Classification of Percussion Instruments
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Classification of Percussion Instruments

There are several overlapping schemes for the classification of percussion instruments.

These schemes are based on four types of criteria:

Percussion instruments vary enormously in nature and usage, and have possibly the longest history of any group of musical instruments.[1] For these and other reasons their classification proves difficult, and different classification systems are used in different contexts.

At the highest level of grouping, authorities differ over whether stringed instruments such as the hammered dulcimer and keyboard instruments such as the celesta are percussion instruments, let alone the piano which is both stringed and a keyboard and yet sometimes also termed percussion.[2][3]

Hornbostel-Sachs does not use the term percussion as a general grouping at all, but instead in a very different sense to the common usage. Instruments such as castanets and cymbals used in pairs are not percussion in the Hornbostel-Sachs sense, but are percussion instruments in every other sense.

Similar problems are encountered at lower levels of classification.

By means of sound production

Ancient Chinese and Indian systems of classification were based on the materials of which the instruments were constructed, and the acoustic properties of the instruments, respectively.[]

In the 14th century Jean de Muris produced a classification system which divided all musical instruments into three classes: Percussion, String and Wind.[] Hornbostel-Sachs further develops this scheme, but abandons the percussion high-level grouping, replacing it by the groups idiophones and membranophones.


Hornbostel-Sachs classifies musical instruments by means of a numerically labelled inverted tree structure, originally with four groups at the highest level, two of which are percussion instruments (as the term percussion is normally understood), and the others strings and wind. The system does use the term percussion but at a much lower level in the tree and in an esoteric sense quite unlike its common usage, see below.

Some of the important percussion groupings are:

  • 1 Idiophones
    • 11 Struck idiophones
      • 111 Directly struck idiophones
        • 111.1 Concussion idiophones or clappers - Two or more complementary sonorous parts are struck against each other
          • 111.11 Concussion sticks or stick clappers
          • 111.14 Concussion vessels or vessel clappers
            • 111.141 Castanets - Natural and hollowed-out vessel clappers
            • 111.142 Cymbals - Vessel clappers with manufactured rim
        • 112 Indirectly struck idiophones - the player himself does not go through the movement of striking; percussion results indirectly through some other movement by the player.
          • 112.1 Shaken Idiophones or rattles - The player makes a shaking motion.
            • 112.13 Vessel rattles - Rattling objects enclosed in a vessel strike against each other or against the walls of the vessel, or usually against both, such as maracas
          • 112.2 Scraped Idiophones - The player causes a scraping movement directly or indirectly; a non-sonorous object moves along the notched surface of a sonorous object, to be alternately lifted off the teeth and flicked against them; or an elastic sonorous object moves along the surface of a notched non-sonorous object to cause a series of impacts (this group must not be confused with that of friction idiophones)
          • 111.2 Percussion idiophones - The instrument is struck either with a non-sonorous object (hand, stick, striker) or against a non-sonorous object (human body, the ground)
            • 111.21 Percussion sticks
              • 111.212 Sets of percussion sticks in a range of different pitches combined into one instrument, such as a xylophone provided its sounding components are not in two different planes
            • 111.22 Percussion plaques
              • 111.222 Sets of percussion plaques, such as the lithophone
            • 111.23 Percussion tubes
            • 111.24 Percussion vessels, such as the suspended cymbal
              • 111.241 Gongs - The vibration is strongest near the vertex
                • 111.241.1 Individual gongs
                • 111.241.2 Sets of gongs
              • 111.242 Bells - The vibration is weakest near the vertex
                • 111.242.1 Individual bells
                • 111.242.2 Sets of bells or chimes
    • 12 Plucked idiophones such as the jew's harp
    • 13 Friction idiophones such as Rub rods
  • 2 Membranophones
    • 21 Struck Membranophones - Sound is produced by hitting the drumskin with a hand or object
      • 211 Directly Struck Membranophones - Instruments in which the membrane is struck directly
          • 211.1 Instruments in which the body of the drum is dish- or bowl-shaped, such as the kettle drum
            • 211.11 Single instruments
            • 211.12 Sets of instruments, such as orchestral timpani
        • 211.2 Tubular Drums - Instruments in which the body is tubular

For a complete list of idiophone classes see:

Hornbostel-Sachs does not distinguish between pitched and unpitched instruments at any level.

