This area is dedicated to Bart Hopkin, whose book Musical Instrument Design taught me most of what I know about instruments (and suggested most of the rest).



"When I was growing up (1960’s) music was, except in rare circumstances, made by players of instruments. This connection is imprinted on me. I hear a musical sound and imagine / assume a physical act producing it (even when there isn’t / wasn’t one). For someone younger than me this probably isn’t true. In the eighties I began to realize that most people thought music was something that came out of little boxes. This detachment from the idea that making music involves playing instruments comes in part from synthesizers, but also from the boredom (been there, heard that) people felt about being endlessly presented with the same combinations of the same instruments (the same boredom that killed jazz for many a generation earlier).

There’s nothing wrong with the traditional instruments (they are magnificent achievements), but there’s no reason to limit ourselves to them either. They tend to require specialized techniques, often tortured ergonomics, and even severely limited ranges of sound. With this in mind I began building instruments that are fun and intuitive to play, that rely less on specified skills and more on imagination and physical involvement with the actual generation of sound."
-Alex Ferris

Instruments are generally divided into four families:
Aerophones: wind instruments, organs, harmonicas
Idiophones: bars / tines of fixed length
Chordophones: strings
Membranophones: vibrating skins or membranes, drums, kazoos

In 1914 Curt Sachs and Erich Moritz von Hornbostel proposed the generally accepted system for classifying instruments. See: Taxonomy of Musical Instruments by Henry Doktorski @

The Baschet Brothers (see article below) developed another system.

Noisejunk is an archive of instrument builders.

The sound files with the instruments are pretty unexciting (i.e. embarassing and terrible) and I'm hoping to replace them with something more coherent eventually.

Better examples of what anarchestra sounds like.

"Why get stuck with that Bud Powell sound?"
-Thelonious Monk

The traditional instruments of the orchestra were built to produce volume and encourage uniformity of tone and technique. Before amplification the only way to increase volume (as music became more public) was through multiplication and this required that the instruments themselves were limited in their individuality, like soldiers marching in a parade or forming orderly ranks on a battlefield. The rank-and-file musicians of the orchestra were perceived as servants (or soldiers) rather than creative artists in their own right and their tools were designed to limit the possibility of individual expression. During this process (the rise of the homophonic "classical" style – Hadyn and onward- and the eclipse of the contrapuntal baroque –Bach et al) many of the more distinctive instruments (the recorder, oboe da caccia, viola da gamba, viola d’amore, etc.) were eliminated and the methodology of composition shifted its emphasis from evolving out of the bass (basso continuo) to harmonizing the soprano. Massed violins replaced individual wind instruments as the primary carriers of melody and keyboard instruments (able to play more than a single line) disappeared from the orchestra.

In social terms this reflected the ascendancy of the class-system of the industrial revolution with the musicians of the orchestra in the role of the proleteriat (or field slaves) and the concert halls as their "dark, satanic, mills" (or plantations).

The evolution of the microphone changed that. Collectives of individuals (such as Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens) could express themselves on an equal basis (in terms of volume) with large, regimented, orchestras. It’s no accident that the new music of the microphone age picked up the discarded thread of contrapuntal -often improvised- polyphony (essentially democratic and socialistic) and originated from the long suppressed underclass. The music, using instruments developed for the european orchestral and military band traditions but not aspiring to the limitations imposed by their "legitimate" techniques, expressed a sense of empowerment and appropriation.

The next technological step was the magnetic pickup in the 1930’s (derived from the telephone microphone by Paul Tutmarc, developed and popularized by Les Paul, Leo Fender, and others). This enabled steel stringed instruments (mostly guitars) to be as loud as trumpets and saxophones. The social impact of this was to displace the predominance of orchestra and marching band instruments (brass and reeds) and the perception of their standardized techniques with a modified "folk" instrument unburdened by history.

