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Western Instruments

Many classification systems for musical instruments have been articulated in the Western world since the time of Ancient Greece. One of the longest-lived systems was a tri-partite model articulated by the late-Roman scholar Boithius (c. 470 - c. 524 CE). He labeled his instrument groups as: 'intensione ut nervus' (meaning 'tensioned string'), 'inflatilia' (meaning 'blown'), and 'percussionalia' (meaning 'struck'), for string, wind, and percussion instruments, respectively. Medieval and Renaissance theoreticians often started with Boithius' divisions but greatly elaborated upon them in a variety of ways in part because the instrumentariums of their times were so much more varied. Innovative, and often quite complex classificatory systems continued to be created through the 20th century, and these were intended to handle instruments not just from Europe but the entire world. One of these systems, created by Hornbostel and Sachs in 1914, is utilized on this site (see 'Classification' section of sidebar on instrument pages; also in the use of the terms 'aerophone,' 'chordophone,' 'idiophone,' and 'membranophone' throughout the site). However, in many introductory textbooks for Western music courses a system closer to the one of Boithius is used (wind instruments are divided into woodwind and brass categories; separate category for keyboard instruments), and that is what is presented here (based on Kerman, p. 55). For convenience, this division of European instruments is repeated twice, once for modern instruments, then for early instruments.   


Kartomi, Margaret. 1990. On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

Kerman, Joseph, and Vivian Kerman. 1980. Listen. 3rd edition. New York: Worth Publishers, Inc.