Mary K. Oyer African Music Archive

Instrument Classification

Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification system was created by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs. Among ethnomusicologists, it is the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments.

Instruments are classified using 5 different categories depending on the manner in which the instrument creates the sound: Idiophones, Membranophones, Chordophones, Aerophones, & Electrophones.

African Thumb Pianos

African Thumb Pianos


Sound is produced by the body of the instrument vibrating, rather than a string, membrane, or column of air.

  • Struck – clapping, cymbals, xylophones, bells, rattles
  • Plucked – thumb piano, jaw harp
  • Friction – friction sticks
  • Blown – blown sticks
  • Unclassified


Sound is produced by the vibration of a tightly stretched membrane.

  • Struck – drums (many varieties)
  • Plucked – plucked drums (a string is attached to the membrane and causes the vibration)
  • Friction – friction drums (rubbed rather than struck or instruments in which a cord is attached to the membrane and rubbed)
  • Singing – kazoos
  • Unclassified
Bowed instrument

Bowed instrument


Sound is produced by the vibration of a string or strings that are stretched between fixed points.

  • Simple/Zither – musical bows, zithers
  • Composite – lutes, harps, tube fiddle, violins, viola, cello, bass, guitars
  • Unclassified


Sound is produced by vibrating air.

  • Free – early organs, accordion, harmonica
  • Non-free – flutes, recorder, oboes, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba
  • Unclassified


Sound is produced by electric action or amplification.