The term percussion in Hornbostel-Sachs

It should be particularly noted that this classification does not use the term percussion in its high level grouping, but instead in an esoteric sense, so that other instruments such as the clarinet that are not percussion in any normal sense are described as percussion reeds.

Having no explicit category for percussion as normally understood, Hornbostel-Sachs places nearly all percussion instruments in the high level categories of membranophones (high-level category 2, drums and similar) and idiophones (high-level category 1, cymbals, bells, xylophone-like instruments and similar). A few instruments that are sometimes considered percussion are classified as chordophones (high-level category 3, such as the hammered dulcimer) and as aerophones (high-level category 4, such as the samba whistle). Conversely, the members of the Hornbostel-Sachs high-level categories 1 and 2 nearly all fall clearly or loosely into the conventional category of percussion.

Hornbostel-Sachs does use the term percussion to divide the third-level category directly struck idiophones (111) into percussion idiophones (111.2), those beaten with a hand or beater, such as a suspended cymbal, and concussion idiophones (111.1), those beaten together in pairs such as clash cymbals. The term is also used in a loosely related way to divide reed aerophones (422) into single reed instruments (422.2) with a single 'reed' consisting of a percussion lamella (our emphasis) and double reeds (422.1) also called concussion reeds.

Other systems

Several older systems divide instruments into two high-level classes:

This system was developed by André Schaeffner into a comprehensive classification scheme in 1932.[4]

By usage

Pitched and unpitched

Percussion is traditionally divided into pitched percussion, which produces a sensation of pitch, and unpitched percussion, which does not. Some instruments, such as bells, are commonly used in both roles.

The traditional terms tuned percussion and untuned percussion have fallen from favour, replaced loosely by the terms pitched and unpitched, see Unpitched percussion instrument#Untuned percussion.

By playing techniques

By tradition

By far the most common way of classifying percussion is by the style or tradition with which it is most closely associated.

Western music

Orchestral percussion

Although they are aerophones, whistles such as these are played by percussionists in the orchestra

An orchestral percussion section is traditionally divided into:

Keyboard instruments such as the celesta are not normally part of the percussion section, as the playing skills required are significantly different.

Band percussion

Folk music

World music


Latin American

East Asian

Indian and Pakistani

Middle Eastern


Other criteria

Some percussion instruments may be classified according to the material of which they, or their sounding component, are constructed. In this way some idiophones for example are sometimes grouped together as metallophones and others as lithophones.

This scheme does not have any wider acceptance, to the point that some terms that might be used in such schemes have meanings in general usage that are inconsistent with it. For example, the serpent is a brass instrument although composed of wood, while many gongs and some cymbals are composed of brass but are not brass instruments, and the modern orchestral flute is a woodwind instrument although composed of silver and/or other metals.

See also




  1. ^ The Oxford Companion to Music, 10th edition, p775
  2. ^ retrieved 22 March 2012 The piano is really a "hybrid"--a combination of two types. It's a string instrument because the musical tones originate in the strings; and it's also a percussion instrument, because the strings are set into vibration by being struck with hammers. To be historically correct, it's classified as a "keyed zither" by musicologists.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-19. Retrieved .  retrieved 22 March 2012: How you class the piano depends on which of the following classification schemes you feel is most relevant: (1) By how the sound is produced. By one thing striking another (percussion), by plucking or bowing (strings), or by vibrating a column of air (wind). (2) By construction. If you can't make the sound without the strings, then call it a stringed instrument. (3) By method of playing. If you use a keyboard, it's a keyboard instrument; if you hit it with a stick, it's a percussion instrument. Traditionally, the first classification scheme has held sway. Number 2 is not widely accepted. But Number 3 is gaining ground. For now, most musicologists would agree, the piano is a percussion instrument, and also a keyboard instrument.
  4. ^ Kartomi, page 176, "On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments", by Margaret J. Kartomi, University of Chicago Press, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (CSE), 1990

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