Week 1: The Sachs-Hornbostel System of Instrument Classification

Hello friends. This week I’ll discuss the widely-used Sachs-Hornbostel system for placing different unique instruments into representative groups.

Why Classify Musical Instruments?
Because the broad goal of ethnomusicology is to find ways to obtain knowledge  about the music of the world (Miller/Shahriari, 8), it’s important to study the discipline in a somewhat scientific fashion. Just like the study of archeology, evolution, or even psychology, students and professionals alike rely on classification as an important tool to break a massive piece of information into smaller sub-groups. In part, this process is simply a reflection of the way the human brain works. Human beings are somewhat unique in our ability to learn and remember. Our short-and-long-term-memories are lodged in various parts of the brain; a trait found in very few other mammals (Doubilet). In this way even our brains could be said to work as filing cabinets in the way they organize and store information we receive. The goal with classifying in this way is, I believe, to simply create a way to better understand the similarities as well as the unique qualities that different instruments share, and to do so in a way that makes sense to our natural way of learning and understanding.

In 1914, Austrian Ethnomusicologists Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, published a new system of musical instrument classification which is considered in present day to be among (if not the) most widely used classification system of it’s kind (princeton.org). The system breaks the entirety of musical instruments into four main groups (with a fifth that has been added for the electronic age). The groups are broken down as such:

Chordophones: Musical instruments that contain one or more strings stretched between two points. This group contains a diverse group of instruments including the piano and guitar.

Aerophones: Musical instruments that produce sound through the direct vibration of air. Aerophones are also divided into three distinct subgroups: Flutes, Reeds and Trumpets.

Idiophones: Musical instruments that produce sound through the actual instrument itself vibrating. In this way idiophones are unique because nearly any object that is being used in a musical way can fall into the category. The vast majority of chordophones fall into three basic types: Plucked, Struck or Shaken (Miller/Shahriari, 22)

Membranophones: Musical instruments that have a vibrating membrane stretched over a frame. The vast majority of drums fall into the category of membranophone (Miller/Shahriari, 23).

Electrophones: In 1940, Sachs added an additional category to accommodate the invention and popularity of musical instruments that required electrical current to operate.

A Closer Look: Chordophones
Cordophones are a particularly fascinating classification of instruments. For starters, stringed instruments have an amazing diversity of unique looks. A grand piano, for example, is a massive and powerful looking instrument and often the leader of an orchestral piece. There is even a small but distinguished bench that comes with the piano— and it’s pretty much required for the musician to attempt to successfully operate the thing! On the other hand, there is the the ukelele, which is small and somewhat friendly looking instrument. The ukelel is an instrument of Hawaiian origin that typically is used either without the accompaniment of other instruments or as part of a small group. It looks to me like something that you could throw in your bag with your flip-flops and sunblock! Chordophones are unique because they have a huge range of unique sounds and timbers that can be produced.

The vast majority of chordophones fall into two basic types: Lutes and Zithers. The primary distinction that divides these two sub-groups is the shape (Miller/Shahriari, 20). This shape is not necessarily tied to a visual classification however, it’s more that the shape and design of a chordaphone can dramatically alter the sound they produce! Lutes (of which the ukelele would be included) are ‘necked’ instruments, meaning there is a non-resonating piece of the instrument that extends away from the resonating body and to which the strings are attached. With Zithers however, the strings utilize the space of the entire resonating body of the instrument, and in this sense, the entire instrument acts as a resonator (Miller/Shahriari, 21). A zither therefore typically has a richer, sustained and often more powerful sound, where a the notes of a lute will die of more rapidly and have a lighter, brighter, feel.

There are also some diverse and unique ways in which one vibrates a string to produce sound on a chordophone. The three most common techniques are plucking, hammering, and bowing. Below is a great example of the contrast between various chordophones and technical styles. It features a banjo (which is finger-picked) and a double bass (which, in this case, is played with fingers as well as a bow). I think this video also shows the diversity that exists not just in the chordophone family, but how unique two lutes can look and sound when compared to one another. I hope you enjoy the music and thanks for reading my week 1 blog post!


Works Cited:

Miller, Terry E., and Andrew C. . Shahriari. World Music: A Global Journey. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Courage, Katherine H. “How the Freaky Octopus Can Help Us Understand the Human Brain.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 1 Oct. 0013. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.

Riter, Mark. “Hornbostel-Sachs.” Hornbostel-Sachs. Princeton.edu, n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. <http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Hornbostel-Sachs.html&gt;.


2 thoughts on “

  1. Great, Chris. You set this post up very well. Rather than a link, see if you can embed your video directly into your post.

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