As someone who has always loved learning about and playing instruments, I felt pretty confident with my abilities to teach my general music students about the five instrument families. I had the posters, center games, video clips, and even live demonstrations. But every year the same questions were asked – “Why isn’t the saxophone in the brass family?” “How is the flute in the woodwind family when it doesn’t look like the others?” “How is a xylophone in the drum family?” Providing historical context seemed to only deepen the level of confusion. So I felt there had to be a better way of organizing instruments than the traditional families: brass, percussion, string, and woodwind.

I reached out to friends who teach in different countries to ask how instruments were organized there. I was surprised to find that many places use a system based on how sound is produced. Instead of having a woodwind and a brass group, all instruments that use wind to create sound are in one category for example. So I researched this method called the Hornbostel-Sachs method after its creators and really strongly believe this is a much better organization for instruments.

Say Good-bye to Exceptions to the Rules

When I have taught instrument families, I always included characteristics for students to look for as clues. Of course, just like the English language, these rules have tons of exceptions. One would think to be in the woodwind family, the instrument should be made of wood. Not so fast though – what about the flute and saxophone?!? Ok, woodwind instruments often use reeds, BUT not all of them – looking at you, flute. And let’s not get started on where to put the piano!!! I have been taught and taught piano could be in the string, percussion, and keyboard families. 

Using the Hornbostel-Sachs method, those characteristic lists become pointless. The only thing to look at for broad organization is how the sound is produced. If wind is used, the instrument is an aerophone. If the instrument has strings that vibrate, it is a chordophone. Instruments with some sort of skin or membrane that vibrates belong to the membranophone group. Instruments where the main sound production is due to the instrument itself vibrating is part of the idiophone group. Some also include the electrophone group for electronic instruments. Within each of these groups are subgroups, but I don’t necessarily ever need to divide the groups further. Students are having a much easier time understanding where to place instruments without needing historical context or knowing the evolution of an instrument.

Bringing the World into Music Class

The music classroom has the opportunity to incorporate sounds, styles, and textures from all over the world. There is greater access to instruments found in different areas of the world. The Western instrument families are not easily adaptable to include non-Western instruments. Rather than try to force an instrument to conform to Western families, by adopting the Hornbostel- Sachs method it becomes an easy task to organize instruments.

Activities to Make the Switch

Many activities can easily be tweaked to support the Hornbostel-Sachs method. Changing instrument sort labels from the five families to aerophone, chordophone, electrophone, idiophone, and membranophone is a start. Remember that the brass and woodwind families are now all aerophones and also percussion has been divided between idiophone and membranophone, so you may need to change your instrument lists to make them.

Having classes make anchor charts with the new terms is a great reinforcement activity. It gets the students using the new vocabulary right away and serves as a reminder when hung on the wall. Plus it gives them ownership of the new information!

There are ready-made games with reference and definition cards that are perfect for small groups and music centers here in my TpT store. I specialize in gamifying music concepts so students don’t realize they are learning while having fun! The games are part of my most popular lines, so you know students and teachers love them!

I hope you consider trying the Hornbostel-Sachs method! I find that it’s a much easier method for students to understand! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the five families versus this method in the comments!

Melissa Angstadt

Melissa Angstadt is an elementary and middle school music specialist. She has successfully completed 2 levels of Orff-Schulwerk teacher training. In addition to teaching, she creates high-quality music games designed for centers.