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The Hornbostel-Sachs system of classification for musical instruments

Today, the most widely used system of classification for musical instruments in the museum world is the Hornbostel-Sachs system, developed during the 1910s. This was the first system that could be applied to instruments the world over.

In this system, there are five families established according to the component that vibrates to produce a sound:

  1. The drum family or membranophones
  2. The stringed instruments or chordophones
  3. The wind instruments or aerophones
  4. The percussion instruments or idiophones
  5. The electrophones

1) The drum family, or membranophones

Tambour rada - MCC no 2000.64.3, 2000.64.5 / Photo : Harry Foster

The family of membranophones is made up of instruments, like the drum, whose vibrating element consists in a membrane. Drums all have a skin or membrane that is struck either with a stick or the hands or a combination of stick and hand.

They can be single-headed i.e. have a single membrane at one end of their body. Drums can also be double headed i.e. have a membrane at either end.

They are classified according to the shape of their body. In the exhibition you will find frame drums (teueikan) and tubular drums.

Tubular drums include:

  • cylindrical drums, which have straight sides; such as the bass drum in the Jazz drum set.
  • conical drums, whose sides are slanted in a cone shape.
  • barrel-shaped drums, whose sides are rounded; bendre, trong chau.
  • hourglass-shaped drums; lunga.
  • goblet-shaped drums; djembe.
  • footed drums.
  • long drums; gufalo, rada drum.

2) Stringed instruments or chordophones

Banjo ténor à quatre cordes - MMPM no 996.6.2 / Prêt du Musée des musiques populaires de Montluçon

The family of chordophones includes instruments whose one or more strings, stretched between fixed points, vibrate when they are plucked (like the guitar), struck (like the piano) or rubbed with a bow (like the violin).

Chordophones are also subdivided into five main categories according to the shape of their body or resonator and the relationship of the strings to the body:

The harp-lute combines the characteristics of a harp, with strings that are oblique to the body, and a lute, with a neck and body; kora, donso ngoni.


3) The winds or aerophones

Accordéon chromatique modéle « Paris Tango » - Prêt du Musée de Tulle

The primary vibrating agent of the family of aerophones is a column of air contained in a tube, as is the case for flutes and trumpets.

In the exhibition we find three different categories of wind instruments classified according to how the air is set into vibration:

A) The air is set into vibration after being directed against a sharp edge:

  • rim-blown flutes, such as the flute itself.
  • end-blown flutes, such as the recorder wistles, wounagole.

B) The air is set into vibration by a vibrating reed:

  • single-reed instruments like the clarinet. The reed is fastened to the clarinet by a ligature.


    Anche simple

    Clarinette mouth piece

    Embouchure de clarinette

  • double-reed instruments like the oboe; alghaita, ken trung.

    Oboe double-reed

    Anche double de hautbois

  • instruments with free reeds, like the harmonica and accordeon. Each tube produces one note and has a metal reed inside the tube.
  • hybrid instruments, like bagpipes from Western European countries (France, England and Italy) have a double reed inside the chanter. Bagpipes from Central Europe (Romania, Bulgaria) have a single reed inside the chanter. Each drone pipe contains a single reed. The reed is made of metal or bone and is not set into vibration directly by the musician's lips as it is the case for the single and double reed instruments, but is set into vibration by the air stored in the bag; bagpipes, cabrette, large bagpipes, B&chonnet musette.

C) The air is set into vibration by the musician's vibrating lips:

  • end blown horn; vaccine, kakaki.
  • instruments with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like trumpets; konè.
  • side blown horn; kaho.

    Trumpet mouth piece

    Embouchure de trompette


4) Percussion instruments or idiophones

Bat - MCC no 2000.136.16 / Photo : Harry Foster

In the family of idiophones, sound is produced from the substance of the instrument itself, being solid or elastic enough not to require a stretched membranes or strings.

Percussion instruments form a highly varied family. Idiophones are made from a resonant material - wood, bamboo, gourd, metal - whose resonance is created in various ways, either by striking, shaking, rubbing, scraping or plucking the instruments.

  • Instruments that are struck make up the largest group of this family. They are subdivided according to their shape:
    • clapper bells and struck bells; kougoue.
    • xylophones with wooden or metal bars; tiohoun.
    • slit drums.
    • Instruments consisting in a pair of similar elements that are struck together, like the cymbals; bat. Clappers are also part of this family. Wooden spoons and bones, from Canada are part of this family.
  • Instruments that are shaken, like jingles and rattles; kusuba, tchatcha.
  • Friction instruments like the musical saw.
  • Instruments that are scraped; phach.
  • Instruments that are plucked, like the Jew's harp and thumb piano; sanza.

5) Electrophones

In this family sound is produced by electricity, for example a synthesizer; equipment for a disc jockey competition.