The name comes from the Latin word lamella for "small metal plate" and the Greek word φωνή phonē for "sound, voice". The name derives from the way the sound is produced: the instrument has a series of thin plates, or "tongues", each of which is fixed at one end and has the other end free. When the musician depresses the free end of a plate with a finger or fingernail, and then allows the finger to slip off, the released plate vibrates.
The lamellophones constitute category 12 in the Hornbostel-Sachs system for classifying musical instruments, plucked idiophones. These idiophones are equipped with one or more tongues or lammelae that produce sound by being plucked by the performer. There are two main categories of plucked idiophones, those that are in the form of a frame (121) and those that are in the form of a comb (122).
A large number of lamellophones originate in Africa, where they are known under different names including mbira, sanza, kisanji, likembe, kalimba, and kongoma. They play a role in southeast African Music. They were reported as early as the 16th century, but there is no doubt they have a much longer history. The Caribbean marímbula is also of this family. The marímbula can be seen as a bass variant of the mbira and is sometimes used in hiphop music.
The tongues may be arranged in the manner of a piano and may be made small enough to play with individual fingers, hence the colloquial name "thumb piano". (Although some instruments, like the Mbira, have an additional rows of tongues, in which case not just the thumbs are used for plucking.)
Some conjecture that African lamellophones were derived from xylophones and marimbas. However, similar instruments have been found elsewhere; for example, the indigenous peoples of Siberia play wooden and metallic lamellophones with a single tongue.