How Many Musical Instruments Are There in the World?

There are more than 1500 known instruments around the world, with many different ways to categorize them. The traditional western approach classes them as string, woodwind, brass, keyboard, and percussion instruments.

A more comprehensive approach called Hornbostel-Sachs classifies them by the way the instruments produce their sound providing a more accurate categorization.

Archaeology has shown that the musical instruments date back to the beginning of the Stone Age, as many pipes, clay drums, shell trumpets, and whistles are found in excavations. The ancient cultures in the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, India, Americas, and East Asia all had a wide range of musical instruments, which shows that the musical instrument diversity may be far more extensive than thought. There are tons of different local musical instruments that are yet to be discovered. 

There are many ways to classify and examine musical instruments, with the most common one being the classical system with the strings, woodwind, brass, percussion, and keyboard families. This system was started to shape in the 2nd century with the aim of categorizing instruments by the way they produce sound.

However, new instruments from different cultures came into play later, which did not fit neatly into this system. So, other categories were added, and the system became more focused on the technique needed to play the instruments.

This system is also called the western system as it was created with western instruments in mind.

Strings

The first instrument family is called strings. As the name suggests, it covers the instruments that produce sounds with the vibration of one or more strings. There are more than 300 different string instruments worldwide.

String instruments are examined in three branches which divide the instruments with the way they are played.

Bowed Strings

Bowed Strings include the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, along with the old viol family. These instruments are all played with the method of bowing the strings. There are many other bowed string instruments from different cultures, such as ravanahatha from India, rebab from Islamic Empires, kamanche from Persia, and lira from Byzantine.

Plucked Strings

The plucked strings consist of instruments that are played by plucking the strings for vibration. Instruments such as guitar, banjo, ukulele, harp, flute, mandolin, sitar, veena, oud, and saz fall in this category and are played by thumb, fingers, or plectrum (picks.)

Hammered Strings

Another lesser-known string instrument family is the hammered strings. These instruments are played by striking the strings with a small spoon-shaped mallet hammer. The hammered dulcimer instruments of different cultures belong to this family. The most famous examples are santur from Persia, yangqin from China, salterio from Italy, and Spain.

The hammered strings are considered the origin of the piano as the working principles are the same. However, as the piano features a keyboard, it is categorized as a member of the keyboard family.

Woodwind

Woodwind instruments are the first sub-family of the wind instrument family, which are played by breath. These instruments use vibrating air column mechanisms to produce sound. Although the name suggests wood, the instruments can be made from any material, including wood, brass, silver, cane, or even gold.

This family includes flutes, saxophones, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and English horns as the major instruments. The woodwinds are divided into two sub-categories as they use different methods to start vibrations.

Woodwinds With Reeds

The first sub-category is woodwinds with reeds such as clarinets, saxophones, bassoons, and oboes. These instruments produce their unique sounds when air is blown inside them through the mouthpiece, which vibrates the reed and the air column inside the instrument.

Edge-blown Woodwinds

The other woodwind sub-category is the edge-blown woodwinds or, simply, flutes. The vibrations start by blowing air against an edge of a hole in a tube. These instruments include recorded bamboo flutes and ocarinas.

Brass

The second category of wind instruments is brass instruments. Brasswind instruments differ from woodwind instruments in the way they are played. Players vibrate their lips and buzz them against a mouthpiece instead of directly blowing into a reed or edge of a hole. 

The buzzing sound gets amplified through the mouthpiece before getting manipulated by the valves that adjust the pitch and note. Brass instruments include the variations of the trumpet, tuba, French horn, baritone, and trombone. Although the name is brass, there are also instruments in this category, such as the serpent, didgeridoo, and alphorn, made from different materials.

Percussion 

Percussion instruments are the heartbeat of any music played as a group. They are the instruments that the first step of music, rhythm, is created. That is why it is the richest instrument family with more than 500 instruments.

There are many different percussion instruments in terms of the way they are played, and the way sound is created. That is why they are divided by the type of sound they create.

Unpitched Percussion

The unpitched percussion instruments are also called drums. They create indefinite-pitched sounds and are only responsible for rhythm but not the melody. The most popular examples are snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, tambourines, frame drums, triangles, and many others.

Pitched Percussion

Pitched percussion instruments can create certain pitches and notes. Instruments such as xylophone, timpani, and handpan belong to this sub-category as they are percussive instruments that can create specific notes and melodies.

Keyboard

The last musical instrument family is the keyboard family. The keyboard instruments may have different methods for producing sounds, but they all feature a keyboard between the instrument and the player as the interface. The piano, organ, hurdy-gurdy, and harpsichord are the most famous members of the family.

Electronic Instruments

Electronic is not a traditional musical instrument family. However, with the advanced technology, there are new instruments that do not fall in any of the previous categories. That is why a new family line was needed for the classification.

Under this family, there are instruments with electronic action such as the organ with electronic valves, electronically amplified instruments such as electric guitar or violin, and instruments that produce sounds electronically, such as theremin and synthesizers.

Hornbostel-Sachs Instrument Classification System

A better way to categorize musical instruments is using the Hornbostel-Sachs Instrument Classification System originally created by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs in 1914. It is the most widely accepted system to classify musical instruments.

The instruments are divided into five categories with the way they create their sound.

Idiophones

The first class is the idiophones which create sound with the vibration of the body of the instrument. The famous members here are maracas, handpan, clapping, cymbals, bells, thumb piano, jaw harp, etc.

Membranophones

Membranophones are instruments that feature a vibrating membrane to create sound. Most drums and kazoos are members of this class. 

Chordophones

Chordophones feature a vibrating string or strings to produce their sound. Violin, cello, guitar, harp are members of this class, as well as piano and some keyboards.

Aerophones

Aerophones use vibrating columns of air to create their sound. The wind instruments that require air to play fall in this class, such as flutes, trumpets, saxophones, bagpipes, and clarinets.

Electrophones

And, finally, the last class is the electrophone family. They produce their sounds electronically or with the help of an electronic component like an amp. Synthesizers, theremin, and electric guitar belong to this class.

Summary

Music has always been a universal component of human culture. For thousands of years, we as humans have used and are still using different tools to produce sounds that express our thoughts and feelings. That is why we have created a wide range of different musical instruments to produce different sounds.

It is thought that there are more than 1500 instruments with an average of 300 instruments in each instrument family. However, there is no definite answer to be found as instruments are so diverse across so many different cultures.

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