Musical Instrument types

There are many ways to classify musical instruments

Instruments have been grouped and described differently throughout history, and, importantly, across different cultures. This should not be too surprising since instruments can vary so radically from culture to culture. In China instruments have been classified for millennia based on the materials they are made of (wood, stone, bamboo, metal) while other systems focus on the kinds of sounds they might make or the way that a performer will engage with them.

The examples below use a method called Hornbostel–Sachs developed in the early 20th century by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs.

an instrument the whole of which vibrates to produce a sound when struck, shaken, or scraped, such as a bell, gong, or rattle.


  • Struck – triangle; gong; bell; chimes;
  • Shaken – a rattle
  • Plucked – jaws-harp; music box
  • Rubbed – glass harmonica; nail violin

Benjamin Frankin playing the musical instrument he invented, the Glass ‘Armonica.


any musical instrument which produces sound primarily by way of a vibrating stretched membrane.


  • drums;
  • kazoo

Japanese Taiko Drum. Membranes can be hit, agitated with air or vibrated (for example with a wet finger)

any musical instrument that produces sound primarily by causing a body of air to vibrate, without the use of strings or membranes, and without the vibration of the instrument itself adding considerably to the sound.


  • Free Aerophones – harmonica; harmonium; accordion; Bull- Roarer
  • Wind Instruments – Trumpets and Horns – brass instruments
  • Flutes – Vertical Flutes – panpipes
  • Whistle Flutes – recorder; flageolet
  • Reed Pipes – clarinets, saxophones, oboes, bassoons

a selection of aerophones. Basically we’re talking about a lot of different wind instruments here!

is a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points.


  • Zithers – Board Zithers
  • Psalteries (plucked) – zither, harpsichord
  • Dulcimers (hammers) – dulcimer, piano
  • Tangents – clavichord
  • Stick Zithers – Hindu vina
  • Long Zithers – Chinese chyn; Japanese koto
  • Plucked – lutes (round back); guitars (flat back)
  • Bowed – orchestral strings (violin, viola, cello, bass); hurdy-gurdy
  • Lyres (yoke – two projecting arms connected by a cross bar)
  • Harps (the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the sound board)

A Kora, a lute-bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa

Instruments classified by the material they are made of

Sometimes instruments are classified by the kind of materials they are made of.
Here are two:

A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes.

Amateur instrument builder Honoré Baudre spent over thirty years seeking out pieces of flint of the right tuning to build what became known as the geological piano.

    A metallophone is any musical instrument in which the sound-producing body is a piece of metal, consisting of tuned metal bars, tubes, rods, bowls, or plates. Most frequently the metal body is struck to produce sound, usually with a mallet, but may also be activated by friction, keyboard action, or other means.

    Gamelan is the traditional ensemble music of Java and Bali in Indonesia, made up predominantly of percussive instruments. The most common instruments used are metallophones played by mallets and a set of hand-played drums called kendhang which register the beat