In Western music there are four classifications of instruments strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. This classification works on most instruments, but there are many different instruments around the world and some cannot be put into these groups. Two common examples of this are a piano and an accordion. Is there an alternative way to classify instruments that can be used to classify all insturments?

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    Just want to comment here that this is not the accepted method of instrument classification. The above is a simplified categorization of instrument families; different than a specific classification. See Dave's answer below: – jjmusicnotes Mar 12 '14 at 20:43
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    At music college, we were told that pianos came under percussion, as the sound was produced by hammers hitting strings. Accordions (and blues harps) should be under reed instruments, as they have...reeds. – Tim Mar 13 '14 at 8:44
  • I guess it's kind of extreme to put a piano under percussion for the simple fact of its playing technique and sound effect. Of course it depends if one build a classification by mere physical properties or by privileging music theory. (@Tim) – Niccolò Mar 13 '14 at 11:51
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    @Niccolo - basically, the way an instrument makes its initial sound is the criterion used. Yes, it has strings, but that doesn't make it part of the string family.A harpsichord has strings, but the way sound is produced is by plucking, as in guitar playing.Different again. – Tim Mar 13 '14 at 12:50

A Google search on "musical instrument taxonomy" yielded a reasonable picture with the key feature:

  • It breaks the world (of musical instruments) up by the mechanism that is used to produce sound.

Thus the top-level division is between

  1. Chordophones, making sound by vibrating strings,
  2. Aerophones making sound by vibrating/pulsating columns of air,
  3. Percussion, making sound by beating on things
  4. Electrophones, making sound by vibrating electrons

Note that this method of division lumps brass and woodwinds into the same top-level category.

Note, there are other ways to slice this pie too, c.f. Wikipedia article on Musical Instrument Classification.

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    Just to add to Dave's answer, which is a little incomplete: Idiophones are instruments in which the whole instrument vibrates, and Membranophones in which the sound is produced by a resonating membrane. – jjmusicnotes Mar 12 '14 at 20:41
  • Hydrolauphones create sounds through liquids. – Édouard Mar 13 '14 at 3:59
  • There are far too many "ideo[t]phones" masquerading as engineers at work :-) . – Carl Witthoft Mar 13 '14 at 11:57
  • Huh. A piano makes sounds by beating on strings. Accordions and harmoniums use air for supplying vibrating reeds with power, but there is no resonating air column involved in the frequency of the result. "Vibrating electrons" is a nonsensical definition because all electrons vibrate and are omnipresent. Electric pianos use pickups to record the vibration of percussively struck tines, electric guitars pick off the vibration of strings, a hammond organ of rotating cogwheels. This is not really satisfactory... – User8773 Mar 14 '14 at 14:44

To expand on Dave's answer, this system is called the Hornbostel-Sachs system. According to wikipedia, it is "the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments by ethnomusicologists." It works similarly to the Dewey decimal system, using a series of digits to classify each type of instruments (every group of three digits is separated by a period). The first digit corresponds to the instrument families that Dave (and jjmusicnoters) listed:

  • (1) Idiophone - Sound is produced by the body of the instrument vibrating (e.g. xylophone, cymbal).
  • (2) Membranophone - Sound is produced by a vibrating membrane (e.g. drums) .
  • (3) Chordophone - Sound is produced by a vibrating string (e.g. violin, guitar, piano).
  • (4) Aerophone - Sound is produced by a vibrating body of air (e.g. flute, trumpet, organ)
  • (5) Electrophone - There are differing definitions. Some place any electrically-amplified instruments (such as electric guitar) in this category, while others restrict it only to instruments that directly produce sound through electrical means (e.g. theramin).

Under each of these top-level categories is a further series of subclassifications that is better described by other references, such as the wikipedia page. One example they give is a valveless bugle, which is classified as 423.121.22, which means that it is an aerophone whose vibrating air is contained within itself and set vibrating by the player's lips, which also provide the only means of pitch control; furthermore, that it is tubular, end-blown, folded, and has a mouthpiece.


trying to categorize sounds is a total nightmare !!

there are 3 main ways I've come across:

  1. by physical form of the classical instrument making the sound
  2. by how "foreground" / "background" the sound is
  3. by other characteristics of the sound itself (brightness/muddy, grating/smooth, etc, etc)

So for classical acoustic instruments, there's the mouthpiece type, general material used to make the instrument, how percussive it is. This is a pretty mixed bag, because you can make a sound with ANYTHING AT ALL. Not just the usual acoustic instruments in an orchestra

Then you can categorize a sound by lead (foreground melody sound) versus bass (sound for the chord root - pretty low, and noticeable in that it's "felt") versus chords (not as noticeable, but usually pretty rich and long lasting sometimes termed "pad")

And then you can go with characteristics of the sound wave itself (bright for high frequencies in a narrow spectrum; muddy for lots of frequencies all over the place that can interfere with existing sounds if you're not careful; grating as in a sawtooth wave; mellow as in a sin wave; there are tons of characteristics of sounds you'll eventually become familiar with).

So it gets VERY messy VERY fast.

What I tend to do is keep sounds in directories that AREn't very well defined.

I'll have a drum dir for percussion; piano, organ, lead for percussive lead sounds; guitar, strings, acoustic dirs for the chords sounds; The general midi standard's 8 sound groups are a pretty good way to sort your sounds:

Piano, Organ, SynLead, SynPad, SynFX, (leads)

Guitar, SoloStr, Ensemble, (chords)

Brass, Reed, Pipe, Ethnic, (classical acoustic-ish)

Bass, (for the chord root/bass)

Perc, ChromPerc, SndFX (weirdly pitched)

Drum: Kick, Snar, HHat, Cymb, Toms, Latn, Misc

If you keep your sounds in dirs like those, it'll be easier when you try to map your sounds to a new synth. And that's a VERY big deal.

This may not work for you. But that's what I do.


Just to add yet one more alternative system, Olivier Messiaen has divided the percussion section into animal, vegetable and mineral.

Animal: bass drum, snare drum and timpani with calfskin heads.

Vegetable: Xylophone, made of wood.

Mineral: Bells, cymbals.


I believe that electronic instruments deserve 2 separate categories, and distinct from electrophones (which make sound by manipulating an electrical arc or field AKA the Theremin):

1.) Digital instruments. Sound is a representation of digital signals produced by a digital computing device.

2.) Analog electronic instruments. Sound is produced by manipulating an alternating current.

I also think that it might be possible to divide instruments into categories based on how they are used, ie keyboards, bowed strings, plucked strings, keyed woodwinds, etc.

  • "The world is analog" -- quote from a highly skilled EE I know. Whether the frequency spectrum is sourced from analog or digital circuitry, by the time it hits the air and your eardrums, it's all analog. – Carl Witthoft Mar 13 '14 at 11:58

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