The Sachs- Hornbostel System

The Sachs- Hornbostel System

The Sachs-Hornbostel System

In the field of Ethnomusicology, the Sachs-Hornbostel System had been arranged and published as a system of musical instrument classification in 1914. As the structure was originally presented in German through the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie publication, an English translation was announced through the Galpin Society Journal (GSJ) in 1960.

The Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, or “Journal of Ethnology” first appeared in 1869. Originally focusing on German ethnology, the journal branched out internationally, and still creates various publications on the subject.

Founded in 1946,The Galpin Society sought to research musical instruments based upon their history, construction, development, and overall use. Still today, the society welcomes those interested in studying musical instruments from all over the world. The society commemorates the name of Canon Francis W. Galpin (1858-1945) who studied, collected, and made his own musical instruments from scratch.

Here is a picture of Canon Galpin playing a “Tromba Marina” from his personal collection:


As we will learn after reading this post, Galpin’s “Tromba Marina” appears to be a bowed lute in the chordophone category…

Looking back at the Sachs-Hornbostel System, Austrian scholar of music Eric Moritz Von Hornbostel, co-authored the instrumental arrangement with German Ethnomusicologist and modern Organologist, Curt Sachs. The systems intention was to organize musical instruments into four primary categories based on what part of the instrument vibrates to produce the sound. Regardless of there being several subcategories, the top four are:


These instruments produce sound through the direct vibration of air. They are typically subdivided into three categories: Flutes, Reeds, and Trumpets.


When a column of air is set into vibration through breath, the air is split on an edge. It can be  made from a tube of metal, wood, or ebonite usually with  six holes at one end of the tube. With the end of the tube sealed with a cork,  the player is able to blow his/her lips across the embouchure (position of the lips in/on the mouthpiece) or hole. The air directed into the tube causes turbulence and vibrates within the tube.

R. Carlos Nakai’s serene Native American flute performance. [He plays a few different sizes and kinds of flutes throughout this video, and you will be able to decipher between the different timbral qualities between each flute.]


The end of the players’ mouth is not open to the outside air, so unlike the  flute, the air is not free to move in and out. Reeds have one or more small pieces of material like cane, bamboo, or metal that vibrates when air is blown over or through them into a tube.


A performer must blow into instrument by vibrating their lips at high  speed. This force acts as the reed itself, and the vibration is harnessed to produce the sound. Trumpet players can modulate pitch by changing the  pressure on their lips and the force of air blown into the mouthpiece. They can  also change pitch by changing the length of the tubing through which air flows.

Duke Ellington with Cat Anderson [Trumpet Solo]

*For information about another amazing aerophone, the Cambodian M’baut/Chinese Hulusheng  (An intricate Mouth Organ found all over Southeast Asia), Please click this link! I created a detailed post a couple of months ago, and think you may like it!


Defined as having one or more strings stretched between two points. Sound is produced when a string is able to vibrate. The shape/body of the instrument distinguishes the two basic types of chordophone (though there are many more subtypes!)


Generally plucked, the reverberant qualities fade away almost  immediately as each note subsides. When a lute is bowed, the string vibration  does not fade away until the bowing has subsided. Lutes can also be fretless (like a fretless bass or guitar), or they can have frets. Frets are straight bars of material (wood/bamboo/metal) that are carefully placed on the neck of a lute vertically, underneath the horizontal strings. When pressing the string to the fret, the player is guided in obtaining his/her desired pitch. Fretted lutes tend to be plucked, while fretless lutes are most commonly bowed.

John Playford with a fretted lute [plucked]

Fusani Tia & Muhammad Kusanii on the Fretless Talensi fiddle in Gana, Africa


Plucked, bowed, or hammered (which tends to have more reverberant sound timbre than other types of chordophones.)

Bowed Zither duet with Harp

Plucked Chinese Guzheng 

Hammered Zither in Central Park NYC [Celtic]

The timbral qualities will also be deciphered based upon whether or not the lute or zither is plucked with a finger or plectrum, which is thin flat piece of plastic, tortoise-shell, or flexible material held or worn on the fingers and used to pluck the strings of for example, a guitar, or the Chinese Guzheng (which can be played with both fingers and a plectrum.)

Tortoise Shell Picks

Lyres and Harps also technically fall under the category of Chordophones due to their construction. An open frame suspends the strings vertically on both of these instruments. This design allows the player to pluck each string. While it may be difficult to distinguish the auditory different between a lyre and a harp, the construction of the instruments is quite recognizable.

Alemannic Warrior Lyre/Trossingen Lyre (6th Century Germanic Lyre) 

Harp + Vocal/ Förgätmigej: The Flower of Magherally


Create sound through actual vibrations within the instrument itself. The vibrations compress and rarefy the surrounding air to create sound which travels to our ears in the form of longitudinal waves. Examples of Idiophones are xylophones, hi-hats, bells, rattles, and cymbals. Even slamming doors are idiophones!


Gongs, bells, wood blocks/Claves, (anything that can be struck to produce  various sound qualities. These instruments are normally categorized timbrally by their sharp attack once they’ve been stricken.

Balinese Gamelan Ensemble


Small plucked idiophones are called “lamellophones” meaning they   have a tongue or prong that is flexed and then released. This action creates a  crisp short sound before the vibrating prong (lamella) desists.

Mbira + Vocal

There are also single plucked prongs (lamella) that can be amplified by the mouth cavity. These are called Jaw or Jew Harps (coming from the French word Jeu, meaning “Game”) Just about every culture has their own version of this instrument, and naturally, it has a different name in every country. This would fall under the category of a plucked idiophone.

How to play the Jaw/Jew Harp


rattles, shakers, or anything hollowed out and filled with pebbles, seeds, or sand. When the particles bounce against the outer shell of the instrument, vibration occurs causing a crisp sound in the upper register. Another instrument called the “Shekere” has a woven net of beads and shells on loosely attached    to the outside of a gourd.

Caribbean style Maracas 

Yosvany Terry on the Shekere


are most commonly percussion instruments. They usually consist of a hollow cylinder with a vibrating membrane stretched across each end. Traditionally, the membrane was made of animal skin, but today they are manufactured in mass quantities with synthetic membranes instead. Drums are categorized by body shape, and whether or not they are single or double headed. Most drums are struck with a hand or stick with different shapes/materials. Smaller drums usually have a higher, tighter sound, while larger drums naturally have more space inside the instrument. For this reason, big drums are louder with deeper tones.

Eric Piza on Bongos

Japanese Taiko Drums by Kodo

As technology has become a large part of contemporary society, Electrophones have also become the fifth category we consider. Any instrument that is generated by electrical means is considered an Electrophone.

Presenting… the Seaboard Grand by Roli:


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