According to my very informal understanding, most instruments produce music through a similar process.

  1. Human uses muscles to make something vibrate
  2. The vibrating thing makes an acoustic wave which is modified by something
  3. Audible sound is produced.

I guess this is simplistic, but maybe it's good enough. So my question is what is the term for "something" in (1) and what is the term for the "something" in (2)?

I guess the "something" in (2) is a resonator - but I'm not sure.


  • Sound waves produce vibrations in the inner ear which the brain can differentiate as different pitches and timbres and so on. Musical instruments produce sound waves that travel to the ear through various means. The sound is manipulated in some way (varies by type instrument) and then amplified through various means (varies by instrument) to create sound waves we can hear. The term resonator can describe the "thing" that amplifies the sound as well as the "thing" that shapes the sound. On a guitar, the vibrating strings cause the soundboard to vibrate. The soundboard is the resonator. Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:19

2 Answers 2


The most complete way I've seen to categorise instruments (by their mechanism of sound production and by the way they are played) is the Hornbostel - Sachs system.

For example - most stringed instruments are Chordophones, instruments which produce sound by whole body vibration are Idiophones, etc.

There's a big list here... I can't think of a single instrument that doesn't fit into this system, including electronic music...

So to answer the second part of your question directly, the sound can be produced by a membrane or soundboard, by the whole body of some percussion instruments, or by completely electronic means. As far as I know that system gives a complete list of all possible methods.


That's a rather defective understanding of sound production in music. First, human voice is not the "sound" of the vibrations of the vocal folds (to hear that, use a stethoscope on the larynx): it is the interruption of the air stream by the opening and closing of the folds, an effect similar to a siren where a stream of air is pushed through a rotating disk with holes in it.

A similar effect is used with reed instruments (free reed, single reed, double reed) and brass. Not, however, with woodwinds where the primary oscillator is the air column.

So with the reeds, voice, and similar implements, the primary oscillator (if you want to call a rotating disk even an oscillator) is used for modulation of an air stream, and the main power of the resulting sound comes from the pressure of the air stream rather than the vibrating elements themselves. While the pressure also provides the energy for sustaining the vibration of the primary oscillator, the energy of the oscillator itself tends to be quite smaller than what is put into the air stream.

A lot of other instruments (strings, percussion) however don't use this kind of indirect sound production. Instead, the vibrations of the primary oscillator are "transformed in impedance" by sound conducting elements and emanate from suitable surfaces. In this case, every bit of sound derives its energy from the original oscillation.

With flutes, oscillator, sound transferring medium and transmission to the listener are all air: the medium is the message.

"resonators" shape sound and its overtones but do not generally create it. They can however, like with reed and brass instruments, strongly feed back to the sound source by picking off and amplifying certain frequencies which are then strongly preferred modes of oscillation that get reinforced by the resonator.

Only with woodwinds are oscillator and resonator basically the same.

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