Close this search box.

Hornbostel-Sachs system

Table of contents

Introduction to the Hornbostel-Sachs system

The Hornbostel-Sachs classification system classifies

musical instruments

. It was published in 1914 as “Systematik der Musikinstrumente. An experiment”. by

Erich Moritz von Hornbostel

(1877-1935) and

Curt Sachs

(1881-1959). Today it is the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments.

The authors based their system on that of Victor-Charles Mahillon, who worked as a conservator at the Brussels Museum of Conservation in the 19th century. In 1888, Mahillon divided instruments into four main groups according to the type of vibrating body: self-sounding instruments, membrane instruments, string instruments and wind instruments. However, Mahillon’s system was mainly based on the instruments commonly used in Europe. Hornbostel and Sachs extended the classification system so that all instruments from all cultures of the world could be classified. With the advent of electric musical instruments, Sachs added a fifth main group in 1940.

The reception of the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system in the English-speaking world was initially hesitant; a translation into English did not appear until 1961 under the title Classification of Musical Instruments. In the 1970s, the Hornbostel-Sachs nomenclature became an international standard and is still the most important classification system in instrumentology today.

The Hornbostel-Sachs system is structured hierarchically. Each category is assigned a digit, which is increased by one digit with each level of detail, so that the number of digits increases with the level of detail. Below the main groups are the first subgroups, which are shown with a two-digit number, and then their subgroups with a three-digit number. For better readability, the figures are divided into groups of three by dots.

The main categories of the Hornbostel-Sachs system

The classification divides the instruments into five main categories: Idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, aerophones and electrophones. Each category represents a group of instruments with similar methods of sound production.

All categories of the Hornbostel-Sachs system

1. idiophones
1.1 Percussion idiophones
1.1.1 Immediately struck idiophones
1.1.2 Indirectly beaten idiophones
1.2 Plucked idiophones
1.2.1 In frame form
1.2.2 In board or comb form
1.3 Friction idiophones
1.3.1 Friction bars
1.3.2 Friction plates
1.3.3 Friction vessels
1.4 Wind idiophones
1.4.1 Blow bars
1.4.2 Blow plates

2. membranophones
2.1 Beater drums
2.1.1 Immediately beaten drums
2.1.2 Rattle drums
2.2 Plucked drums
2.3 Rubbing drums
2.3.1 Rod friction drums
2.3.2 String friction reels
2.3.3 Hand friction drums
2.4 Mirliton drums (Mirlitons)
2.4.1 Free mirlitons
2.4.2 Tubular and vascular drums

3. chordophones
3.1 Simple chordophones or zithers
3.1.1 Bar zithers
3.1.2 Tube zithers
3.1.3 Raft zithers
3.1.4 Board tithes
3.1.5 Shell zithers
3.1.6 Frame zithers
3.2 Compound chordophones


3.2.2 Harps
3.2.3 Harp sounds

4. aerophone
4.1 Free aerophones
4.1.1 Deflection aerophones
4.1.2 Interrupt aerophones
4.1.3 Explosivaerophones
4.2 (Actual) wind instruments
4.2.1 Cutting instruments or flutes
4.2.2 Shawms


5. electrophones
5.1 Electroacoustic instruments
5.1.1 Electroacoustic idiophones
5.1.2 Electroacoustic membranophones
5.1.3 Electroacoustic chordophones
5.1.4 Electroacoustic aerophones
5.1.5 Converter

Electromechanical instruments

5.2.1 Instruments with tone wheels
5.2.2 Photoelectric instruments
5.2.3 Recording and playback devices
5.2.4 Electromechanical samplers
5.2.5 Electromechanical filters
5.3 Analog instruments, modules and components
5.4 Digital instruments, modules and components
5.5 Hybrid analog/digital configurations
5.6 Software


other musical instruments