musical instruments

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musical instruments

musical instruments are classified in various ways, but the system devised in 1914 by Kurt Sachs and E. M. von Hornbostel has been accorded recognition by both anthropologists and musicologists because it is applicable not only to modern Western instruments but to primitive and exotic instruments as well. This system divides instruments into five main classes: idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, chordophones, and electrophones. Most idiophones, which are instruments made of a sonorous material needing no additional tension, and membranophones, whose sound is produced by the vibrations of a membrane stretched over a hollow resonator, are popularly grouped as percussion instruments; certain instruments, however, such as the jew's-harp and the glass harmonica (see harmonica (2)), are idiophones, but are not percussion instruments. Aerophones are of two types: free aerophones, which include those reed instruments employing free reeds, and wind instruments, which produce sound by means of an enclosed, vibrating column of air. Chordophones are stringed instruments. Electrophones, a development of the 20th cent., are of two types: those which simply add an electric amplifier to some existing instrument, e.g., the piano, guitar, or reed organ, and those whose sounds originate as electrical vibrations, e.g., the electric organ. Musical instruments are of very ancient origin; the remains of flutes dating to at least 35,000 years ago have been found in SW Germany. See articles on individual instruments, e.g., dulcimer.


See K. Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (1940); K. Geiringer, Musical Instruments (1943, 2d ed. 1978); A. Buchner, Musical Instruments: An Illustrated History (rev. ed. 1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Musical Instruments


instruments capable of reproduoing, when played, sounds that are rhythmically organized and that are of a particular pitch or precisely regulated rhythm. Each musical instrument has its own timbre (tone color), as well as its own musically expressive dynamic resources and range. The quality of sound depends on the relationship between the shape of an instrument and the materials from which it is made. Various devices, such as mutes, and various techniques (for example, on stringed instruments, pizzicato and the harmonic, or flageolet tone) can alter the sound of an instrument.

Musical instruments are usually classified as folk and professional instruments. Folk instruments may be unique (found among a single people) or “international”—that is, widely used by various peoples with ethnic or long-standing historical and cultural ties. Thus, for example, the bandura is found only in the Ukraine, and the panduri and chonguri only in Georgia. But the gusli (psaltery), sopel’, zhaleika, and volynka are used by Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. The saz, tar, kemancha, tutek, and zurna are found in Azerbaijan and Armenia. The peoples of Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan use nearly the same instruments.

From antiquity there have been folk instrumental groups in Russia (gusli, gudok, and domra players, for example). In the second half of the 18th century horn orchestras developed, with the hunting horn the principal instrument. Choirs of herdsmen horn-players, particularly the one organized by N. V. Kondrat’-ev, became very famous in the 1770’s. At the end of the 19th century, V. V. Andreev and his closest assistants, S. I. Nalimov, F. S. Passerbskii, and N. P. Fomin, perfected a number of Russian instruments, including the balalaika and gusli, and rebuilt others (the domra). These instruments provided the foundation for new folk orchestras. The republics of the USSR have a centuries-old and nationally diverse folk-instrument tradition. Since the establishment of Soviet power, folk orchestras and ensembles have been founded, and a great deal of work has been put into perfecting various folk instruments.

The instruments that make up symphony (or operatic) orchestras, brass bands, and music-hall orchestras are considered professional musical instruments. Almost all of them developed from folk prototypes. In the distant past the violin was a folk instrument. The modern flute developed from the simplest folk flute, and the oboe from the primitive shawm.

The development of musical instruments is directly associated with the development of human society, its culture, its music, its performing arts, and its production technology. Owing to peculiarities in their construction, some instruments have been preserved for centuries and have retained their original form (for example, Uzbek stone castanets, or kairak ). Many others have been improved, and still others, having proven themselves incapable of meeting the growing demands of music and performance, have gone out of use and have been replaced by new instruments.

The relationship between musical instruments and composing and performing, as well as the process by which the instruments are selected and perfected, is easier to trace in professional music than in folk music, where changes take place much more slowly and musical instruments survive for centuries in their original shapes or with only minor changes. Thus, in the 15th through 16th centuries crude, technically clumsy fiddles (vielles) gave way to gentle, “aristocratic” viols with dull timbre. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as a result of the shift from polyphonic to homophonic or harmonic music and the rise of music that required dynamic performance, the viols, with their soft sound and chordal technique, were gradually replaced by the violin and its family of instruments, which possess a bright, expressive sound, a rich bowing technique, and potentiality for virtuoso playing. At the same time, the vertical flute, which also had a gentle but “lifeless” sound, fell into disuse, giving way to the more sonorous and technically agile transverse flute. In ensembles and orchestras the European lute and related instruments (the theorboe and chitarrone, or archlute) were no longer used, and in the home the lute was replaced first by the vihuela and later by the guitar. At the end of the 18th century a new keyboard instrument, the pianoforte, replaced the harpsichord and chamber clavichord.

