Taxonomy of Musical Instruments
By Henry Doktorski
By Henry Doktorski
The Austrian musicologist, Erich Moritz von Hornbostel (1877-1935), and
his German colleague, Curt Sachs (1881-1959), proposed in 1914 a system
of classification for musical instruments which has been criticized and
changed in details through the years, but never supplanted. The
following chart -- of my own design -- (which depicts the position of
the free-reed instruments in relation to the entire body of musical
instruments) is based upon their work.
by pipe length
|Edge Instruments||Whistle Flutes||Whistle|
|Organ Flue Pipes
diapasons, flutes, mixtures, etc.
|Reed Pipe Instruments||Single Reeds||Clarinet|
|Single Reed Bagpipe|
|Double Reed Bagpipe|
|Brass Instruments||Without Valves||Conch shell|
|Animal Horn Shofar|
pitch not determined by pipe length
reeds strike against another object
|Single Reed||Organ Reed Pipes
hautbois, fagotto, chalumeau, krummhorn, clairon, trompette, trompette en chamade, trombone, tuba, etc.
|Double Reed||Human Voice (*1)|
reeds vibrate freely without striking anything
|Unframed Reed||Wind Blown||Bull-Roarer|
|Mouth Blown||Leaf Instrument|
|Framed Reed||Mouth Blown||Shêng|
|Pedal Reed Organ|
|Electric Chord Organ|
body of instrument vibrates
|Indeterminate Pitch||Struck||Snare Drum|
|Electrophones||Electric/Acoustic Instruments||Electric Guitar|
|Fender Rhodes Electric Piano|
|Digital Instruments||MIDI Keyboard|
|MIDI Wind Controller|
|MIDI Drum Machine|
- In essence, the aerophones (wind instruments) use air as
the primary vibrating medium for the production of sound. The aerophones
are divided into two subsets: the pipe aerophones and the free aerophones.
The pipe aerophones (the oboe, bassoon, clarinet, saxophone, etc.)
regulate pitch by changing the length of the pipe; the size of the reed
does not change. On the other hand, the free aerophones regulate pitch by
changing the length (and thickness) of the reed. Many free aerophones do
not use pipes (accordion, concertina, etc.), but for those instruments
that do have pipes (such as the shêng, sho, khaen and organ reed pipes),
pipe length has no effect on the pitch, although the pipe does function as
an acoustical reinforcement for the sound.
- Direction of wind pressure (positive, negative or both)
- Playing method (lips, fingers over holes, keys, buttons, and mechanical means such as cogs in barrels, punched cards, etc.)
- Scale (pentatonic, diatonic, chromatic)
The free aerophones can be further divided into two subsets: beating reeds and free-reeds. Organ reeds are referred to as beating reeds because the tongue is larger than the shallot opening and therefore beats against it. In a free-reed, on the other hand, the tongue is smaller than the opening and so vibrates through rather than against it. Most tongues of free-reeds are made from metal, but tongues of primitive free-reed instruments, like the naw, are made from cane.
The free-reed instruments are divided into two more subsets: the unframed reed and the framed reed. The simplest reed instruments are those which have no openings to channel the wind or frames within which the reeds can vibrate. The aeolian harp, a musical instrument played by the wind, can be convincingly classified as a free-reed instrument, although it is customarily categorized as a chordophone. The instrument, named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, is made of a wooden sound box loosely strung with ten or twelve gut strings varying in thickness and elasticity, usually tuned in unison. In the wind they vibrate in aliquot parts (i.e., in halves, thirds, fourths, etc.) thus sounding the octave, 12th, second octave, and succeedingly higher harmonics of the string's fundamental note, which is silent.
According to legend, King David hung his kinnor (a kind of lyre) above his head at night to catch the wind. In the tenth century, Dustan of Canterbury was charged with sorcery when the wind produced sound from his harp. The first known Aeolian harp was constructed by the Jesuit priest and scholar, Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), and was described in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). The instrument became popular in Germany and England during the romantic period. Two attempts to devise a keybard version using a bellows were the anémocorde (1788) by Johann Jacob Schnell and the piano éolien (1837) by M. Isouard. One familiar form of the aeolian harp is the musical tones produced by the wind in telephone wires, which can be amplified by placing the ear to the side of the pole. (*2)
The Jew's harp (sometimes called Jaw harp) is another instrument which cannot be conclusively categorized. The first mention of this instrument in this context was made by Sebastian Virdung, who grouped the Jew's harp together with rustic instruments, such as hunting horns, bird calls, and bells in his Musica Getutscht (Basel, 1511). About a century later, in Theatrum Instrumentorum (1618), Michael Praetorius classed the Jew's harp with the hurdy-gurdy, the viele, the horn, the triangle, and the bell. A far more precise approach to classification was made by the famous seventeenth-century musicologist Marin Mersenne (although he appeared to have two views on this matter): In Traité des instruments de Musique (1640), Pierre Trichet stated that Mersenne regarded the Jew's harp as a "pneumatic" instrument, since breath participated in producing its sounds, but in Harmonie Universelle (1646), he termed it a chromatic or percussion instrument, because breath alone, without striking, does not make it yield any sound.
