The Flute is Not a Woodwind Instrument: Re-imagining and Challenging the Western Instrument Families

Ever wonder why flute is still a woodwind after all these years of, you know, not being made out of wood? And have you ever thought about how Eurocentric and “White” the 4 instrument families are? I’ve always had an issue with the “Traditional Four,” as I will call it. It just didn’t feel right to me. It was always something about piano being percussion and not strings, the avoidance of an electronic family, and the flute fiasco? Of course, they were primarily invented to describe the instrument families of the Western European orchestra, which is part of the issue. It is problematic, at best, to lump all instruments on the entire planet into the Traditional Four designed to describe the epitome of Western European Music. To help remedy this, I am proposing a simplified Hornabostel-Sachs Musical Instrument Classification system combined with my own thoughts on teaching instrument families to kids that is much more inclusive and representative of the instruments, cultures, and musics that exist in the world. Here is what I am proposing:

The Flute is NOT at Woodwind Instrument

Wind Instruments

Hornabostel-Sachs calls this family Aerophones. I am proposing keeping Wind and subdividing it from there. There should be three subcategories here:

  1. Pure wind: This includes ocarina, flute, recorder, jug or any other instrument that produces sound by simply blowing across an ‘edge’ like the labium of a recorder or the edge of a bottle.
  2. Reed wind: This family includes instruments that possess a “reed” or lamella that vibrate over an opening when blown to produce a sound which include clarinet, harmonica, oboe, shawm, xaphoon, saxophone, and sipsi, or any number of other instruments.
  3. Lip-reed wind: This family includes any instrument that relies on the vibration of the lips to produce a sound like trumpet, didgeridoo, trombone, alpinhorn, pBuzz, or any number of other instruments.
Hornabostel-Sachs Classification poster for wind instruments. He calls them Aerophones. I like this poster, but it still centralizes Western instruments on it.

Notice that the word “wood” is not used. Instruments like the jug can be made from glass. Ocarina is traditionally made from clay or other materials. Some instruments in this family might be made from gourds too.

Percussion (Idiophones)

Percussion is a bit of a misnomer. To percuss means to hit or tap. Only some instruments in this family are hit to make a sound. This means a more proper name for this family would be Idiophones. In the Hornabostel-Sachs system, Idiophones are anything that vibrates without any external vibrations like a reed. Cymbals would be idiophones because it just needs to be hit or scraped to make a vibration on its own. In the original classification there are many subfamilies of idiophones and membranophones (drums) get their own category within that. I have kept some of this for simplicity in a school setting.

Please note that this does not include the piano. Let’s be real here. I can hear it now: “But the hammers…” yeah, no–I never tell my kids to hit scrape or shake the piano to make a sound, and neither should you.

There are three subcategories here:

  1. Membranophones: any kind of drum that contains a membrane or skin that is sruck or made to vibrate that produces a sound.
  2. Idiophones: any instrument that makes a sound by shaking, hitting, rubbing, or scraping it. The instrument itself vibrates to make the sound without any outside vibrations like a reed or the lips. This subfamily includes cymbals, xylophones, barafon, singing bowl, triangle, claves, turntables, and cajon.
  3. Lamellophones: any instrument that uses a flexible tongue that vibrates by plucking it. This subfamily includes the mbira (and the many variations of it), the jaw harp, and the kouxian.

Strings

Let me be clear: This family includes every instrument that uses the plucking, bowing or otherwise vibrating of strings, ropes, or other string-like materials to produce a sound. This includes guitar, lap dulcimer, erhu, violin, guzheng, tres, quattro, lap steel, washbucket bass, sitar, or harp. Piano belongs in this family much more appropriately.

Electronic

I find it mind-boggling that, in this day-and-age, virtually (see what I did there?) nobody is talking about electronic instruments as an important family of diverse instruments to include in school music programs. Especially when learning about instrument families.

There are two subcatgories here:

  1. Pure electronic: This family includes any instrument that relies on an electrical signal, radio wave, or a computer to generate a sound. The instruments of this family include theremin, otomotone, Aerophone by Roland, drum machines, MIDI (which could be considered its own instrument) and any virtual instruments that exist within an app and/or are played with a QWERTY (Standard US English) computer keyboard.
  2. Hybrid electronic: Of course there would be some overlap between some of the “traditional” families when you get into electric guitar, electronic drums, electric ukulele, bass, synthesizer, and piano, but instruments like these need their own subcategory because even though they are based off a traditional instrument, they are used to produce different forms of music than their non-electric cousins and primarily use electricity to produce the sound.

Other Families?

I sometimes argue that there should be a keyboard family as well that includes any instrument that involves the pressing of keys on a keyboard, which will certainly cause overlap, but the instruments in this family would include acoustic and electric piano, synthesizer, MIDI Keyboard, organ, accordion, or harmonium. However, there is very little evidence that, outside of the Western/European world, keyboard instruments in this form exist. The whole concept of pressing a key on a linear keyboard to produce a sound seems to be a completely Western construct (aside from, perhaps, the mbira). Therefore, including the keyboard family as its own group seems rather ill-informed and insensitive. Many of the keyboard instruments we know and love in our Western society would be dispersed throughout the existing families mentioned above and fit in quite nicely. And, in this regard, doesn’t favour the keyboard and centre the West and Europe in the instrument families.

Perhaps this is the way you envisioned your instrument families but couldn’t figure out how to classify them. I’m hoping that this post is helpful for you and your learners in understanding how different instruments from diverse cultures produce sounds. Of course, the instruments listed here are not exhaustive. There are many more instruments throughout the planet, and even within North America and Europe that were not mentioned that exist outside of the Classical Canon. In an effort to decolonize the music room, I am proposing these, and hope they help you in your journey. I want to know your thoughts. Please let me know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “The Flute is Not a Woodwind Instrument: Re-imagining and Challenging the Western Instrument Families

  1. Thank you for this! I love the impulse to resist one standard classification—as if there is only one way (Ie traditional European orchestral families) to classify instrument families. Why not make space for multiple classification systems? Families do come in all shapes and sizes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I woleheartedly agree with so much of this. In my private work (teaching, delivering workshops in music and instrument-making) we use the Hornabostel-Sachs method of cartegorisation and many of your suggestions are very sensible. I also teach class music in schools and always teach blown instruments as edge blown, reed and lip to my pupils, including stone age ancestors of all our modern instrument technologies (our speciality) and instruments from outside Europe eg digeridu,

    I think there is a case for including lever or key operated instruments. There are many types of keys instruments that don’t use a traditional style ‘keyboard’ with black and white keys. I play symphonie, and I have many friends who play things like keyed fiddles. I would also argue that although these are mostly emerging in medieval europe there are 2 whose origins are most definitely not european and whose evolution is separate from the european classical keyboard and the european keyed string instrument family. These are the Taishogoto (Japanese original made by combining the mechanism of a typewriter with a stringed instrument) and the Bulbul Tarang (an Indian instrument thought to have been developed from the Taishogoto).
    Anyhow, great article. Glad to see I am not the only music teacher working on these definitions. All we need now is an updated curriculum to keep up with us!

    Like

    1. Yeah, I always thought there had to be something better and am shocked that the H-S system is not more well known in the music teaching profession.

      Thanks for these instruments too, I’ll take a look at them.

      Like

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