Because of their structural complexity, professional musical instruments are more dependent in their development than the folk instruments on the condition of the exact sciences and production technology and on the availability of factories and plants with experimental laboratories, design offices, and skilled instrument makers. The instruments of the violin family, which can be made only by individual craftsmen, are exceptions to this generalization. Perfected by famous 16th- through 18th-century masters from Brescia and Cremona (Gasparo Bertolotti [da Salo], G. Maggini, N. Amati, A. Stradivari, and G. Guarneri del Gesù), who drew heavily on folk models, the violin family remains unsurpassed in its merits.

The most intensive development of professional instruments took place in the 18th through the 19th century. T. Boehm’s invention of a rational system of keys (1832) and its application to the flute and later (with appropriate modifications) to the clarinet, oboe, and bassoon significantly expanded the performing potentialities and heightened the intonational purity and stability of the pitch of woodwind instruments. Composers began to use them more often and in a greater variety of forms, contributing to the development of the solo recital. At the beginning of the 19th century instrumentation was revolutionized by the invention of the valve for brass instruments, which were transformed from natural horns with a limited number of sounds and limited performance potentiality into chromatic instruments capable, like the woodwinds, of producing any music. A basic stylistic change in all genres of music for stringed keyboard instruments dates from the appearance of the hammer action pianoforte. The invention of the radio made possible the construction of electrophonic instruments.

There are various systems for classifying musical instruments. Perhaps the best known of these is the three-group system, by which instruments are divided into wind, stringed, and percussion instruments. The wind instruments are, in turn, divided into woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, sarrusophone, and bassoon, and their variants) and brass instruments (trumpet, cornet, French horn, trombone, tuba, and brass band instruments). The stringed instruments are subdivided into those that are plucked (harp, lute, guitar) and those that are bowed (the violin and viol families). Percussion instruments include the kettledrum, drum (bass and snare), xylophone, celesta, gong, and cymbals.

In scientific study, especially of the diverse folk musical instruments, more complete and more precise systems of classification are used. Among them the system developed at the beginning of the 20th century by the Austrian musicologist E. von Hornbostel and the German musicologist C. Sachs has won recognition. (The foundation for this system was laid in the second half of the 19th century by the Belgian musicologists F. Gevaert and V.-C. Mahillon.) The Hornbostel-Sachs system rests on two criteria: the source of an instrument’s sound and the means for producing it. According to the first criterion, instruments are classified as self-sounding (idiophones or autophones), membranous (membranophones), stringed (chordophones), or wind instruments (aerophones). The source of sound of the idiophones is the material from which the instrument or its sound-producing component is made; of the membranophones, a stretched elastic skin; of the chordophones, a stretched string; and of the aerophones, the column of air enclosed in the canal of the pipe (tubes). Depending on the means by which sound is produced, the idiophones are divided into plucked (music box), friction, or rubbed (kraatspill, nail violin, and glass harmonica), and struck, or hammered, instruments (xylophone, cymbals, and castanets). The membranophones are classified as friction (bugai) and struck instruments (bass and snare drums, and kettledrum), and the chordophones as plucked (balalaika, harp, and guitar), bowed (kemancha, violin), and hammered (cimbalom). The wind instruments are classified as flued (all flutes), reed (zurna, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon), and mouthpiece instruments (trumpets and horns). Instruments are subdivided further according to peculiarities in their construction. Thus, for example, flutes are classified as vertical (open and stopped), transverse, and whistle flutes, and stringed keyboard instruments as plucked instruments (spinet, harpsichord) and hammered instruments (pianoforte, clavichord).

Electric instruments make up a special group among contemporary musical instruments. The sound comes from oscillators that produce acoustical vibrations. These instruments are subdivided into two groups: electronic instruments (electric instruments proper) and instruments with pick-ups—that is, ordinary instruments equipped with amplifiers (electric guitar, electric balalaika, and Turkmen electric dutar).


Sachs, C. Sovremennye orkestrovye muzykal’nye instrumenty. Moscow, 1932. (Translated from German.)
Beliaev, V. M. Muzykal’nye instrumenty Uzbekistana . Moscow, 1933.
Beliaev, V. M. “Narodnye muzykal’nye instrumenty Azerbaidzhana.” In the collection Iskusstvo azerbaidzhanskogo naroda . Moscow-Leningrad, 1938.
Agazhanov, A. Russkie narodnye muzykal’nye instrumenty . Moscow-Leningrad, 1949.
Iampol’skii, I. M. Russkoe skripichnoe iskusstvo: Ocherki i materialy (part 1). Moscow-Leningrad, 1951.
Vinogradov, V. S. Kirgizskaia narodnaia muzyka . Frunze, 1958.
Zhinovich, I. I. Gosudarstvennyi belorusskii narodnyi orkestr . Minsk, 1958.
Struve, B. A. Protsess formirovaniia viol i skripok. Moscow, 1959.
Chulaki, M. Instrumenty simfonicheskogo orkestra, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1962.
Vertkov, K., G. Blagodatov, and E. Iazovitskaia. Atlas muzykal’nykh instrumentov narodov SSSR . Leningrad, 1964. (References.)
Berov, L. S. Moldavskie muzykal’nye narodnye instrumenty . Kishinev, 1964.
Humeniuk, A. I. Ukrain’ski narodni muzychni instrumenty . Kiev, 1967. (References.)


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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