Campanology Word of the Day: Idiophone

An idiophone is a musical instrument that produces sound through integral vibration, without the use of strings or membranes. Put simply, the instrument itself vibrates to produce sound. The term idiophone comes to us from the Greek root idio- ("own" or "self") and -phone ("sound").

Idiophones are found across numerous cultures and can be made from a wide range of materials, including metal, wood, bone, and even vegetables. Here at the National Bell Festival, we celebrate one very special idiophone – the bell – but the term also covers such instruments as gongs, xylophones, maracas, and cymbals.

Man plays an idiophone from West Africa: the balafon

Image: A street musician in Cologne, Germany, plays the balafon, a gourd-resonated idiophone from West Africa, on July 24, 2017.

An idiophone works by vibrating, which creates and releases successive soundwaves through the air that eventually reach our ears as various sounds – rings, shakes, crashes, and bongs. As a general rule, the harder the idiophone is struck, the larger the vibration and the louder the subsequent sound. Small idiophones, like handheld bells, produce small soundwaves that dissipate quite quickly, but the largest bells can resonate for several minutes after being struck.

Want to learn more about how we hear a bell ring and the five principal tones of a bell? Read all about the strike tone.

Men playing the idiophone angklung in Indonesia

Image: Men play the bamboo-resonated angklung, a type of idiophone, in Tasikmalaya, West Java, Indonesia, on Oct. 10, 2021.

Different types of idiophones

As we mentioned, idiophones come in a range of shapes, sizes, materials, and sounds. We’ve collected just a few examples of idiophones, including:

  • Bell
  • Gong
  • Wood block
  • Singing bowl
  • Steel drum
  • Glass harmonica
  • Cymbal
  • Triangle
  • Angklung
  • Marimba
  • Xylophone
  • Kouxian
  • Daxophone
  • Rattle
  • Maracas
  • Balafon

Idiophones are an important part of music and society around the world. Whether used in religious ceremonies, cultural traditions, orchestral music, or popular tunes, idiophones have a unique sound that contributes to the rich diversity of musical traditions worldwide. We love them all, but of course we’re partial to the mighty bell.

Cover image: A steel drum band plays their idiophones for cruise ship visitors in Philipsburg, the capital of Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, on Jan. 31, 2019.