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Three string instruments (17th century). The Duet c1635 by Saftleven.jpg
Three string instruments (17th century).
Harpist Elaine Christy plays with both hands approaching the strings from either side of the harp. The harp is a chordophone with prominent strings. Harpist Elaine Christy at Unitarian Church 2.jpg
Harpist Elaine Christy plays with both hands approaching the strings from either side of the harp. The harp is a chordophone with prominent strings.

A chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sound by way of a vibrating string or strings stretched between two points. It is one of the four main divisions of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification.


Hornbostel-Sachs divides chordophones into two main groups: instruments without a resonator as an integral part of the instrument (which have the classification number 31, also known as simple); and instruments with such a resonator (which have the classification number 32, also known as composite). Most western instruments fall into the second group, but the piano and harpsichord fall into the first. Hornbostel and Sachs' criterion for determining which sub-group an instrument falls into is that if the resonator can be removed without destroying the instrument, then it is classified as 31. The idea that the piano's casing, which acts as a resonator, could be removed without destroying the instrument, may seem odd, but if the action and strings of the piano were taken out of its box, it could still be played. This is not true of the violin, because the string passes over a bridge located on the resonator box, so removing the resonator would mean the strings had no tension.

Curt Sachs also broke chordophones into four basic categories, "zithers, lutes, lyres and harps." [1]

What many would call string instruments are classified as chordophones. Violins, guitars, lyres, and harps are examples. However, the word also embraces instruments that many would hesitate to call string instruments, such as the musical bow and the piano (which, although sometimes called a string instrument, is also called a keyboard instrument and a percussion instrument).

Electric string instruments often have an electromagnetic pickup that produces a signal that can be amplified. The electric guitar is the most common example, but many other chordophones use pickups—including mandolins, violins, and the overtone koto.

How they work

When a chordophone is played, the strings vibrate and interact with each other. There is usually something that makes the sound resonate, such as the body of a guitar or violin. The strings are set into motion by either plucking (like a harp), strumming (like a guitar), by rubbing with a bow (like a violin, cello or double bass), or by striking (like a piano or berimbau). Common chordophones are the banjo, cello, double bass, dulcimer, guitar, harp, lute, piano, sitar, ukulele, viola and violin.

Origins and development

A 3,300-year-old stone carving of a Hittite bard playing a stringed instrument is the oldest iconographic representation of a chordophone and clay plaques from Babylonia show people playing an instrument that has a strong resemblance to the guitar, indicating a possible Babylonian origin for the guitar.

Atlas - Morocco Chordophone (Cordophone).jpg
Atlas - Morocco

List of chordophones

See also: List of chordophones by Hornbostel–Sachs number

See also

Related Research Articles

String instrument Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

Lyre Ancient Greek string instrument

The lyre is a string instrument known for its use in Greek classical antiquity and later periods. The lyre is similar in appearance to a small harp but with distinct differences.

Hornbostel–Sachs or Sachs–Hornbostel is a system of musical instrument classification devised by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, and first published in the Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1914. An English translation was published in the Galpin Society Journal in 1961. It is the most widely used system for classifying musical instruments by ethnomusicologists and organologists. The system was updated in 2011 as part of the work of the Musical Instrument Museums Online (MIMO) Project.

Musical bow simple string musical instrument

The musical bow is a simple string instrument used by a number of South African peoples, which is also found in the Americas via slave trade. It consists of a flexible, usually wooden, stick 1.5 to 10 feet long, and strung end to end with a taut cord, usually metal. It can be played with the hands or a wooden stick or branch. It is uncertain if the musical bow developed from the hunting bow, though the San or Bushmen people of the Kalahari Desert do convert their hunting bows to musical use.


The citole was a string musical instrument, closely associated with the medieval fiddles and commonly used from 1200–1350. It was known by other names in various languages: cedra, cetera, cetola, cetula, cistola, citola, citula, citera, chytara, cistole, cithar, cuitole, cythera, cythol, cytiole, cytolys, gytolle, sitole, sytholle, sytole, and zitol. Like the modern guitar, it was manipulated at the neck to get different notes, and picked or strummed with a plectrum. Although it was largely out of use by the late 14th century, the Italians "re-introduced it in modified form" in the 16th century as the cetra, and it may have influenced the development of the guitar as well. It was also a pioneering instrument in England, introducing the populace to necked, plucked instruments, giving people the concepts needed to quickly switch to the newly arriving lutes and gitterns. Two possible descendant instrument are the Portuguese guitar and the Corsican Cetera, both types of cittern.

Plucked string instrument

Plucked string instruments are a subcategory of string instruments that are played by plucking the strings. Plucking is a way of pulling and releasing the string in such a way as to give it an impulse that causes the string to vibrate. Plucking can be done with either a finger or a plectrum.

Musical instrument Device created or adapted to make musical sounds

A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be considered a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument. A person who plays a musical instrument is known as an instrumentalist. The history of musical instruments dates to the beginnings of human culture. Early musical instruments may have been used for rituals, such as a horn to signal success on the hunt, or a drum in a religious ceremony. Cultures eventually developed composition and performance of melodies for entertainment. Musical instruments evolved in step with changing applications and technologies.

Bar zither Musical instrument

Bar zither is class of musical instruments within the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system for a type of simple chordophone, in which the body of the instrument is shaped like a bar.

History of lute-family instruments

Lutes are stringed musical instruments that include a body and "a neck which serves both as a handle and as a means of stretching the strings beyond the body".


  1. 1 2 3 4 Sachs, Curt (1940). The History of Musical Instruments . New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp.  463–467.
  2. 1 2 Sachs, Curt (1940). The History of Musical Instruments . New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p.  464.