Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Hornbostel-Sachs (or Sachs-Hornbostel) is a system of musical instrument classification divised by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, and first published in the Zeitschrift für Musik in 1914. A revised English translation was published in the Galpin Society Journal in 1961. It is the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments by ethnomusicologists and organologists (people who study of musical instruments).

The system is based on one devised in the late 19th century by Victor Mahillon, the curator of Brussels Conservatory's musical instrument collection. Mahillon's sytem was one of the first to classify according to what vibrated in the instrument to produce its sound, but was limited, for the most part, to western instruments used in classical music. The Sachs-Hornbostel system is an expansion on Mahillon's in that it is possible to classify any instrument from any culture with it.

Table of contents
1 The skeleton of the system
2 The system applied in practice
3 Suffixes and composite instruments
4 See also
5 External link

The skeleton of the system

Formally, Hornbostel-Sachs is based on the Dewey Decimal classification. It has four top level classifications, with several levels below those, adding up to over 300 basic categories in all. The top two levels of the scheme, with explanations, are shown below:

A later revision added a fifth top-level group, electrophones, which are instruments which make sound primarily by way of electrically driven oscillators, such as theremins or synthesizers.

The system applied in practice

Beyond these top two groups are several further levels of classification, so that the xylophone, for example, is in the group labelled 111.212 (periods are usually added after every third digit to make long numbers easier to read). A long classification number does not necessarily indicate the instrument is a complicated one. The bugle for instance, has the classification number 423.121.22, even though it is generally regarded as a relatively simple instrument (it is basically a bent conical tube which you blow down like a trumpet, but it does not have valves or finger-holes). The numbers in the bugle's classification indicate the following:

423.121.22 does not uniquely identify the bugle, but rather identifies the bugle as a certain kind of instrument which has much in common with other instruments in the same class. Another instrument classified as 423.121.22 is the bronze lur, an instrument dating back to the bronze age.

Suffixes and composite instruments

After the number described above, a number of suffixes may be appended. An 8 indicates that the instrument has a keyboard attached, while a 9 indicates the instrument is mechanically driven. In addition to these, there are a number of suffixes unique to each of the top-level groups indicating details not considered crucial to the fundamental nature of the instrument. In the membranophone class, for instance, suffixes can indicate whether the skin of a drum is glued, nailed or tied to its body; in the chordophone class, suffixes can indicate whether the strings are plucked with fingers or plectrum, or played with a bow.

There are ways to classify instruments with this system even if they have elements from more than one group. Such instruments may have particularly long classification numbers with colons and hyphens used as well as numbers. Hornbostel and Sachs themselves cite the case of a set of bagpipes where some of the pipes are single reed (like a clarinet) and others are double reed (like the oboe). A number of similar composite instruments exist.

See also

List of musical instruments by Hornbostel-Sachs number

External link