This open source searchable database is intended to provide its users with visual, sonic, and written information about a broad sampling of acoustic musical instruments (and a few electronic ones as well) of both Western and non-Western origins. Its primary audience is envisioned as students in undergraduate general education music courses (Western music history/appreciation classes, introductory ethnomusicology/’world music’ courses). This resource provides its users with supplemental information about many of the musical instruments or combinations of instruments (ensembles) that are mentioned but not illustrated or explicated in depth in the textbooks being used in introductory music courses. The site is also designed to encourage spontaneous exploration of the world of acoustic musical instruments. It does so by providing the user with ways to link facets of any one instrument to other instruments sharing those same characteristics, and by providing a number of essays on a variety of topics about the physical design, historical evolution, and social and cultural meanings of musical instruments. The instruments presented on this site are found in the extensive holdings of Western and non-Western instruments at Grinnell College.


The musical instruments presented here are objects in the inventory of a college music department and are used for studio instruction, by ensembles, and in classroom teaching. They were not acquired as part of a coherent, planned collection building project, but come together as a ‘collection’ only by their inclusion in this website. Unlike the historically and artistically significant instruments found in museum collections, this collection is comprised of, for the most part, student and low-end professional model instruments of modest monetary value. Their greatest value as presented here is educational, enhanced by the way in which they have been put into social, cultural, and musical context and placed in relation to one another.


All of the instruments presented in the BROWSE section of this site are treated in a similar fashion. The entry for an instrument commences with its primary English language name and a listing of some of its alternate names (these include differences in spelling and, for Western instruments, its name in French, German, and Italian). At least one portrait or 'gallery' image of the instrument follows; for many instruments, images of further specimens may be presented as well as one or more analytical (called ‘detail’) image. Most instrument entries include one or more brief audio clip, and for a few a video clip will be found. At the core of an entry is a four-section overview essay about the instrument and a short bibliography listing the resources that were consulted in the writing of the essay. The first paragraph of an essay situates the instrument geographically, culturally, and socially, presenting generalizations about how the instrument is associated with various non-musical formations and constructs. A close description of the physical features of the instrument is presented in the second paragraph, touching on details of design and construction that have consequences in how the instrument sounds and how it works acoustically. In the third paragraph the interface between the object (the instrument) and the operator (the musician) is described, including how the instrument is operated and information about the resulting sounds (tuning, pitch range, dynamic range). Commentary on the invention, evolution, and distribution of the instrument, when information is available, is the subject of the fourth and final paragraph. The ‘Instrument Information’ section that follows the essay includes many options for relating the instrument at hand with other instruments in the collection through: the geographical region and national and cultural associations of its origin (region and national categories as designated by the United Nations); its place in the Sachs-Von Hornbostel numerical classification system (as revised by MIMO); a few select design and playing features; and up to four materials used in its manufacture. Also included in this section are: at least one measurement for the instrument; identification, when available, on the manufacturer and model number of the instrument; and identification of the author of the entry.

A few encyclopedic resources were consulted many times during the process of writing the entries found on this website. To streamline citations to these sources, we have used abbreviated titles for the following: GDMI = The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, Second Edition (2014); NGDMI = The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984); and GEWM = The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (1998-2002).


This site includes a number of exhibit pages that in one way or another cut across multiple instruments in the collection. Three groupings of exhibit pages are found on this site, one presenting early and modern WESTERN INSTRUMENTS grouped by their classification categories, another focusing on ENSEMBLES , and a third on special TOPICS such as the historical evolution of particular European instruments or on variations in the design/construction features of similar instruments.


The widely utilized instrument classification system created by Sachs and Von Hornbostel in 1914 and revised by MIMO in 2011 is employed on this site. For a complete list of the numerical identifiers found on this site, select CLASSIFICATION in the main navigation bar. Clicking on the identifier number either on this page or on any instrument page will produce a sort of all the instruments on this site that share that designation.


A list of technical terms used on this site related to the description of musical instruments is presented, along with definitions, in the section titled DEFINITIONS.


An explanation of the pitch naming system used on this website is presented in the NOTE NAMING section. This section includes audio clips for each of the pitches of an 88-key piano, affording the visitor the opportunity to hear and compare the pitches mentioned on the instrument pages when presenting string tunings and the ranges of instruments.


All audio and video examples may be played in a standard web browser; no plug-ins are required.


Roger Vetter (Compiler); David Berk (Site Developer, FileMaker Pro version); Mike Conner (Site Developer, Omeka-1 version); Julia Bauder (Site Developer, Omeka-S version)

This project originated in 1999 as a collaboration between Professor Roger Vetter and Dr. David Berk, who at the time was the Curricular Technology Specialist (CTS) for the Fine Arts at Grinnell College. In 2003 they launched the predecessor of the present site, which ran on FileMaker Pro software. Over the years other CTS’s, including Dr. Todd Coleman and Jared Price, added components to the website. When computer service administrators decided to no longer support FileMaker Pro it was necessary to identify a new platform for the database, and Omeka software was selected. This change of platform provided the incentive to rethink the purpose and design of the website, and during the period of 2012-2015 two Grinnell College Instructional Support Specialists, Mike Conner and Stephanie Peterson, collaborated with Roger Vetter to create the second edition of the Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection website. The site once again underwent a software update in 2019 (to Omeka-S) that necessitated design and programming expertise, this time provided by Julia Bauder (Social Studies and Data Services Librarian) with further input from Heather Campbell (Humanities and Instruction Librarian). During the summer of 2015, Grinnell student Sara Ramey ’15 designed the Note Naming section of the site.

Throughout this project data and text has been generated by Roger Vetter, but not alone. He has worked with a few Grinnell College students, in particular Jim Edwards '03 in 2003, Gaelyn Hutchinson '12 in 2012-2013, and Toby Austin ’14 in 2013, all of whom have made significant contributions to the design and content of the site. A few Grinnell College faculty colleagues, Professor Elizabeth Hays and Jeannie Chenette, have contributed text to and commentary on entries relating to their areas of expertise.

The bulk of the gallery images seen on this site, taken in 2000 and 2001, are by Carla R. González. Other photographes (including gallery and the majority of the detail images), characterized by their distinctly lower professional quality, were made by Roger Vetter between 2003 and the present. 


If you wish to reproduce images from this website, you may do so without written consent or charge by following these steps:

1) Email Roger Vetter ([email protected]) with a list of the images you wish to use and the title of the publication in which they will appear. 

2) Provide the appropriate credit line for each image you use from this site. For Carla González photographs:

©2001 Carla R. González Photography, courtesy of the Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection <https://omeka-s.grinnell.edu/s/MusicalInstruments/page/welcome>

For Roger Vetter photographs:

©2003 Roger Vetter, courtesy of the Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection <https://omeka-s.grinnell.edu/s/MusicalInstruments/page/welcome>

3) If you need a signed consent form for your publication, email the document to Roger Vetter for approval regardless if the image is copyrighted by Carla González or Roger Vetter.


The site is now maintained by the Grinnell College Libraries. For troubleshooting, please email [email protected] .


This site was last updated by its creator on:  November 18, 2022.