What Exactly Is A Chordophone? (With Examples) 

Disclosure: We may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. Read our full affiliate disclosure here.
  • What exactly is a chordophone? 
  • Discover the 5 most common types of chordophone instruments
  • Learn about the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system
  • Also, check out our separate post on whether the piano is a string or percussion instrument?

Whether you are sitting on the front porch and lazily strumming your guitar, or playing banjo at a concert, you are making music with a chordophone.

You may not call your instrument that, but the term ‘chordophone’ is a class of stringed instruments in which sound is produced from vibrating strings that are stretched between two (or more) fixed points.

It is one of the five classifications of musical instruments in the Hornbostel-Sachs system.

In ‘History of Musical Instruments,’ Sachs describes chordophones as instruments with strings that can be bowed, plucked with fingers or a plectrum, sounded by wind, or struck with a stick.

Chordophones include composite and simple chordophones, instruments with or without a resonator.

Why is it called a chordophone? The term ‘chordophone’ is an amalgam of the Greek words chord (meaning string) and phone (meaning voice or sound).

A befitting term for musical instruments that produce a sound when you vibrate a string.

In musicology, the chordophone family is called the ‘string instruments’ family. However, they also include some (not all) keyboard-like instruments such as the piano and harpsichord.

What is the Hornbostel-Sachs Classification System?

The Hornbostel-Sachs or Sachs-Hornbostel system was created by musicologists Curt Sachs and Erich Moritz von Hornbostel.

It is the world’s most authoritative classification of musical instruments, widely used by ethnomusicologists and people who study musical instruments.

The Hornbostel-Sachs system was first published in 1914, translated to English in 1961, and updated in 2011 by the Musical Instrument Museums Online (MIMO).

It has five levels of classifications that are as follows:

  1. Chordophones: Musical instruments in which a string vibrates to produce a tone.
  2. Membranophones: Musical instruments in which a membrane vibrates to produce a tone.
  3. Aerophones: Musical instruments in which the air vibrates to produce a tone.
  4. Idiophones: Musical instruments in which the body vibrates to produce a tone.
  5. Electrophones: Musical instruments that use electronic circuits or sound amplification.

Each of these five classifications is further divided into sub-levels, resulting in 300 categories of musical instruments. We will explain the main classifications briefly in a later section, but let us look at the five types of chordophones, or string instruments first.

The 5 types of chordophone instruments

There are five basic types of chordophone instruments. These are all string instruments, categorized based on the relationship between the resonator and string.

‘Resonator’ refers to the part of the instrument that amplifies the sound of the strings. For instance, the body of an acoustic guitar is the resonator.

It picks up the sound of the vibrating strings and amplifies it.  Now that we’ve clarified that, the five types of chordophones are:

1. Zithers

The zither (not to be confused with the string instruments of the same name) refers to a class of chordophone instruments with strings stretched over, across, or inside the resonator (soundbox).

Alternatively, the strings can also be stretched between two resonators.

Zithers are stringed instruments that can be strummed or plucked with a plectrum or the fingers. Examples of these chordophone instruments include various kinds of dulcimers, pianos, and harpsichords.

Steinhoven SG148 Baby Grand Piano

Constructed to the highest standards, the Steinhoven SG148 offers tonal quality, touch, durability, and value for money.

Why We Love It:
  • Super affordable price
  • Compact size
  • High-quality components
View Price On Steinhoven

2. Harps

Harps are a class of string instruments with one or more strings running at an angle to the soundboard.

Harps can have multiple sets of strings and pedal attachments. They are usually made of wood and can be played while either sitting or standing.

These chordophone instruments are generally plucked with fingers. Examples include the arpa jarocha, Paraguayan harp, orchestral harp, and Irish harp.

3. Lutes

A lute refers to a class of stringed instruments with a neck, deep rounded ‘egg shape’ back, and a sound hole or opening in the body.

Lutes can be fretted or unfretted, but the strings must stretch up the neck and across the resonator. In other words, the strings run parallel to the sound table.

Lutes include various chordophone instruments that can be strummed, plucked, or bowed. Common examples are guitars, ukuleles, banjos, violins, and cellos.

4. Musical Bows

Musical bows are instruments that may or may not have a built-in soundbox or resonator. Either way, removing the resonator can alter the sound but should not render the instrument unplayable.

Generally, these chordophone instruments only have a string, strings, or string bearer.

You can sound these stringed instruments by plucking, striking, or bowing the string. Examples are the koto, ravanahatha, berimbau, ukeke, and malunga.

5. Lyres

Lyres, also known as yoke lutes, are a class of stringed instruments with one or more strings that run parallel to the soundboard.

Lyres must have a box or bowl-shaped sound box and a yoke that shares a plane with the sound table with two arms and a crosspiece.

Lyres are generally played by plucking the strings, but some chordophone instruments in the lyre family can be bowed. Examples are cithara, lyre, nyatiti, and phorminx.

Other classifications of musical instruments

The Hornbostel-Sachs system classifies musical instruments based on the material that vibrates to produce a sound.

Besides chordophone instruments, it also has membranophones, aerophones, idiophones, and electrophones.


Idiophone instruments create a sound by vibrating themselves rather than vibrating strings or membranes.

The Hornbostel-Sachs system divided them into two categories, Plucked idiophones, and Struck idiophones.

Plucked idiophones are instruments with a flexible tongue-like object that can be plucked. Examples are the Marimba and Jew’s Harp.

Percussion idiophones create a sound when they are struck with a hammer, mallet, stick, or other objects. Some examples are the Wood Block and Gong.


Aerophones are music instruments that produce a tone by causing a body of air to vibrate rather than using strings, membranes, or the body of the instrument to produce a sound.

They are often called ‘air instruments’ and include wind instruments with the addition of free aerophones.

Aerophone instruments may or may not contain the vibrating air when played. They can further be sub-divided into free, non-free, flute, and reed aerophones.

Examples of aerophones include the trombone, oboe, bagpipes, didgeridoo, ocarina, and pan flute.


A membranophone refers to a class of musical instruments that produce a tone by vibrating a stretched membrane.

In most cases, the sound is produced by rubbing or striking the skin or head stretched over an opening in the body of the musical instrument.

Membranophones are also called the ‘drum’ family. They include barrel drums, tubular drums, long drums, kettle drums, and frame drums among other types.

Examples are the tabla, calabash, darbuka, djembe, talking drums, and timpani.


Electrophone refers to a class of musical instruments that produce an initial sound by electronic means, or the produced sound needs to be electronically amplified.

Simply put, an electrophone is any musical instrument that uses sound amplification or electronic circuits to produce sound.

This is not a part of the four main classes of instruments in the original Hornbostel-Sachs system.

It was added later when the musical instrument classification system was updated. Examples of electrophones are electric guitar, electric bass, electronic drums, etc.


Is a piano a chordophone?

A piano is considered a type of chordophone musical instrument in the Hornbostel-Sachs musical instrument classification system.

Pianos are percussive chordophones or struck string instruments. It produces a sound when you vibrate strings stretched between two points.

What kind of chordophone is a guitar?

The guitar is a necked box lute chordophone. It is a plucked or strummed composite chordophone with the 321.322 classification number in the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system.

It applies to string instruments such as the acoustic guitar, classical guitar, and electric guitars.

Is a cello a chordophone?

The cello is a bowed box-lute chordophone. In other words, the cello is a composite chordophone sounded by a bow.

Composite chordophones are chordophone instruments with a soundbox or resonator as an integral part of a musical instrument that cannot be removed.