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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collections
  • Journals and Series
  • Acoustics and Construction
  • Collection and Care
  • Classification and Classification Systems

Music Musical Instruments
Jennifer C. Post
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0135


Musical instruments are devices used to produce musical sound. Instruments also express individual and community identities and reflect physical geographies. The role a musical instrument plays in a society can range widely: for example, it can be used for entertainment or have a central role in ritual; its use in ensemble can demonstrate social solidarity or possessing a specific instrument can enhance the status of an individual. Most instruments are carefully constructed in conjunction with the beliefs and values of the community where it is played. Their sounds result from instrument makers’ and performers’ careful selection of acoustically resonant and aesthetically pleasing materials, such as two carefully chosen stones clapped together to accompany the songs of urban singers in Uzbekistan or use by a luthier of hand-selected and aged rosewood, spruce, and ebony for a fine guitar in England. Organology, or the study of musical instruments, has focused particularly on classification, instrument design and construction, and performance practice. More recently, the study of instruments has grown due to greater interest in the disciplines of ethnomusicology and musicology in using musical instruments to better understand social lives, local and global economies, key political events, physical geographies, religious belief systems, and other aspects of human activities in which music plays a role. This list of resources on musical instruments contains materials that provide broad information on musical instruments, including historical overviews, dictionaries and encyclopedias, and studies and sources for information on issues such as classification, construction, and social use in a country, region, or historical period.

General Overviews

Comprehensive studies on musical instruments include sources with information on history, development, and social use as well as pictorial works. The works all consider musical instruments by broad geographic region. Different research periods and somewhat varied approaches to organology are represented in this collection of sources. Sachs 2006 (originally published in 1940), written before the middle of the 20th century, and Montagu 2007, written more recently, both focus on historical and geographic development of instruments. Baines 1966, Baines 1983, and Remnant 1989 are general introductions to European and American instruments. Campbell, et al. 2004 surveys the history, production, and use of Western instruments. Rault 2000 offers a unique approach in which the author organizes her global collection around themes related to nature, the body, ritual, and social use. Buchner 1972 and Buchner 1973 are valued primarily for the breadth of information provided in images.

  • Baines, Anthony, ed. Musical Instruments through the Ages. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.

    Edited by Anthony Baines for the Galpin Society, this volume for the generalist reader provides brief histories of instruments in chapters authored by Galpin Society members. Includes illustrations and a glossary of technical terms. The first edition was published in 1961.

  • Baines, Anthony. European and American Musical Instruments. London: Chancellor, 1983.

    A visual resource with more than eight hundred photographs of instruments from over eighty collections, focuses on instruments from the Renaissance to the modern era. Organized by instrument type, the introductory material for each chapter provides historical and technical information.

  • Buchner, Alexander. Folk Music Instruments of the World. New York: Crown, 1972.

    Photographs and text on musical instruments from different parts of the world. The greatest value is placed on the dozens of images of instruments, some showing playing position and performance style as well as instrument design. The written information, including instrument names, is uneven in detail and accuracy.

  • Buchner, Alexander. Musical Instruments: An Illustrated History. New York: Crown, 1973.

    Revised edition of Alexander Buchner, Musical Instruments through the Ages (London: Spring, 1956). A collection of more than three hundred images of musical instruments, largely from European historical and contemporary traditions. While the image collection has been widely praised, the text is often criticized for its inaccuracy.

  • Campbell, Murray, Clive A. Greated, and Arnold Myers. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Surveys European and North American musical instruments, covering construction and acoustical characteristics as well as historical development and use. Organized by instrument families, chapters highlight acoustical elements and discuss manufacture, playing techniques, and performance practice of representative instruments. The volume also includes many illustrations and musical examples.

  • Montagu, Jeremy. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2007.

    Presents a history of musical instruments, speculating on origins of instruments and instrument types. In a work organized by instrument type, the author focuses on instruments by classification, weaving examples from different time periods and from different parts of the world. Copiously illustrated.

  • Rault, Lucie. Musical Instruments: Craftsmanship and Traditions from Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

    This large format, extensively illustrated book traces the history and development of selected musical instruments as cultural objects. It features instruments from around the world in chapters that focus on music in nature, the body as instrument, religious and ritual uses of instruments, and the role of instruments in society. Translated from the French by Jane Brenton.

  • Remnant, Mary. Musical Instruments: An Illustrated History: From Antiquity to the Present. Portland, OR: Amadeus, 1989.

    European instruments presented in chapters organized by instrument type with brief descriptive, contextual, and historical information and more than two hundred illustrations. The concluding chapter is on the development of instrumentation. The volume is a revised edition of the 1978 publication, Musical Instruments of the West (New York: St. Martin’s).

  • Sachs, Curt. The History of Musical Instruments. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006.

    Originally published by Norton in 1940. Organized chronologically into sections, the emphasis in the first part is on non-Western instruments and includes information on instruments in social and historical contexts as well as the instruments themselves. Western instruments from 1400 to the early to mid-20th century are covered in the last section. Historical and geographic development of instruments is emphasized throughout the volume.

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