On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments

    -- by Margaret J. Kartomi, Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 340 pages

How do musical instruments reflect the thoughts of a society? One way is the manner in which they are organized according to local criteria and concepts. This volume is an extensive investigation of musical instrument classification systems from many parts of the world, some of them having a history of more than 1000 years.

The book is divided into three main sections. Section One explains how classification systems work and provides examples of how they can be applied to groups of musical instruments. Terms are borrowed from the fields of cognitive anthropology and biology. The four basic kinds of classification are taxonomies, paradigms, keys (tree diagrams) and typologies. Different societies use these various methods to categorize their musical instruments.

A multitude of classification criteria exists around the world. Examples include:

Kartomi believes that cultures can be placed on a continuum between points of literary versus oral transmission of classification systems. Section Two examines societies that have literary transmission of instrument classification schemes at least a millennium old. Examples come from China, India, Tibet, Java, ancient Greece, the Arab world, and Europe and the West (from medieval times until now). Section Three deals with classification in societies oriented towards oral transmission. Examples are drawn from tribal groups in Sumatra, the Philippines, West Africa, the Solomon Islands, and from rural Finland. Different types of primary research methods (library research versus fieldwork) are used according to the primary method of transmission.

Both oral and written transmission of classification systems have certain “strengths.” Schemes in oral societies have broader and more complex cultural implications than most of the ones in written traditions. The latter may consist of many more subdivisions, and consider many more facets of a much larger corpus of instruments in a more complex, complete, and systematic way (p. 212).

The chapters dealing with individual cultures are fascinating to read and consider. A few key points will be brought out on the next page.

The author states that, “The two main rival ideologies in ancient India—Hinduism and Buddhism—each produced a major classification of instruments. Each lives on to the present day as the dominant instrument classification in India and Sri Lanka, respectively” (p. 55). The Sachs-Hornbostel classification system that is so popular in the West is related to the Hindu system (though not identical). Jain and Tamil classification systems also exist in India.

Kartomi thinks highly of a classification system published in 1980 which is intended to include all of the historical, current, tribal, folk and concert instruments of India, while excluding “contemporary foreign” instruments such as keyboards. “The combination of Indian and Western organological and taxonomical ideas in this scheme make it an attractive one for contemporary Indian scholarship. It is one of the first modern schemes to be created for a particular nation’s instrumentarium” (p. 72).

The chapter dealing with Java is especially fascinating, as transmission of instrument classification systems is moving from an oral tradition to one that is partially literate.

The criteria used to classify instruments of Javanese gamelan ensembles are diverse, and differ according to
various teachers and scholars. They include:1

The Mandailing people of Sumatra are a sub-group of the Batak. They classify their musical ensembles based on concepts that are related to “cosmological thought, kinship groupings, components of the family, social organization, and even village or town planning” (p. 212).

In many West African cultures, musicians tend to personify instruments. They may conceive of them essentially as extensions of the human beings that play them. An instrument can even be viewed as a “surrogate participant” in musical events. The instrument may be given a personal name, the names of its parts may be related to the society’s social structure, and it may be verbally addressed in performance.

Concluding thoughts
After the work of Hornbostel and Sachs was published in 1914, discussion of instrument classification systems did not cease. Scholars developed quite a few modifications to that system, and developed new classification systems up through today. The final chapter does an excellent job of organizing some of the massive amounts of data into important topics, drawing on the examples from around the world which were described in detail earlier in the book. Kartomi successfully makes a large-scale comparative study of classification systems and the underlying concepts that govern them.

Instead of searching for native categories in fieldwork, Kartomi feels that many ethnomusicologists automatically fall back on what they learned at school (the four “-phone” categories). This is a holdover from the days of comparative musicology, and though the system has great usefulness, it also carries cultural baggage that can become blinders to the researcher. “Cognitive schemes never develop in a vacuum, which is the reason why classifications of instruments tend to express their creators’ cultural assumptions” (p. 9).

The author points out that many parts of the world (such as South America) are not represented here because sufficient data on classification schemes has not been compiled (as of 1990). She encourages readers to do much more collection of data on classifications and associated concepts so that future studies can move beyond this preliminary work.

Not all cultures use musical instruments. Kartomi lists eight examples: the Fuegians at the southern tip of South America, the Lapps (Sami) of Scandinavia, certain Celtic peoples who live on islands near Ireland and Scotland, and five cultures in Asia and Oceania. Some nomadic groups in Africa also fit into this category.

The book is richly illustrated with 69 illustrations, charts and diagrams. The extensive bibliography contains nearly 300 entries, with a large number of them being non-English source materials. A helpful glossary of terms used in classification theory is also included.

This is the “classic” book on instrument classification systems. It is interesting to browse, a valuable scholarly resource for ethnomusicologists, and an indispensable aid for people who work among the cultures described herein.

These criteria are in addition to many of the criteria
mentioned earlier.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of


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Artists in Christian Testimony