Classification of Musical Instruments

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Posted: 16 years ago

Introduction and Classification of Instruments


Instrumental music has universal appeal, the richness and soothing tones can be appreciated without language and regional barriers.   The history of Indian musical instruments can be gathered from various sources such as Literature (folk, general, music), Visual representations (paintings, sculptures, reliefs, models).  Most of the Indian musical instruments remain still in use.   

Almost every Indian God is associated with a musical instrument.  Brahma's consort Saraswathi is seen playing the veena.  Vishnu holds the conch, Siva the damaru.  Krishna - an incarnation of Lord Vishnu is supposed to have mesmerised all the gopikas by playing his flute ( Venu Gaanam). Sage Narada carries the tambura, Nandi - Lord Siva's disciple plays the Mathalam.  Musicological texts ascribe the mahati ( a twenty-one stringed veena) to sage Narada. 
In the Ramayana and Mahabaratha, there are several mention of use of musical instruments.  When Rama performed the Aswamedha Yaga, several skilled musicians were said to have performed.  Ramayana refers to veena, dundhubi, mridangam, bheri, ghata, panava, pataha, dindima.  When the priests performed puja, their wives were supposed to have played the veena.  The conch had been used during wartime to signify the beginning and end of the day, to alert the army about intruders.  Drums were used to convey messages not only during wartime, but also during peace.   

There are many musical instruments to be found among the sculptures existing in various temples, cave temples and Buddhist stupas in all parts of India.  The therapeutic use of musical instruments had been understood from early days.   

The instruments are mostly made using wood, leather, skin, clay.  The making of the musical instruments requires great skill & practice in the manufacturing process, combined with some basic knowledge of music & acoustical principles. 

The Indian musical instruments are classified into four major categories: 
Tata vadya, Sushira vadya, Avanaddha vadya & Ghana vadya.   

Tata vadya - String instruments (Chordophonous) 
This is further classified based on the mode of playing: 
- by friction with a bow like the violin, sarangi, dilruba, esraj, etc 
(Ravanastram is one of the earliest known bowed instrument) 
- by plucking the string like the veena, rudra veena, gotuvadyam, sitar, sarod, guitar, mandolin, harp, (tambura, ektar -drone instruments) etc. 
- by striking with a hammer or a pair of sticks like gettuvadyam, swaramandala   

Sushira vadya - Wind instruments 
This section comprises hollow instruments where wind is the producer of sound. These can be further classified by mode of playing: 
-  those where wind is supplied by some mechanical means, commonly bellows - e.g. organ, harmonium 
-  those where the wind is supplied by the breath of the performer, which can be further classified as mouth blown & nose blown.  

mouth blown 
* those where wind is blown through the mouth pieces in the instrument - e.g. clarinet, oboe, nadaswaram, shanai 
nose blown  
* those where wind is blown through the orifices in the wall of instrument - e.g. flute   

Avanaddha vadya - Membrane covered (Membranophonous) 
This section comprises all percussion instruments.  These can be further classified by mode of playing: 
-  those played by hand - e.g. mridangam 
-  those played using sticks 
-  those played partly by hand and partly by stick - e.g. tavil 
-  self struck - e.g. damaru 
-  those where one side is struck and the other side stroked - e.g. perumal madu drum   

Ghana vadya - Solid percussion instruments 
This covers instruments made out of metal, wood, stone or clay but those that are solid like the ghatam, kartal, gongs, cymbals, etc. 



Posted: 16 years ago

String Instruments


Banam: a single string instrument is played with a stick - is used by the tribes of Bihar  

Chikara: a three stringed (two horse hair & one steel) instrument - is used by tribal people from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh  

Dilruba: an instrument with four main & eleven sympathetic strings - used mainly in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh & Punjab.  

Kamancha: is used by folk singers of Rajasthan  

Ektara: a simple instrument used during religious chanting & bhajans by sages & saints  

Gottuvadyam: is similar to the veena, but without the frets - is played by gliding a stick on the strings  

Kinnari: an instrument that is considered to have been played by the celestial beings Kinnara (half bird)  

Mahati: the veena that is considered to have been played by sage Narada  

Rabab: the instrument that was used by Tansen  

Ravanahatta: the instrument that Ravana is supposed to have invented - still popular in Rajasthan  

Santoor: an instrument with several strings (60-100) is played using two curved sticks  

Sarangi: has three main strings & around 30-40 sympathetic strings  

Sarinda: used by the Langas of Rajasthan  

Sarod: the upper finger board has a plate of burnished steel - has seven principal strings - has no frets  

Sitar: similar to veena - there are three varieties single sitar, double sitar & double gourd sitar  

Tambura: provides the drone - continuously provides a particular base sound  

Veena: a South Indian classical intrument - has four main strings  

Violin: used as an accompaniment to classical & light music - also solo performances - played with a bow


Posted: 16 years ago

Percussion Instruments



Chenda: a cylindrical drum, in use in Kerala.  Is used as an accompaniment in Kathakali perfromances. 

