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The Flute is Not a Woodwind Instrument: Re-imagining and Challenging the Western Instrument Families

Updated: Jan 28

Ever wonder why flute is still a woodwind after all these years of, you know, not being made out of wood? And have you ever thought about how Eurocentric and “White” the 4 instrument families are? I’ve always had an issue with the “Traditional Four,” as I will call it. It just didn’t feel right to me. It was always something about piano being percussion and not strings, the avoidance of an electronic family, and the flute fiasco? Of course, they were primarily invented to describe the instrument families of the Western European orchestra, which is part of the issue. It is problematic, at best, to lump all instruments on the entire planet into the Traditional Four designed to describe the epitome of Western European Music. To help remedy this, I am proposing a simplified Hornabostel-Sachs Musical Instrument Classification system combined with my own thoughts on teaching instrument families to kids that is much more inclusive and representative of the instruments, cultures, and musics that exist in the world. Here is what I am proposing:

The Flute is NOT at Woodwind Instrument

Wind Instruments

Hornabostel-Sachs calls this family Aerophones. I am proposing keeping Wind and subdividing it from there. There should be three subcategories here:

  1. Pure wind: This includes ocarina, flute, recorder, jug or any other instrument that produces sound by simply blowing across an ‘edge’ like the labium of a recorder or the edge of a bottle.

  2. Reed wind: This family includes instruments that possess a “reed” or lamella that vibrate over an opening when blown to produce a sound which include clarinet, harmonica, oboe, shawm, xaphoon, saxophone, and sipsi, or any number of other instruments.

  3. Lip-reed wind: This family includes any instrument that relies on the vibration of the lips to produce a sound like trumpet, didgeridoo, trombone, alpinhorn, pBuzz, or any number of other instruments.

Hornabostel-Sachs Classification poster for wind instruments. He calls them Aerophones. I like this poster, but it still centralizes Western instruments on it.

Notice that the word “wood” is not used. Instruments like the jug can be made from glass. Ocarina is traditionally made from clay or other materials. Some instruments in this family might be made from gourds too.

Percussion (Idiophones)

Percussion is a bit of a misnomer. To percuss means to hit or tap. Only some instruments in this family are hit to make a sound. This means a more proper name for this family would be Idiophones. In the Hornabostel-Sachs system, Idiophones are anything that vibrates without any external vibrations like a reed. Cymbals would be idiophones because it just needs to be hit or scraped to make a vibration on its own. In the original classification there are many subfamilies of idiophones and membranophones (drums) get their own category within that. I have kept some of this for simplicity in a school setting.

Please note that this does not include the piano. Let’s be real here. I can hear it now: “But the hammers…” yeah, no–I never tell my kids to hit scrape or shake the piano to make a sound, and neither should you.

There are three subcategories here:

  1. Membranophones: any kind of drum that contains a membrane or skin that is sruck or made to vibrate that produces a sound.

  2. Idiophones: any instrument that makes a sound by shaking, hitting, rubbing, or scraping it. The instrument itself vibrates to make the sound without any outside vibrations like a reed or the lips. This subfamily includes cymbals, xylophones, barafon, singing bowl, triangle, claves, turntables, and cajon.

  3. Lamellophones: any instrument that uses a flexible tongue that vibrates by plucking it. This subfamily includes the mbira (and the many variations of it), the jaw harp, and the kouxian.


Let me be clear: This family includes every instrument that uses the plucking, bowing or otherwise vibrating of strings, ropes, or other string-like materials to produce a sound. This includes guitar, lap dulcimer, erhu, violin, guzheng, tres, quattro, lap steel, washbucket bass, sitar, or harp. Piano belongs in this family much more appropriately.


I find it mind-boggling that, in this day-and-age, virtually (see what I did there