criterios. Normalmente para clasificar un instrumento es necesario aplicarle distintos criterios:

Material principal: madera, metal...

Elemento que produce el sonido: lengüeta, membrana...

Ámbito de uso: orquesta, "étnicos", folclóricos...

Origen: europeos, africanos, asiáticos...

Época: antiguos, medievales, renacentistas, barrocos...

La clasificación occidental más aceptada divide a todos los instrumentos en función de cual es el elemento productor del sonido. Otros criterios definen distintas subcategorías.

El modo más usual de clasificar los instrumentos es dividirlos en cuerdas, vientos y percusión. Este sistema es poco preciso entre otras cosas porque incluye como percutidos cualquier instrumento que no sea de cuerda ni de viento.

A principios del siglo XX, Erich M. Von Hornbostel y Curt Sachs iniciaron una clasificación mucho más precisa que tiene en cuenta los principios físicos que origina el sonido en los diferentes instrumentos.

Aerófonos o de viento. Para que suenen hay que soplar ya sea con la boca o con algún dispositivo mecánico como un fuelle, un motor, etc. Los distintos tonos pueden conseguirse sobre el mismo tubo, modificando su longitud efectiva mediante agujeros (ej. flauta de pico), pistones (ej. trompetas) o desviando el aire hacia tubos distintos (ej.órgano). El sonido se produce directamente por la forma en que el aire ataca al tubo (ej. flauta travesera), por la forma en bisel del tubo (ej. flauta de pico), por que se hace circular junto a una o más láminas o lengüetas libres que suelen ser metálicas (ej. acordeón, armónica), lengüetas batientes de plástico o de caña (ej. clarinete, oboe, gaita...) o los propios labios del ejecutante (ej. trompetas, trombones, cornetas). Algunos instrumentos actúan directamente en el aire circundante (roncadores). El material (madera, metal...) y la forma suelen ser también criterios para la clasificación.

Cordófonos o de cuerda. Se actúa sobre una o varias cuerdas ya sea frotándolas con un arco o una rueda (violín, viola de rueda), pulsándolas con los dedos o con un plectro (arpas, guitarras, laudes, salterios, clavecines) o percutiéndolas con macillos o mediante teclado (pianos, tímpanos). Las cuerdas pueden discurrir paralelas a la tabla armónica (ej. guitarra) o formar un ángulo pronunciado intersectando con ella (ej. arpa). En el primer caso pueden ser más largas que la tabla, en cuyo caso es necesario un mástil (ej. violín), o un yugo (ej. lira) o ser de una longitud similar (ej. piano). La forma de la caja de resonancia, el número de cuerdas y su afinación determinan el instrumento.

Membranófonos: El sonido lo produce una membrana tensa sobre la que se sopla (mirlitones, kazoos) se percute (tambores) o se frota (furruco) ya sea con las manos, con baquetas o con teclado. La mayoría producen un sonido de tono indeterminado, pero algunos son capaces de producir diferentes notas afinadas (ej. timbal).

Idiófonos. El sonido lo produce el material principal del instrumento sin estirarlo. Pueden ser de concusión (ej.castañuelas), de percusión (ej. campana, xilófono, marimba), sonajeros (ej. maraca), frotados (ej. tabla de lavar, raspadores. carracas), pulsados o lameláfonos (ej. gimbardas, sanzas)... Algunos llevan elementos amplificadores del sonido como tubos o cajas de resonancia.

Electrófonos o electrónicos. El sonido se produce electrónicamente mediante síntesis de distintas señales eléctricas o reproducción de señales eléctricas grabadas que se aplican a un altavoz. Si el sonido resultante y la forma del instrumento imita a otro conocido suele considerarse una variedad de éste (ej. piano electrónico). Los que no tienen tales pretensiones suelen denominarse sintetizadores. Muchos instrumentos tradicionales, principalmente de cuerda pulsada, han visto sustituida su caja de resonancia por un mecanismo electrónico que recoge las vibraciones de las cuerdas, las amplifica, modificándolas o no y las reproduce mediante las membranas de altavoces. Son instrumentos electromecánicos, que se consideran como variedades de los tradicionales (ej. guitarra eléctrica) aunque su sonido puede ser completamente distinto.

Copyright © 1999 Renaissance Workshop Company Ltd.
Last modification: 17 de septiembre de 2010
Phone & Fax:(+34) 91 450 30 50