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Classification of instruments

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Compiled by Dr. Anikó Fehér

World Music Instrument Collection

Musical instruments

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A musical instrument is constructed or used for the purpose of making the sounds of music. In principle, anything that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument. The history of musical instruments dates back to the beginnings of human culture. The academic study of musical instruments is called organology.

The date and origin of the first device of disputed status as a musical instrument dates back as far as 67,000 years old; artifacts commonly accepted to be early flutes date back as far as about 37,000 years old. However, most historians believe determining a specific time of musical instrument invention to be impossible due to the subjectivity of the definition.

Musical instruments developed independently in many populated regions of the world. However, contact among civilizations resulted in the rapid spread and adaptation of most instruments in places far from their origin. By the Middle Ages, instruments from Mesopotamia could be found in the Malay Archipelago and Europeans were playing instruments from North Africa. Development in the Americas occurred at a slower pace, but cultures of North, Central, and South America shared musical instruments.

There are many different methods of classifying musical instruments. All methods examine some combination of the physical properties of the instrument, how music is performed on the instrument, the range of the instrument, and the instrument's place in an orchestra or other ensemble. Some methods arise as a result of disagreements between experts on how instruments should be classified. While a complete survey of the systems of classifications is beyond the scope of this article, a summary of major systems follows.

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