In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classification of Musical Instruments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Classification Models from Antiquity
  • Scholarly Pursuit of a Comprehensive System
  • Alternatives to the Hornbostel-Sachs Classification System
  • Collection Catalogues
  • Museum Methodological Publications
  • Journals, Directories, and Databases

Music Classification of Musical Instruments
Bronia Kornhauser
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0159


The classification of musical instruments, the oldest system of which dates back at least four millennia, is one of the many manifestations of the human need to bring order to chaos. Order, in this case, is achieved by conceptually arranging the myriad of musical instruments in this world into identifiable categories. The number of texts relating to this sphere of interest is extensive, both historically and geographically, and includes ancient Chinese and Indian writings, historic European treatises, modern reference works and catalogues, and online databases. The sphere of interest took scholarly shape with the emergence in the 19th century of “organology” as a multifaceted and developing discipline engaged with the scientific study of musical instruments, of which the classification aspect is an integral part. Victor-Charles Mahillon, basing his main categories on an ancient Indian model, established a standard classification system complete with terminology. The system sorts instruments, according to the vibrating matter creating the sound, into “autophones” (self-sounders), “membranophones” (stretched membranes), “chordophones” (stretched strings), and “aerophones” (columns of air). Hornbostel and Sachs in 1914 adopted Mahillon’s categories, with some modifications such replacing “autophones” with “idiophones,” as the basis for their system, which is arguably still the most widely used to this day in museological, musicological, and ethnomusicological contexts. Contemporary and subsequent theorists also sought to develop alternative models based on, for example, social function. With the Internet becoming an effective and instantaneously accessible resource for scholarly materials, there has been a growing awareness of local methods of classifying information, either written or orally transmitted or both, about musical instruments of indigenous cultural groups. A substantial number of sources have endeavored to create ever-more-exhaustive classification systems, often expanding or building on existing taxonomies. In reality however, no single system can hope to cover all of the world’s instruments for a variety of reasons: a system generally suits the purpose for which it has been created (for example, a European museum catalogue as opposed to an academic cross-cultural study); a system is a reflection of a classifier’s philosophical perspective which in turn is usually influenced by trends that are current within the cultural milieu of the time; new instruments that are continually being found, developed, or invented may fall outside the parameters set by a classification scheme. Nevertheless, the mounting multiplicity of classification systems coming to light can provide an increasingly detailed basis for comparative research, with scholars having opportunities to identify points of intersection and points of difference between the systems themselves, the rationales behind each system, and areas of continuity and change within them.

General Overviews

Very few sources could be considered as general overviews. Among the most useful are Kartomi 1990 and Kartomi 2001, which provide extensive investigations of the concepts and literature about classification from an ethnomusicological perspective. DeVale 1990 focuses on clarity and consistency of approach and offers a methodology for future research. The first system that seemed to have the potential of accommodating any instrument of the world, both ancient and modern, can be found in Mahillon 1893–1922. Victor-Charles Mahillon was curator of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels at the time. His work was modified and enlarged in Hornbostel and Sachs 1914, a frequently cited source which introduced numerical categories for classifying instruments to avoid underlying connotations that lexical designations might possess. Both sources arrange their categories hierarchically from the most general to the most specific, the most general level being grouped according to the type of vibrating material that generates the sound. Dawe 2001, taking an alternative perspective, explores social and cultural philosophies surrounding the use of musical instruments.

  • Dawe, Kevin. “Objects, Meaning: Recent Work on the Study and Collection of Musical Instruments.” Galpin Society Journal 54 (May 2001): 219–232.

    DOI: 10.2307/842454

    Discusses the meanings that instruments hold within the culture that produced them as opposed to the meanings of those instruments when taken out of their original context and put into museums and the like, causing implications for classification.

  • DeVale, Sue Carole, ed. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology. Vol. 8, Issues in Organology. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

    In much of the literature, the parameters between organological activity and the pursuit of classifying musical instruments are extremely hazy. DeVale attempts to address this issue as editor of a collection of essays that cover a broad spectrum of subjects on classification and organology (see also Regional Studies).

  • Hornbostel, Erich M. von, and Curt Sachs. “Systematik der Musikinstrumente: Ein Versuch.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 4.5 (1914): 553–590.

    Mahillon’s taxonomy is developed and refined in this source, which relabels his “autophones” to “idiophones” and uses a numerical scheme inspired by the Dewey Decimal System for library catalogues. Lower-tier categories are increased to accommodate ever-finer detail and cross-cultural comparisons of instruments. Translated by Anthony Baines and Klaus P. Wachsmann as “Classification of Musical Instruments.” Galpin Society Journal 14 (1961): 3–29.

  • Kartomi, Margaret J. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    Critically considers a range of concepts that govern the classification of musical instruments and presents an extensive comparative study of systems, past and present, that have been developed in Europe, Asia and Southeast Asia, and Africa, and that have been transmitted by written and/or oral tradition. A glossary of the classification terms used in this book is a helpful tool for readers.

  • Kartomi, Margaret J. “The Classification of Musical Instruments: Changing Trends in Research from the Late Nineteenth Century, with Special Reference to the 1990s.” Ethnomusicology 45.2 (2001): 283–314.

    DOI: 10.2307/852676

    Revisits, updates, and expands on some of the narratives presented in the Kartomi 1990 study.

  • Mahillon, Victor-Charles. Catalogue descriptif et analytique du Musée Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles. 5 vols. 2d ed. Ghent, Belgium: Ad Hoste, 1893–1922.

    Five-volume catalogue with an introduction explaining his classification system. At the broadest level, instruments are grouped, based on the nature of vibrating matter, into autophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones. The next level is based on method of sound activation, with subsequent levels describing the sound activators in increasing detail. The significance of the system lies in its apparent potential for universal application.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.