Damaru: a cylindrical drum used by Lord Shiva - knotted strings are made to beat on the membrane 

Dholak: similar to Pambai in Tamilnadu - membrane covered on both sides - played with both hands 

Ghatam(solid): this is a solid instrument, made of clay.  Metal filings are mixed with clay.  The artiste holds the pot to his belly while playing. 

Kanjira: has a round wooden frame, over which a piece of membrane is stretched.  There are coins or bells strung to slits which produces an additional pleasing resonance 

Khol: similar to mridangam of the South is in use in Bengal 

Mridangam: known to be made of clay originally, is now made out of jackwood .  Shaped as a hollow cyliner, with one end of larger diameter than the other.  On the right side, a paste of cooked rice & iron oxide or manganese is applied.  Plays a major role in classcial conerts 

Nagara: has two pieces, the smaller one the female placed on the right & the bigger one the male placed on the left.  Used in the North for religious ceremonies & as an accompaniment for dance (Chhau) 

Pakhawaj: is similar to mridangam of the South.  It is used as an accompaniment to classical music & dance (Odissi) 

Pung: is a drum & is used as an accompaniment in Manipuri dance form 

Tabla: has two pieces, denoting the male and female sides.  Is used as an accompaniment to vocal music 

There are other metallic instruments which are mostly used in temples or as accompaniment to music & dance.  Some of these are Manjira, Tal, Jhanj, Temple bells, Gongs, Ghungroo


Posted: 16 years ago

Wind Instruments


Buffalo Horn: known as Singha in the North & Kombu in the South, is used as accompaniment for tribal and folk music. 

Conch: is a sacred instrument.  Lord Vishnu holds the conch.  Krishna is said to have blown on the conch to start off the Kurukshetra war.  In the North a Valampuri (right sided) conch is used to blow during prayers in temples as well as in the homes 

Flute: is made of bamboo, provided with holes for finger movement & a hole for blowing 

Harmonium: portable keyboard instrument, is operated with bellows & is used widely in the North 

Nagaswaram: (or Nadaswaram) an instrument used on auspicious occasions, in temples & weddings, is a double reed instrument, with the drone provided by a type of Nadaswaram known as the Ottu. 

Pungi: used by snake charmers, has an oval gourd with small holes at the neck.  with two thin bamboo pieces consisting of even holes attached to the centre of the gourd 

Shehnai: is the auspicious instrument in the North, similar to the Nagaswaram in the South.  There is a sruti shehnai, similar to the Ottu in the South , for providing the drone 


Posted: 16 years ago

String Instruments


An extrmely popular Indian String Instrument with a Pumpkin Gourd at one end,19-20 frets, 7 main strings and 11 sympathetic strings, 127 cms.


Indian string instrument used for accompaniment by both vocalists and instrumentalist, 4 standing notes, available in Ladies pitch (G# & A#), small sized pumpkin approximate lenght 120 cms & gents pitch (C# & D#), larger pumpkin approx. lenght 137 cms. On request 5 string Tanpura can be made to order.

Also a popular string instrument, chrome plated fretboard, 8 main and 17 sympathetic strings, approximate length 110 cms.


A bowing string instrument, 4 main strings tuneable with wooden pegs, 19 frets length about 95 cms.


String instrument with bow,4 main strings tuneable with wooden metal knobs, 15 sympathetic strings tuneable with metal knobs, 15 sympathetic strings tuneable with ebony peg, fitted with metal horn, approximately 90 cms in length.


Similar to Tarshehnai, but without the metal horn


String instrument with bow, 3 main strings(gut) and 35 sympathetic strings, wooden fretboard with artistic decoration on it, melodious tone, professional quality, length about 75 cms.


Drone and rhythm, for devotional music, two strings tuned to the same note, length about 115 cms.


Gopichand - For unique sound effect, produced by pressing and releasing the cane after plucking the string, accompaniment in devotional songs, in three sizes.

Large size 70 cms;Medium size 46 cms;Small size 38 cms.


For Drone effect,used for devotional and folk music, length about 70 cms


4 or 5 strings, for devotional music, wooden gourd, length about 100 cms

Rectangular wooden frame fitted on both sides with leather.Single string tuneable with a wooden peg.Played with bow special decorative fittings.Full size.
Also a popular string instrument, chrome plated fretboard, 8 main and 17 sympathetic strings, approximate length 110 cms.


Solo instrument, simple decoration, 87 strings, rosewood bridges, chromatic tunung, with case and mallets.


String instrument used as an accompainment for vocal music, chromatic tuning, 36 strings, with case.




