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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 membrane. Membranophones form one of the original four classes of instruments (along with idiophones, chordophones 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 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 although it has not yet been formally extended.

Membranophones are subdivided into those which are struck, those which are sounded by friction and those which resonate in sympathy with some other sound (‘singing membranes’). A fourth category, plucked drums, was included by Hornbostel and Sachs but subsequent research (L. Picken and others in ...

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