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New Classification for String Instruments

March 23, 2017 ,

New Classification System of String Instruments for Organologist’s (Acoustic Physicists of Musical Instruments)System of Classification based on Three Key Physical Characteristics of String Instruments.

  1. How the Strings are placed- Are the strings open like a Harp, hanging over the instrument like a Lute, Viol and Zither, or enclosed in the soundbox like a Dulcimer?
  2. How it’s played Is it laid across the player’s lap like a Zither, Zheng and Dulcimer  or is it played upright like a Harp, Lute and Viol?
  3. How are the strings manipulated Are they plucked like a Harp and Zither, struck like a Dulcimer, bowed like a Viol instrument, or picked like a Lute?

Now, most string instruments are hybrid on the list and can fall into multiple different categories according to this system of classification. This makes categorizing certain string instruments a major challenge for an Organologist.

Yet, this chaos can be diverted by treating key instruments as the foundation, where all other string instruments derive from. Here is that list with a little bit of history as well.

1) Earth Harps- The very first true string instrument would have been the earth harp. The first earth harp might have come from placing a hunting bow in a dirt hole. The hole was used as a soundbox to help carry the sound waves. What makes earth harps unique is the placement of the string or strings inside the soundbox.

Some instruments are still remnant of that tradition such as the  traditional Gopichand of India. A Gopichand is usually a one string instrument that has two flexible handles attached to a bowl like body. The string is than strung inside the bowl and plucked or picked while the handles are squeezed.

2) Harps- Grand Harps &  Lyres- Are the oldest instrument since the dawn of written history. A Harps strings are completely exposed, allowing for the instrumentalist to strike the strings from both sides of the instrument with both hands.

The modern Grand Harps have soundbox often called resonators on the bottom or more commonly the side of the instrument. They are still in use today. Dating back to the first royal city states of Ur in Modern Day Iraq.

The Lyre has almost entirely faded from modern music especially popular genres. The oldest known Lyres date back to the time of the first Harps. The key difference between Harps and Lyres is that the Lyre has a body with a built-in Soundbox that the strings suspend over, kinda similar to a guitar.

3) Lutes- Lutes, Guitars, Sitars, Banjos, etc.- String Instruments with a fret board (neck) attached to the sound box (Body). These string instruments are still the most popular used today. Although a guitarist plays off less strings than a harpist or even pianist, the vast technical abilities makes this the most difficult family of string instruments to master.

Lutes date back to Ancient Egypt and are just a little younger than the Harp family. Lutes were popular among slaves and also the masses. This is because instrument strings were often organic and hand crafted which only the wealthiest elite could afford to restring a fancy harp. They are still among the most widely played instruments today.

Viols  are essentially a family of Western lutes that require a bow, rather than a pick and should be presumed to exsist sometime around the development of the lute, or sometime afterwards. Viols- Violin, Viola, Cello, and Contra bass are Lutes that primarily use a bow instead of a pick. They started to become popular towards the end of the Renaissance.

According to the current classification system, Zithers, Dulcimers and Zhengs belong to the same family because their strings never go beyond the soundbox. However, a problem occurs in that the current, over simplification of Zithers has robbed them of their complexity. A Zheng instrument for example is a soundboard and not a soundbox.

4) Zheng- Steel Guitars, Chapman Sticks,  Guzheng, Guqin and Dan tranh. Zheng are usually played flat with the strings usually plucked horizontally, often on the performer’s lap. Zither’s have a tendency of resembling a large fret board.

A modern emergence of Zheng type string instruments into western culture has created a growing need for the reclassification of string instruments. The Chapman Stick and Steel Guitar are prime examples of, Modern Zheng instruments in the Western Hemisphere.

A Dulcimer’s strings are placed inside a soundbox, while a Zithers strings are placed above the soundbox. These differences play a crucial role on what tones the instrument is capable of producing. That too call, the three families as one is a grand insult to the complexity of these instruments.

5) Dulcimers- harpsichords, Hammered Dulcimer, Clavichords, Psaltery, Santur and Kantele. Instruments whose strings are located within a sound box instead of above it (like Lutes) or adjacent to it (like Harps). Although Piano-Forte is a keyboard instrument, it uses strings struck by tiny mallets inside the sound box.

You could say that Dulcimer’s are a modification of the Earth Harp which contains a string within a soundbox. However, the strings of the Earth Harp are usually not completely within the soundbox like that of a Dulcimers. This changes the overall timbre and playing dynamic of the Dulcimers which also date back to the Egyptian Lutes.

6) Zithers- Swarmandal, Zither, Appalachian Dulcimer- A String instrument whose strings are hung above the soundbox instead of inside the soundbox like a Dulcimer. Zithers are also played differently. Strung above the soundbox gives the player easier access to the strings.

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