Modern attempts to classify the Jew's harp have not settled the issue. Curt Sachs invented the term "plucked idiophone" for the instrument, which produces sounds due to the rigidity and elasticity of the material from which it is made. More recently, Frederick Crane and Ole Kai Ledang have returned to Mersenne's original view and have classified the Jew's harp as an aerophone, arguing that full functioning of the instrument occurs only when a stream of air moves past its tongue. (*3)
Another example of the unframed reed is the primitive bull-roarer. A spatulate stone, bone, or board, sometimes carved in the shape of a fish, is tied through a small hole to a string, which in turn is attached to a stick; when the instrument is whirled around, it produces a sound by its disturbance of the air. Primitive societies believe this instrument has magical properties. This instrument appeared in the 1986 movie Clan of the Cave Bear.
Another primitive free-reed instrument is the leaf (called bilu), which can be heard in some traditional Chinese music ensembles. A leaf, or a long blade of grass, is stretched between the sides of the thumbs and tensioned slightly by bending the thumbs, thereby raising or lowering the pitch. The tone of the instrument can be modified by cupping the hands so as to provide a resonant chamber. Like the aeolian harp, the reed is secured at each end and the center length is allowed to vibrate about its fixed ends. The quality of sound can also be altered by changing the thickness of the leaf. This instrument is extremely hard to classify exactly, since, depending on the shape of the cavity created between the thumbs, the grass reed can be proved to be both beating and free, or neither.
All other free-reed instruments have a frame through which the tongue vibrates. The framed free-reed instruments can further be divided into four subsets: mouth blown, hand blown, foot blown and mechanically blown.
This classification is convenient, but not necessarily logical, as some instruments may belong to more than one class. As mentioned above, the Jew's harp may be classified as an aerophone or a plucked idiophone. The aeolian harp may be classified as an aerophone or a chordophone. In addition, the organ belongs to both the edge instruments and reed pipe instruments. The violin can be categorized as a bowed chordophone or a plucked chordophone, depending on whether it is player arco or pizzicato. The tambourine is a membranophone in so far as it has a skin head which is struck; but, if it is only shaken so that its jingles sound, it should be classed as an idiophone, for in this case the skin head is irrelevant.
The accordion may also belong to more than one family. The American accordionist/composer Guy Klucevsek has written a piece for solo accordion, Eleven Large Lobsters Loose In The Lobby (1991) which does not use the reeds of the accordion. The performer produces sounds by clicking the register switches, tapping the keys, and other percussive means. In this piece the accordion is used as an idiophone and not as a free-reed.
Twentieth-century hybrids like the Cordovox are properly categorized as an instrument which combines more than one category: it is simultaneously a free-reed instrument and also an electromagnetic instrument. Of course the reedless accordion -- the MIDI accordion -- cannot be classified as a free-reed instrument since it has no reeds. It is solely a digital instrument.