Owing to the availability of greater volume the guitar neck was allowed to grow thinner, the action lower, the strings lighter gauged, the frets smaller, the body of the instrument slimmer, etc. This changed the ergonomics of guitar playing and allowed the players to play with greater ease and develop new techniques. The development of amplifiers allowed creative musicians to think in terms of sonic aspects of music that had been impossible prior to then.

Sadly, while the innovations of the technology of amplification (mostly in signal processing) continued, the developments of instruments along ergonomic lines generally stopped there. In addition, the rise of sampling and other replicatory technologies made instruments seem obsolete to many makers of music. In social terms this reflects the shift from an economy based on manufacturing / labor to one based on services / information.

Electrifying traditional acoustic instruments, whose designs were based on producing volume and the desire for uniformity of tone and technique, ignores many of the advantages of new technologies. It is now possible (and to my mind sensible) to start from ergonomic considerations instead. (In addition, amplification allows us to explore physically generated sounds that lack enough amplitude to be used in traditional instruments.)

There’s nothing wrong with the traditional instruments (they are magnificent achievements), but there’s no reason to limit ourselves to them either. They tend to require specialized techniques, often tortured ergonomics, and even severely limited ranges of sound. With this in mind I began building instruments that are fun and intuitive to play, that rely less on specified skills and more on imagination and physical involvement with the actual generation of sound.

Part of my thinking in this has been to make instruments that don’t encourage speed, that add labor to playing instead of saving it (for instance, by using arms and/or legs in place of fingers), that encourage functionality at the expense of decoration. There are two benefits to this: one is that people with different sorts of physical bias aren’t put in a position to fail; the other is that musicians with traditional skills are encouraged to make more rigorous (i.e., functional) choices about what they play –this encourages closer listening and more compositional and conceptual involvement. To refresh music, we need to develop new functional approaches more than we need to redecorate old ones. One of the reasons ‘classical’ music stopped evolving sonically (besides the codification of the orchestra) was that its players were limited in the available ranges of motion. Jazz (with very similar instruments) allowed different motions, encouraged different techniques of playing, and made new sounds.

No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett


Ezra Pound (drawing from Fenollosa) pointed out that the chinese character for name represented a person in the dark (a walking figure combined with the sun going down) because a name was only necessary when the person couldn’t be seen. Until I needed file-names for the pictures of the instruments, I didn’t have names for them. In my own mind they have non-verbal identities and when it comes time to name them I make something up for convenience (to me they rarely get farther than ‘that one’). Their true names are their sounds, how it feels to play them, the time spent conceiving and constructing them. In a mild way I resist (and even resent) the process of giving them names. It seems vaguely absurd and I tend to put it off to the point where new instruments don’t make it into print (or whatever one calls this) for months after their construction. The building and playing process is dynamic and the instruments change over time. I think of them not as nouns (fixed entities) so much as verbs (concrete points) in the abstract flow of the continuity that is making music.
-Alex Ferris

Make your own tools.
-Bruce Mau



 Aerophones: the sound is produced by a vibrating column of air. Wind instruments,sirens, and organs are included.
Edgetones: flutes, whistles, ocarinas, bottles
Reeds: clarinets, oboes, harmoniums
Lip-buzzed: trumpets, tubas

Click here for Aerophones page.


 Idiophones: the sound is produced by the thing itself.
Xylophones, music boxes, kalimbas, etc.
Pitched: bars, tines, bowls
Unpitched: clackers, shakers, whackers

Click here for Idiophones page.


 Chordophones: the sound is produced by vibrating strings (usually transferred by a bridge to a soundboard).
Struck: dulcimers, pianos
Plucked: harps, guitars
Bowed: fiddles

Click here for Chordophones page.


 Membranophones: the sound is produced by a vibrating membrane. Includes drums and kazoos.

Click here for Membranophones page.


 In recent times Electrophones have been added as another family. Theremins, synthesizers, electronic organs, doorbells, etc. These are sounds generated by an oscillating electrical circuit rather than the physical excitement of a material.

Click here for Electrophones page.


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