Guide To Orchestral Instruments
Complete guide to the Symphony Orchestra, including a description of each instrument and the four different families--the woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion.
There are many different instruments in a Symphony Orchestra, all of which can be broken down into four main groups—woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion.
The first group is woodwinds. The highest pitched instrument in the orchestra, which belongs to this family, is the piccolo. The piccolo is like a miniature flute. It is played the same way, but it is much smaller and thus is higher in pitch. The flute is played by blowing over a lip plate, much the same as blowing across the opening of a glass bottle. While the flute is made out of metal, it is still considered a member of the woodwind family. The piccolo can be made out of metal or wood. Wooden piccolos are used when a sweet sound is desired, and metal piccolos are used when one wants a shrill sound.
Next in the woodwind family is the oboe. The oboe has a double reed, and is the only double reed instrument besides the bassoon. The english horn is a version of the oboe that is lower in pitch. The bassoon is a large double reed instrument that can be quite beautiful or have a honking sound, depending on the tone that is desired.
The clarinet is a single reed instrument and is also the most recent edition to the orchestra. Unlike the other orchestral instruments, which have been around since the Middle Ages, the clarinet was not invented until the nineteenth century. One of its unique qualities is the ability to do a glissando, such as the one in the beginning of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, that cannot be achieved on any other instrument. The clarinet also has the widest range.
The next family of instruments is the brass family. As you might guess, these instruments are made out of brass, and consist of the trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba. The brass instruments are famous for fanfares, such as Aaron Copeland’s famous “Fanfare of a Common Man”. The trumpet is the highest pitched instrument in the brass family, and is followed by the much mellower sounding French horn. The French horn is unique in that its bell faces backwards, and the player puts their hand in the bell to dampen the sound as they choose. The lowest instrument is the tuba, whose bell faces upwards. Each of these three instruments achieves a different pitch with a combination of mouth movements and three keys that can be pressed down. The last brass instrument is the trombone, which is different from the rest of the brass family because it achieves different pitches by moving a slide in and out at different positions.
The string family, formally known as the viol family, consists of four instruments, the violin, viola, cello, and doublebass. The violin is the highest pitched stringed instrument, and the first chair violinist is called the concertmaster (or mistress). The concertmaster tunes the orchestra by pointing to the first oboist to give an A pitched at 440 MHz. The next instrument, the viola, is slightly larger than the violin, and is unique from all other orchestral instruments in that it reads alto clef (all other instruments either read in treble or bass clef). Both the violin and viola are played by placing the instrument underneath the chin. The cello is much larger than the viola, and is played by placing it on the floor in front of the player, resting on the player’s knees. The doublebass is the largest string instrument, and it is played while standing up. All stringed instruments have four strings, and the pitch is altered by either lengthening or shortening the string by stopping it with the fingers. String instruments can also be played with a bow, which is moved back and forth across the strings while changing the notes with the fingers.
The last family of instruments is the percussion family. Percussion is so named because the instruments are “struck” or “hit” to make sound. There are many different percussion instruments, but most notable are the kettledrums, or timpani, the piano, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, and cymbals. Basically anything that is struck to make noise could be classified as a percussion instrument. Percussion adds the “finishing touches” to the orchestra.