Is there a word or expression for a musical instrument which,

  • like a xylophone or a set of bells, has set pitches (fixed frequencies) that no one can change or adjust (except by some extraordinary measure like sandpapering the bars),

  • like a piano, has pitches that can be changed by a tuning professional but are set for the performer, and

  • like a violin, can give the performer any pitch he wanted in some range.

If you had these words you could ask a question like, 'Is a trumpet a piano-like or violin-like instrument,' or make a statement like, 'a guitar is somewhere between piano-like and violin-like.'

The word need not be an adjective.

I am not asking what would be a good word we can start using for these things. I am asking, if music theory, physics or any other discourse already has such words or expressions, what are they?

Please excuse my ignorance if, for instance, a xylophone can be easily tuned or a guitar is not meant to be violin-like at all.

  • It sounds like you actually want three words; is that right? Since this question requires musical knowledge, I'm wondering if you would get better answers on the Music Stack Exchange site. Maybe you should check if this kind of question is on-topic there--I know they have at least some kinds of questions about music theory and terminology (for example, Musical sound production mechanisms).
    – herisson
    Mar 27, 2016 at 9:04
  • For your statement example, I would argue it's more natural to say 'a guitar is somewhere between a piano and a violin'.
    – JDF
    Mar 27, 2016 at 9:18
  • If theory does not have a specific overarching word for this difference, the difference is certainly known to anyone who has ever played a fretless and a fretted instrument. You might want to see if John Cage discusses these differences anywhere in explaining the "prepared piano".
    – TRomano
    Mar 27, 2016 at 10:45
  • I've heard "tunable" used, and some answers and comments on the music site use "tunable" and "non-tunable", plus the phrase "field tunable" to mean degrees of ease of tuning by a user (e.g. a piano is tunable but less "field tunable" than a guitar), I don't know if this is common/correct usage though. Mar 27, 2016 at 13:57

3 Answers 3


According to the musical classification system by André Schaeffner, all three would be classified as Category I, making sound from vibrating solids (as opposed to vibrating air), and further classified as follows:

  • xylophone-like instruments are classified as I.A: no tension; and
  • all the others are classified as I.C: chordophones, which are solids fixed at both ends.

We can then move to the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system to find the entry chordophones and work through the categories to find String instruments, in which violins, pianos, etc each has its own entry.

This doesn't really help with the classification system you're after, but this new world encyclpedia entry might. It uses the term stoppable strings to distinguish the piano from violins and guitars. The idea comes from being able to "shorten the vibrating length of the string".

You ask,

I am not asking what would be a good word we can start using for these things. I am asking, if music theory, physics or any other discourse already has such words or expressions, what are they?

It would appear that the standard classification systems don't classify in this manner, but based on the above, the following terms appear to be at least standard and understandable:

  • xylophone-like: solid, no tension instrument under the André Schaeffner classification system (I.A);
  • piano-like: chordophone whose strings are not stoppable; and
  • violin-like: chordophone with stoppable strings.

Since you've alluded to the physical sciences, terms you can use include: spectral tension values (a continuous range of tensions, lengths or pitches as if on a spectrum ); discrete tension values (separated and distinct tensions, lengths or pitches, as if separated by markings); or spectrally banded tensions (discrete groups of tensions on a spectrum). Note that the performer is not restricted to discrete tensions in the thought experiment.


Instrument sellers sometimes use "tunable" and "un-tunable" (or non-tunable); plus "hand-tunable" to specify that features exist enabling the player to tune it themselves without expert help or tools.

In the context of percussion, tunable is often used (the word is also used in the context of other frequency-based instruments, e.g. radio emitters and lasers). Merriam-webster:

capable of being tuned

For example, drum sellers selling drums that are tunable, in a category that isn't always tunable, will often advertise the fact. Example:

The new NINO® Tunable Hand Drums are a great sounding drum in a kid-friendly form with a natural goat skin head

Plenty of guides to piano tuning warn that neglect or improper use could render the instrument "un-tunable" (example):

Loose tuning pins or brittle strings can make a piano un-tunable.

As for the distinction between instruments that require professional tuning and those that can be tuned by the player, the best I can find is "hand-tunable", as seen here in an advert for a particular type of bodran (traditional Irish drum) that can be tuned by the player (most can't and need special tools and skill to tune). Example:

These beautiful hand-tunable bodhrans require no tools and can be easily fine-tuned without fuss

Another example from a book:

He was also instrumental in helping to develop the first hand-tunable conga

So you could say something like, "Violins and pianos are tunable, unlike xylophones. Violins are particularly hand-tunable".

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