What do I have? Identifying musical instruments

p1010800-kamanche_ed2A vast number of objects qualify as musical instruments.  Peoples throughout the world have their own varieties of instruments and these can differ, even from village to village. Musical instruments reach back into pre-history and have developed over the centuries in myriad ways. Understandably, identifying them can be a challenge. Nevertheless, all have one thing in common: their primary function is to produce a sound.

What you need to know

The first step in identifying an instrument is to determine how it produces its sound. There are generally considered to be five broad categories of musical sound production, forming the basis for a widely used classification system for musical instruments. They are:

  1. The whole of the object itself vibrates as in a struck wooden block, bell or rattle (idiophone);
  2. A membrane vibrates as in a drumhead (membranophone);
  3. A string vibrates as on a fiddle, guitar or piano (chordophone);
  4. A column of air vibrates as in a flute, an organ, or a horn (aerophone); and
  5. The sound is produced through electronic circuitry and/or relies on electronic amplification to be heard, as in a theremin, an electric guitar, or a digital keyboard (electrophone).

Find out more about this musical instrument classification system.

Next Steps

Have a good look at your instrument. What is it made of? What produces the sound? How many pieces is it made from and how many keys, frets, valves or tuning pegs does it have? Does it have any inscription or label? Any special decoration? If you need to handle your instrument, exercise care. Even if it is heavy and looks robust, it can have very fragile components and surface finishes. Some finishes react to moisture or skin oils, and in such cases it is advisable to wear cotton or nitrile gloves.

What to do

Take at least one or two good clear photographs: if the instrument has an obvious back and front, then photograph from both sides.  Consult the MIMO Digitisation Standards for guidance on photographing. Other useful information includes its size. For purposes of basic identification measure the total length, the width and, if appropriate, the height. Avoid intrusive measuring and choose a soft measuring tape rather than a metal ruler which could mark the surface. After these preliminaries, you may be able to find similar specimens online.

Contact MIRN

Your photos and measurements will allow the right specialist to be consulted who can then request additional photographs or ask for more detailed information. Send them to: enquiries@mirn.org.uk .