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date: 20 February 2020


  • Howard Mayer Brown
  • , revised by Frances Palmer


General term for musical instruments that produce their sound by setting up vibrations in a stretched string. Chordophones form one of the original four classes of instruments (along with idiophones, membranophones and aerophones) in the hierarchical classification devised by E.M. von Hornbostel and C. Sachs and published by them in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914 (Eng. trans. in GSJ, xiv, 1961, pp.3–29, repr. in Ethnomusicology: an Introduction, ed. H. Myers, London, 1992, pp.444–61). Their system, which draws on that devised by Victor-Charles Mahillon for the Royal Conservatory in Brussels and is widely used today, divides instruments into groups which employ air, strings, membranes or sonorous materials to produce sounds. Various scholars, including Galpin (Textbook of European Instruments, London, 1937) and Sachs (History of Musical Instruments, New York, 1940), have suggested adding electrophones to the system, but it has not yet been formally extended.

Chordophones are subdivided into zither-like instruments including the piano and harpsichord, classified as ‘simple chordophones’, and ‘composite chordophones’ where the structure includes a neck, yoke or other component which acts as a string holder. The plucked drums, which were classified with the membranophones by Hornbostel and Sachs, have since been identified as variable tension chordophones but the classified list has not yet been updated. Each category is further subdivided according to the more detailed characteristics of an instrument. A numeric code, similar to the class marks of the Dewey decimal library classification system, indicates the structure and physical function of the instrument. The Hornbostel-Sachs classification (from the ...

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