An A-Z list of instruments
Check out our alphabetic list of instruments, from accordion to zither. As far as possible, we’ve tried to stick to common instruments you’ll already have heard of – but some of the letters proved more challenging…
Accordion is from the German Akkordion, a derivative of Akkord ‘harmony’, and so named because some of the buttons on the bass keyboard are mechanically coupled to sound chords…
Bugle is ultimately from the Latin buculus, a diminutive of bos meaning ‘ox’. An earlier sense of the word was ‘wild ox’, hence the compound bugle-horn, denoting the horn of an ox used to give signals, originally in hunting.
Clarinet is from the French clarinette, the diminutive of clarine, a variant of the more familiar word clarion, denoting a shrill-sounding trumpet with a narrow tube…
The word didgeridoo dates to the 1920s, and is from an Aboriginal language of Arnhem Land. The name is believed to be imitative of the noise the Australian instrument makes.
The euphonium is blowing its own trumpet (if you’ll pardon the pun); the name of this brass instrument comes from the Greek euphōnos, meaning ‘having a pleasing sound’.
Fife (the name for a kind of small, shrill flute used with a drum in military bands) is either directly from German Pfeife meaning ‘pipe’, or a corruption of the French fifre from Swiss German Pfifer meaning ‘piper’.
Glockenspiel literally translates from German as ‘bell play’. It originally denoted an organ stop which imitated the sound of bells.
Hurdy-gurdy is the (imitative) name for the instrument with a droning sound played by turning a handle, which is typically attached to a rosined wheel sounding a series of drone strings, with keys worked by the left hand. More informally, the name is applied to any instrument having a droning sound and played by turning a handle, such as the barrel organ.
Let’s have a quick look at the word instrument itself. If you’ve had instructions in playing an instrument, then you’re getting two words that derive ultimately from the Latin instruere (meaning ‘construct, equip).
The Jew’s harp is a small lyre-shaped musical instrument held between the teeth and struck with a finger. It can produce only one note, but harmonics are sounded by the player altering the shape of the mouth cavity. The origin of the name is uncertain; one suggestion is that the instrument was made, sold, or sent to England by Jewish people (or was supposed to be so).
A koto is a Japanese zither about six feet long, with thirteen strings passed over small movable bridges. Unsurprisingly, the name koto is also Japanese; it is a transliteration of the symbol 箏.
The lute is a stringed instrument that was most popular from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Some forms of the word in other European languages are French luth, Italian liuto, Dutch liut, and Danish lut, amongst others. The name ultimately derives from the Arabic al-‘ūd; literally ‘the wood’, perhaps denoting its wooden soundboard. .
Melodica actually refers to two different instruments, although one of them is now historical only. The first melodica was a small variety of pipe organ invented by J.A. Stein in 1770 (although the earliest known use of the term in English, according to OED research, is not until 1890). The current melodica (a wind instrument with a mouthpiece and a small keyboard controlling a row of reeds) is first attested, as a word, in the 1960s. The name of both instruments derives melody (following the same pattern as harmonica from harmony); melody is ultimately from the Greek melos, ‘song’.
Ney is a type of flute used in the Middle East, consisting of an open-ended length of cane with finger-holes, sounded by blowing across the rim. The name comes from the Turkish ney meaning reed or flute, and its etymon Persian nay (pipe, reed, flute).
Ocarina is a small, egg-shaped ceramic or metal wind instrument with holes for the fingers (and you may well have played one at school). Unexpectedly, perhaps, ocarina comes from the Italian oca meaning ‘goose’, based on the shape of the instrument.
Piano is actually an abbreviation of pianoforte, from Italian, and found earlier as piano e forte – that is, ‘soft and loud’. The instrument is so named because of its gradation of tone, in contrast to the unvarying tone of the ordinary harpsichord.
Quena, the name for various types of Andean end-blown flutes (typically made of wood with a notched mouthpiece, six finger holes, and a rear thumb hole), comes ultimately from the Aymara qina meaning ‘thing full of holes’.
Ryuteki is a Japanese instrument made of bamboo, and means literally ‘dragon flute’.
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between timpani and kettledrums? Well, only the language, it turns out – timpani is the Italian for kettledrums.
Ukulele is from Hawaiian, and literally means ‘jumping flea’. The name was apparently earned by a British army officer, Edward Purvis, in the court of King Kalakaua, in response to his lively and energetic playing.
Although you may be more familiar with the violin than the viola, the word violin is actually a diminutive of viola. According to current OED research, the earliest sense of violin as a verb was ‘to entice by violin-playing’.
The instrument named whistle (and the ‘sound made by forcing breath through a small hole between partly closed lips’) relates to the Old English hwistle, of Germanic origin. It is imitative and relates to the Swedish vissla ‘to whistle’. Whistle-stop (now most commonly an adjective meaning ‘very fast and with only brief pauses’) was originally a noun which designated a small railway station or town at which trains did not stop unless requested by a signal given on a whistle.
Xylophone is from the Greek xylo (meaning ‘relating to wood’) and phone (‘sound’). Other English words using the xylo prefix include xylophagous (feeding on or boring into wood) and xylography (the art of engraving on wood or printing from woodblocks).
Yunluo is a traditional Chinese instrument, and is a set of around ten small tuned gongs mounted in a wooden frame. The name literally means ‘cloud of gongs’.
Zither comes from the German Zither, from Latin cithara – which, in turn, comes from the Greek kithara, denoting a kind of harp.
Our list of instruments isn’t complete; let us know what you want to see included!