The first classification systems for musical instruments are similar in that they only cover a single era and one civilization. They cannot be applied to all instruments in the world.
Brief History of Musical Instrument Classification Systems
The oldest known system of musical instrument classification was based on the materials that made the sounds of instruments. It was developed by the Chinese in the 4th century B.C.
The Ancient Greeks divided instruments into two groups, wind and percussion, depending on how sounds were produced.
The first of the Western classification systems of Agricola, Trichet and Father Mersenne separated instruments into plucked stringed instruments, bowed stringed instruments, wind instruments and percussion instruments.
In 1893, Mahillon proposed a new system based on the nature of an instrument's resonating material as well as the way in which it was made to vibrate.
Hornbostel and Sachs really broke with tradition in 1914 by developing their system which improves on the Mahillon model. For the first time, all the instruments of the world were considered within a single classification system. Like the Mahillon system, it was the way sound was produced as well as the nature of the resonating material that constituted the elements of classification. They decided that instruments would be divided into families called idiophones, chordophones, aerophone and membranophones. Electrophones were added a little later.
In 1936, Schaeffner put forward a new classification model based on Hornbostel and Sachs. He divided instruments into three groups: solid-body resonating instruments, including idiophones; chordophones; and the membranophones of other vibrating air instruments covering all the aerophone instruments. This system tried to correct the weaknesses in the Hornbostel and Sachs model by taking account of the exceptions between idiophones and membranophones.
The German musicologist, Buchner, also made changes to the famous Hornbostel and Sachs model by creating a system that grouped together three categories: idiophones, aerophones and symphones. This last group was made up of membranophones and chordophones.
Although the Schaeffner and Buchner systems are both worthwhile, Hornbostel and Sachs is still the model that ethnomusicologists use today.