Aerophones are a family of instruments that use a vibrating column of air to produce sound. They are prevalent throughout all cultures. This lesson explores the different types of aerophones.

Instrument Families

Every Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s Day, and other holidays as well, people take to the streets to celebrate and watch parades go by. If you’ve ever attended a parade, you’ll know they feature floats, giant balloons and, last but not least, marching bands. But, what are those instruments you see in the bands marching past? There are drums and cymbals, of course. But there are also wonderful assortments of aerophones in every parade band. Let’s take a closer look at these instruments.

In Western European cultures, musical instruments have been traditionally classified into four family groups: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. This model served well for centuries. At the dawn of the 20th century, two musicologists, Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, realized that the standard family groupings were no longer adequate. Non-Western instruments, such as those from Africa and Asia, often didn’t fit well into these groups. Newly created instruments added to the confusion.

To solve this dilemma, Von Hornbostel and Sachs devised a classification system that is now the standard for organology, or the study of musical instruments. Their system includes the following groups: aerophones, membranophones, idiophones, chordophones, and electrophones.

What Are Aerophones?

Aerophones are instruments that produce sound by vibrating air. The vibrating air is most often inside the instrument. The length of the instrument will determine the pitch of the sound. A shorter length creates a higher sound than a longer length. Von Hornbostel and Sachs divided the aerophones into groups according to what produces the initial vibration.


There are six types of aerophones. The first two, whistles and blowholes, are similar. For whistles, air is blown directly on the sharp edge of the instrument, as in a recorder. For blowholes, air is blown across a sharp edge of the instrument. The flute is an example of a blowhole.

When the player buzzes his lips against a mouthpiece, this is called the cup mouthpiece group. The traditional brass instruments, such as trumpet, are in this category. The shofar, or ram’s horn (an ancient Israeli instrument), is a cup mouthpiece aerophone.

Reeds are a type of aerophone. With this type, a vibrating reed vibrates the column of air. There are single reeds, such as the clarinet and saxophone. There are also double reeds, such as the oboe. In each of these examples, the reeds are mounted on a mouthpiece or serve as the mouthpiece. Free-reed aerophones have reeds mounted inside the body of the instrument. Bagpipes are a free-reed instrument.

The organ is another aerophone. This may be surprising, but in a pipe organ, the edges of the pipes have a sharp lip. Air from a bellows is blown across the lip. Some pipes have reeds that are also set in vibration by a bellows.

The last type of aerophone is the free aerophone. These instruments cause the air around them to vibrate, rather than the air inside them. The bull-roarer, an instrument popular in many ancient cultures, is a free aerophone. It consists of a flat piece of wood attached to a cord. When whirled overhead it produces different sounds.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The musicologists Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs reclassified instrument families to accommodate a wider range of instruments. One of these families is the aerophones. Aerophones are instruments that use vibrating air to produce sound. There are six types of aerophones: whistles, blowholes, cup mouthpieces, reeds, organs, and the free aerophone. Aerophones are found in all cultures, ancient and modern, throughout the world.