Posted: 16 years ago


By Category


The Hornbostel-Sachs system of classification for musical instruments

Today, the most widely used system of classification for musical instruments in the museum world is the Hornbostel-Sachs system, developed during the 1910s. This was the first system that could be applied to instruments the world over.

In this system, there are five families established according to the component that vibrates to produce a sound:

    The drum family or membranophones The stringed instruments or chordophones The wind instruments or aerophones The percussion instruments or idiophones
  1. The electrophones

1) The drum family, or membranophones

The family of membranophones is made up of instruments, like the drum, whose vibrating element consists in a membrane. Drums all have a skin or membrane that is struck either with a stick or the hands or a combination of stick and hand.

They can be single-headed i.e. have a single membrane at one end of their body. Drums can also be double headed i.e. have a membrane at either end.

They are classified according to the shape of their body. In the exhibition you will find frame drums (teueikan) and tubular drums.

Tubular drums include:

    cylindrical drums, which have straight sides; such as the bass drum in the Jazz drum set. conical drums, whose sides are slanted in a cone shape. barrel-shaped drums, whose sides are rounded; bendre, trong chau. hourglass-shaped drums; lunga. goblet-shaped drums; djembe. footed drums.
  • long drums; gufalo, rada drum.

2) Stringed instruments or chordophones

The family of chordophones includes instruments whose one or more strings, stretched between fixed points, vibrate when they are plucked (like the guitar), struck (like the piano) or rubbed with a bow (like the violin).

Chordophones are also subdivided into five main categories according to the shape of their body or resonator and the relationship of the strings to the body:

The harp-lute combines the characteristics of a harp, with strings that are oblique to the body, and a lute, with a neck and body; kora, donso ngoni.

3) The winds or aerophones

The primary vibrating agent of the family of aerophones is a column of air contained in a tube, as is the case for flutes and trumpets.

In the exhibition we find three different categories of wind instruments classified according to how the air is set into vibration:

A) The air is set into vibration after being directed against a sharp edge:

    rim-blown flutes, such as the flute itself.
  • end-blown flutes, such as the recorder wistles, wounagole.

B) The air is set into vibration by a vibrating reed:

    single-reed instruments like the clarinet. The reed is fastened to the clarinet by a ligature.


    Clarinette mouth piece

    double-reed instruments like the oboe; alghaita, ken trung.

    Oboe double-reed

    instruments with free reeds, like the harmonica and accordeon. Each tube produces one note and has a metal reed inside the tube.
  • hybrid instruments, like bagpipes from Western European countries (France, England and Italy) have a double reed inside the chanter. Bagpipes from Central Europe (Romania, Bulgaria) have a single reed inside the chanter. Each drone pipe contains a single reed. The reed is made of metal or bone and is not set into vibration directly by the musician's lips as it is the case for the single and double reed instruments, but is set into vibration by the air stored in the bag; bagpipes, cabrette, large bagpipes, B&chonnet musette.

C) The air is set into vibration by the musician's vibrating lips:

    end blown horn; vaccine, kakaki. instruments with a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like trumpets; kon.
  • side blown horn; kaho.

    Trumpet mouth piece

4) Percussion instruments or idiophones

In the family of idiophones, sound is produced from the substance of the instrument itself, being solid or elastic enough not to require a stretched membranes or strings.

Percussion instruments form a highly varied family. Idiophones are made from a resonant material - wood, bamboo, gourd, metal - whose resonance is created in various ways, either by striking, shaking, rubbing, scraping or plucking the instruments.

    Instruments that are struck make up the largest group of this family. They are subdivided according to their shape:
      clapper bells and struck bells; kougoue. xylophones with wooden or metal bars; tiohoun. slit drums.
    • Instruments consisting in a pair of similar elements that are struck together, like the cymbals; bat. Clappers are also part of this family. Wooden spoons and bones, from Canada are part of this family.
    Instruments that are shaken, like jingles and rattles; kusuba, tchatcha. Friction instruments like the musical saw. Instruments that are scraped; phach.
  • Instruments that are plucked, like the Jew's harp and thumb piano; sanza.

5) Electrophones

In this family sound is produced by electricity, for example a synthesizer; equipment for a disc jockey competition.

Edited by adi_0112 - 16 years ago
Posted: 16 years ago
Thanks a lot Sahana for bringing this very, very interesting thread to the front end! I enjoyed reading these informative posts by Barnali and Adi.

So, where would something like the piano fit? Doesn't it also require air for striking the keys/ chords? What is the function of the foot-pedal that players constantly use, while playing?

I was also pretty surprised to see the image of 'rabab'. What I thought was a 'rabab' and what's put here, look completely different! *kaan-fused*
Posted: 16 years ago
This Surmandal or Swarmandal looks very similar to the Harp.

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