When it comes to musical instruments, labels can be a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, labels can make it easy to identify and classify instruments. If you own a music shop or work in a theater, those labels probably help quite a bit with organization.
On the other hand, some instruments, such as the piano, simply don’t fall squarely into any predefined categories. These are the instruments that shun all labels, leaving musicophiles everywhere to argue amongst themselves about which instrument should go where.
There has been a long-standing debate among musicians that has surrounded the question of whether a piano should be classified as a percussion or string instrument. A piano has strings, yet it also requires percussive movements to play, so both sides of the argument seem to have valid points.
So which is it?
It might seem like a simple answer, but it’s actually anything but. So let’s explore this puzzle a bit more in-depth.
How are Instruments Classified?
There are quite a few methods for classifying musical instruments, most of which are specific to a particular geographical area or cultural group. However, none of those classification systems can be easily applied to all instruments. The Hornbostel-Sachs classification system solved that problem.
The H-S system is the most widely-accepted method of classifying musical instruments in use today. The system was created by Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs in 1914 and was recently updated in 2011.
The Hornbostel-Sachs system breaks instruments into five categories. Each category classifies an instrument based on how its sound is produced.
- Idiophones can be broken down into multiple categories, but the main thing to remember is that they need a solid material, such as metal or wood, as their playing surfaces.
- Membranophones are instruments that have a playing surface made of a stretched membrane. Tambourines and kettle drums are examples of membranophones.
- Chordophones are instruments that produce sounds through string vibrations that are amplified with a resonator. Guitars, lutes, and violins fall into the chordophone category.
- Aerophones are also known as wind instruments, such as flutes or horns. These instruments require air vibrations to make a sound.
- Electrophones require electricity to make a sound. This family includes electric guitars and keyboards.
The easiest way to determine how an instrument is classified is to look at how it’s played and compare it to the various types of instrument classification. However, although these categories expand on the traditional groupings of wind, strings, and percussion, they still don’t account for those pesky instruments that don’t fit a mold.
What is a String Instrument?
Stringed instruments are members of the chordophone family. Each instrument in this family has strings that produce sound when they vibrate. A guitar or violin might be the first instruments that come to mind when you picture a stringed instrument.
You can produce sound on a stringed instrument by using your fingers to pluck or pick strings, or by using a bow or other tool to scrape the strings. This type of instrument often supports the harmony of an orchestral piece but can perform the part of melody and harmony in solo performances, as well.
What is a Percussion Instrument?
Most percussion instruments are members of the membranophone family. Each instrument in this family has a surface that is a stretched membrane over a hollow space. Drums are likely the first membranophones that come to mind, but tambourines and xylophones are other common percussion instruments.
Many percussion instruments also fall into the idiophone family. Instruments in this family require a hard playing surface that the musician vibrates to produce a sound. Instruments such as maracas or bells fit into the idiophone family.
The percussion family is what keeps the rhythm of a piece of music.
Where Does the Piano Fit In?
The piano was invented in the early 18th century by Bartolomeo Cristofori. He was an Italian musician who was frustrated with certain aspects of the harpsichord, a stringed instrument that required a player to press a key to pluck each string. Cristofori felt the harpsichord didn’t allow its player a significant amount of control over the instrument’s volume.
To provide the player with more control, Cristofori replaced the plucking system in the harpsichord with hammers. As a result, the “clavicembalo col piano e forte” was able to produce soft and loud sounds, solving the problem of the harpsichord’s low volume.
Today’s piano consists of 88 keys, each of which is attached to one of Cristofori’s felt-covered hammers inside the piano’s body. When a pianist presses a key, the hammer falls onto the corresponding string. The vibration caused by the hammer is what allows the string to make sound.
Depending on how hard or soft the pianist presses the key, the sound can be loud or quiet, which was Cristofori’s primary goal when he adapted the harpsichord. The notes you hear will vary from very high to very low, depending on the length and thickness of the string.
Why Is There a Debate?
The reason for the percussion-versus-string debate is quite simple.
A piano has strings, which would lead you to believe it’s a member of the string, or chordophone, family. However, unlike all other stringed instruments, you don’t use your fingers to directly manipulate a piano’s strings. Instead, you use your fingers to tap the hard surface of the piano’s keys.
Not to mention, the instrument wouldn’t be much use if it weren’t for the hammers.
Therein lies the conundrum.
The Argument for Percussion
The main argument that supports the idea that a piano is a percussion instrument is how the piano is played. A pianist doesn’t use their fingers to pluck the strings or a bow to rub them. Instead, they hit the keys, triggering the hammer that, in turn, causes the strings to vibrate and make sound.
In this sense, the hammers aren’t unlike drumsticks–objects controlled by the musician’s hands to make sound on the instrument. Because the hammers trigger the piano string vibrations, this would imply that pianos are part of the percussion family.
The Argument for Strings
In addition to the presence of strings, one of the biggest reasons most consider the piano a stringed instrument is that it has to be tuned in order to make the proper sounds. Since all other stringed instruments require tuning of some sort, then it stands to reason that a piano would fall into that same grouping.
Conversely, percussion instruments can’t be tuned like a piano. Those instruments rely solely on the musician to make the correct sound.
In addition, the piano’s closest relative is the harpsichord. This relationship is often used to provide more substantial evidence in favor of adding the piano to the stringed family.
What’s the Verdict?
Unfortunately, even though the piano has existed since the early 18th century, there is still no consensus on whether it should be classified as a percussion or stringed instrument. Both sides of the argument have valid points, which has made it hard for one side to concede to the other.
Based on the Hornbostel-Sachs system, the piano would be considered a percussive chordophone, further solidifying the idea that there is no clear-cut answer to this age-old question.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.