Chordophone Instruments: Definition & Examples

Chordophone Instruments: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:00 What Is a Chordophone?
  • 1:23 Types
  • 2:54 Chordophones…
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Chordophones are a group of instruments that use vibrating strings to produce sound. This lesson will examine the origins of the term and discuss the instruments.

What Is a Chordophone?

On a Saturday afternoon, there's nothing you'd rather do than head to the basement with your electric guitar for a little jamming. You plug in the amp, crank up the volume, and hit the strings with a satisfying strum. You have just joined millions of people in every culture around the world in making music with a chordophone.

Chordophones are a family of instruments that use vibrating strings to produce sound. The word is derived from the Greek 'chord,' meaning string. In Western classical music, we often call this group the string family. In the early 20th century, however, musicologists Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs realized that the designation 'string family' was too narrow a term. Instruments from non-Western cultures were often hard to classify. Also, new instruments were being invented that sometimes bridged the traditional instrument family lines.

To address this problem, they devised a system of classification based upon the material that vibrates to produce the tone. We therefore have chordophones, in which a string vibrates, membranophones, in which a membrane vibrates, aerophones, in which the air vibrates, and idiophones, in which the solid body of the instrument vibrates. Some musicologists add electrophones to the list for instruments such as synthesizers.


Chordophones are divided into five basic types: zithers, harps, lutes, musical bows, and lyres. The types are defined by the relationship between the string and the resonator. The resonator is the part of the instrument that picks up the sound of the string and amplifies it. For example, on a violin, the resonator is the wooden body of the violin that the strings stretch across.

A violin. Note the wooden body that acts as a resonator.
Photo of Violin

Zithers have strings that are stretched over, across, or inside a resonator. They can also be stretched between two resonators. Examples include dulcimers, harpsichords, and pianos.

A hammered dulcimer
Photo of Hammered Dulcimer

With harps, the strings are stretched at an angle between the resonator and the neck, which is attached to the resonator. Irish harps and orchestral harps are two examples of this type of chordophone.

A lady with her harp
Painting of a Lady with a Harp

Lutes have strings that stretch across the resonator and up a neck, which may or may not have frets. Frets are raised elements near the top of stringed instruments that affect pitch. Lutes may be bowed, like violins and cellos, or plucked, like banjos and guitars.

A lute
Picture of a Lute

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