Instrument categories


There are many different ways to classify music instruments, you may hear there are 4 families, 5 or even 6. In this article we’ll explain the different categories / families, the instruments in them and why they are there.

Modern System

The most common way to classify them is using the modern system that has 6 families brass, electric, keyboard, percussion strings and woodwind. 

The way this classification works is by the way each family makes its sound:

  • The Brass family makes its sound from vibration on the metal when you blow air. 
  • The Electronic family makes its sound with electric circuitry that goes through a speaker.
  • The Keyboard family has a row of keys, buttons or levers that make the sound when you press them.
  • The Percussion family makes its sound by being struck(hit) or scraped.
  • The String family makes its sound vibrating strings with the subcategory
    • bowed meaning it makes sound using a bow to vibrate the strings.
    • plucked meaning it makes sound by plucking(moving, flicking) the strings.
  • The Wind family meaning it makes sound by blowing air in a mouthpiece / reed into a tube(resonator). 

This system can be arranged in many different variations, for example some people bundle the brass and woodwind section and call it the wind section. Despite being called modern, this system comes from Greeks around 300 BC, so the electric / electronic category has only been added recently.

Instruments in each family

Some examples of the instruments you can find in each categories:

As you can see most of the electric instruments can be placed in 2 categories, like the electric guitar, since you can play it with an amplifier or without. The saxophone is another interesting instrument because it’s made of brass, but since the sound it’s produced like a woodwind it falls in the woodwinds category.

Sachs-Hornbostel system

The 2nd most common way of classifying instruments is by the 1914 system Sachs-Hornbostel, this one is divided in 5 families, aerophones, chordophones, electrophones and membranophones

  • Aerophones make sound with air vibration.
  • Chordophones make sound with string vibration.
  • Electrophones make sound through electricity.
  • Idiophones make sound vibrating the instrument.
  • Membranophones make sounds by vibrating a membrane.

You can see a relation already with the modern system, aerophones are wind (both woodwind and brass), chordophones are strings, electrophones are electric and idiophones with membranophone are percussion. 

The only problem with that classification was the keyboards, since they use strings to make sounds but you play them by pressing keys multiple revisions and variants of this system where used throughout the years like André Schaeffners system and Steve Mann system.

Other systems

Lastly is possible that you may heard of other systems depending on you Country, most of them are ancient and only cover instrument that were known around that time and region, countries with those classification include: 

  • Indian
  • Persian
  • Turkish
  • Chinese
  • Indonecian
  • Philippine
  • West African

If you’re interested in this other system, you can check this article here.

How do I use this information?

Now you understand the confusion behind the classification, there are many systems and each system has variations. If you’re asked for a classification and they don’t mention any system, use the modern one including the electric category having brass and woodwind separated and strings united (instead of bowed and plucked) as the default.

If you have a teacher or disagree with someone over what is the correct answer, remember that, there is no correct answer, instead try to agree on one, as time will progress, new instruments and systems will appear, so our recommendation is not taking this topic to seriously 

References

  1. DK Findout
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Goshen College
  4. Oregon Symphony
  5. Fact Monster

Luis Gerardo

Musician as a hobby for +6 years, documenting every instrument in simple words for this website.

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