The free-reed instruments can be further subdivided according to various features such as:
| The Free-Reed Family of Aerophones|
By Diarmuid Pigott
|+/-||Fingers over holes||Asian mouth organ||Various: |
|Chinese Shêng |
|Lips and Tongue||Harmonica or Mouth-Organ||Diatonic||Marine Band ("Blues Harp")|
|Tremolo Harmonica, Echo harmonica|
|Hybrid||Koch Chromatic Marine Band|
|+||Lips||Pitch Pipe||Various||Used as tuning note for choirs, etc|
|Flute-like||Klui||?||From Thailand: the only free-reed resonated flute|
|Trumpet-keyed||Shalmei||Diatonic||Tyrolian Many Belled Trumpets - solo instrument|
|Chords||Tyrolian Many Belled Trumpets - accompaniment|
|Buttons||Symphonium||Chromatic||Predecessor of Wheatstone's Concertina|
|Lever Action||Toy Instrument||Diatonic||Toy "Clarinet"|
|Buttons||Concertina||Diatonic||Single-Action German or "Anglo" Concertina|
|Various||Single-Action Multi-Row Anglo Concertina|
|Chromatic||Double-Action English Concertina|
|Double-Action McAnn System Concertina|
|Double-Action Triumph/Crane System Concertina|
| Bandonéon and
|Diatonic Button Accordion||Diatonic||Organetto Abruzzese|
|Chromatic Button Accordion||Chromatic||Russian Bayan|
|R. H. Keyboard
L. H. Buttonboard
|Accordion||Chromatic||Early Single-Action English and French|
|Standard Stradella-Bass Piano Accordion (*4)|
|Modern Free-Bass Piano Accordion|
|Reuther's Uniform Keyboard|
|Keyboard/Frets||Melophone||Chromatic||Accordion in the form of a cello/guitar|
|+||Buttons||Lap organ||Chromatic||James A. Bazin, U.S.A. 1836 (Early Models)|
|Keyboard||Harmonium||Chromatic||Indian Droned Harmonium|
|Lap Organ||Chromatic||Bazin, U.S.A. (Later Models)|
|+/-||Keyboard||Peaseley||Chromatic||Aaron Merrill Peaseley U.S.A. 1818 (*5)|
|Keyboard||Orgue Expressif||Chromatic||Grenie, Paris 1803|
|Physharmonica||Chromatic||Haeckel, Vienna 1818|
|Seraphine||Chromatic||Green, London 1831|
|Harmonium||Chromatic||Debain, Paris 1840|
|Vocalion||Chromatic||Farmer, Harrow 1872|
|Foot Buttons||Pedal Concertina||Diatonic||Belgian Instrument|
|-||Keyboard||Experimental||Chromatic||Alexandre, Paris 1835|
|Melodion, US 1835|
|Mechanically Blown||+|| Cogs in Barrel /
|+||Cogs in Barrel||Orchestrion||Chromatic||Mälzel's Panharmonicon, 1804|
|+/-|| Keyboard &
|Pedal Reed Organ||Chromatic||Pedal Reed Organ|
|+/-|| R.H. Keyboard
|Chord Organ||Chromatic||Electric Chord Organ|
- As noted above, the free-reed
instruments can be classified according to their type of musical scale
into two categories: diatonic and chromatic instruments, (*6) although
some Oriental instruments can play only a pentatonic scale. The
diatonic instruments are limited to the tones of a standard major or
minor scale without the chromatic intervals; therefore, diatonic
instruments can play in only one key. (Bi-diatonic instruments can play
in two keys.) On the other hand, chromatic instruments can play all
twelve tones of the chromatic scale.
Free-reed instruments can still be further divided into single-action instruments and double-action instruments. The single-action instruments have two different pitches per button; that is, one pitch sounds when the bellows are opened and another pitch sounds when the bellows are closed. The double-action instruments sound the same note on the press as on the draw. All piano-accordions are chromatic double-action instruments.
(*1) The human voice may be classified as a double-reed aerophone in
which the vocal chords act as a double reed and the cavities of the
throat, mouth, sinuses, and nose form the resonant area. The British
musicologist, Robert Donington, has called the voice a throat
(*2) Philip W. Goetz, Editor in Chief, The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition, Vol. 1 (Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.: 1991), 118.
(*3) Leonard Fox, The Jew's Harp: A Comprehensive Anthology (Toronto, Bucknell University Press: 1988), 15, 16.
(*4) The term "piano-accordion" is a misnomer, since the piano-accordion keyboard has very little in common with the piano keyboard; it is more similar to an organ keyboard. In my opinion, "organ-accordion" or "keyboard-accordion" are more accurate terms, but since "piano-accordion" is so widely accepted, I will use it.
(*5) The inventor of this instrument, Aaron Merrill Peaseley of Boston, Massachusetts, stated that either a force bellows, or a suction bellows may be employed. He wrote in the patent record,
improvement in organs, ... substituting in place of the pipes usually
called reed pipes a plate of metal or any other fit substance in which
[are cut] a number of holes of proper form, in each of which is fitted
a piece of brass or any other elastic substance capable of vibrating so
as to produce a tone."
(*6) The terms diatonic and chromatic may have yet other meanings in different contexts. Christian Mensing, the Swiss bandonéon aficionado, wrote, "Although you are perfectly right using the term chromatic and diatonic, in the case of the concertina and bandonéon at least, chromatic means that the same notes are produced on one button when you open or close the bellows, while diatonic means that the tones are different. (This confusion may arise from the earlier small instruments where the chromatic intervals were distributed on both senses [manuals], such as the Wheatstone concertinas.) To avoid confusion I use the terms unisonoric and bisonoric (or single-action and double-action, as you prefer). Most of the early bandonéons were designed only to play in a few keys and the performer had to change the instrument in order to change keys."
Christian Mensing, from an e-mail letter to the author dated December 4, 1996.