Welcome to the world of classical music instruments! Musical instruments are grouped into different families based on the way the instrument makes its sound. There are four main families of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Here is how an orchestra is often set up:
Below you will find some basic information about each of the main types of instruments used most frequently in a full-sized orchestra:
The four most commonly used instruments in the string family are the violin, the viola, the cello and the double (string) bass. They are all made by gluing pieces of wood together to form a hollow sound box. The quality of sound of one of these instruments depends on its shape, the wood it is made from, the thickness of both the top and back, and the varnish that coats its outside surface.
Four strings made of gut, synthetics, or steel are wrapped around pegs at one end of the instrument, tightly stretched across a bridge, and attached to a tailpiece at the other end. The pegs are used to tune the instrument (change the length of the string until it makes exactly the right sound). The strings are tuned in perfect fifths from each other 5 notes apart.
The player makes the strings vibrate by plucking them, striking them, strumming them, or, most frequently, by drawing a bow across them. The bow is made of wood and horsehair. The instrument sounds different notes when the performer presses a finger down on the strings on the instrument?s neck, changing the length of the portion of the string that vibrates. The shorter the vibrating part of the string, the higher the sound produced.
The violin is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the string family. It is held under the chin and rests on the player’s left shoulder. It can be played standing or sitting. Usually a soloist will stand, and violinists in an orchestra will sit. The violin often carries the melody in an orchestral work as its brilliant sound carries easily over many of the other instruments. There are usually two sections of violins, first violins and second violins, and they play different parts (different music has been written for each group).
A little larger than the violin but played in the same manner, the viola is the next lower member of the string family. The viola duplicates the violin’s three lower strings, but its fourth string is tuned another fifth lower than the lowest violin string. It has a warmer tone quality than the violin and often plays harmony to support the violin’s melody.
The cello plays notes that are only an octave (8 notes) lower than the viola, but it is much larger. Due to its size, the cellist sits in a chair and rests the cello between his or her knees. The cello has an end pin that rests on the floor to help support the instrument’s weight. The cello can play the part of a supportive, reliable bass instrument at one moment, and rise to reproduce the notes of a lovely tenor voice at other times.
The double bass, also called the string bass (pronounced “base” as in first base) or just “bass” for short, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed stringed instrument, an octave lower than the cello. While it looks similar to the other members of the string family, it has more sloping shoulders so that the player can reach and move around on the strings more easily despite its large size. It may also have 5 strings rather than 4 with the addition of a lower string. Because of its size (taller than the performer), the bassist stands or sits on a tall stool to play the instrument, which rests on the floor.
The harp, another stringed instrument, is nothing like the rest of the string family. It is a tall, triangular-shaped instrument with about 45 vertical strings. The strings are plucked or strummed with the player’s fingers while seven pedals at the bottom of the harp adjust the length of the strings to produce additional notes. The harpist sits in a chair with the back of the harp between his or her knees, in order to be able to reach the strings and use the foot pedals that can change the pitch of the harp by one or two half-steps.
Do you think the piano belongs in this section? Well, it does have strings, 88 of them, but most experts consider it a percussion instrument because of the way the strings are struck by small hammers to make their sound. Therefore you will find it listed under the Percussion section later on this page.
Instruments in the woodwind family used to all be made of wood, hence the name, but now they can be made of wood, metal, plastic or some combination of materials. They are all tubes with an opening at one end and a mouthpiece at the other end. They each have rows of holes that are covered by metal caps called keys. Pressing on different keys produces different musical notes – the sound changes depending on where the air leaves the instrument (through one of the key holes or out the far end). There are three ways in which the woodwind family creates sound: by blowing air across the edge of or into the mouthpiece (flute or piccolo), by blowing air between a single reed and a fixed surface (clarinet and bass clarinet), or by blowing air between two reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon).
The flute is a narrow metal tube about two feet long, with a row of holes covered by keys. (Early flutes were often made of wood.) The player blows air across the small hole in the mouthpiece to produce a sound that can be either soft and mellow or high and piercing. Like the violin, the flute may often carry the melody line as it is easy to hear above the other instruments.
The piccolo, usually made from metal or wood, is like a small flute. Because the length of the instrument is shorter than the flute, the pitch is higher, but it operates the same way. It is more of a specialty instrument, used when the part to be played is especially high.
The oboe does not have a mouthpiece like the flute and the piccolo. It is a double-reed instrument, with two reeds tied together for the mouthpiece. When the player places the reeds between her or his lips and blows air through them into the oboe, the reeds vibrate and produce the sound. Many oboists make their own reeds, or at least tailor them to suit their specific playing style. The oboe is made of wood. It has a more mellow sound than the flute, but still has a bright treble sound and is often expected to carry the melody in an orchestral work.
The English horn (cor anglais) is a perfect fifth below the oboe, which requires it to be one and one-half times as long! It also has a curved metal neck for the reed and a bulbous bell. The fingering and playing techniques are very similar to the oboe, and many performers play both instruments. It is thought to have a more mellow sound than the oboe.
Another wooden instrument, the clarinet, produces a fluid sound when air is blown between a single reed and the mouthpiece. As air passes through, the reed vibrates and creates sound. It has a large range of nearly four octaves so is a very versatile instrument. The tone quality can vary greatly depending on the musician, the instrument, the mouthpiece, and the reed.
The bass clarinet is a larger, lower relative of the clarinet. Most bass clarinets today are straight instruments like a clarinet but with a small upturned silver-colored metal bell and a curved metal neck. The bass clarinet has a usable range of over four octaves, quite close to the range of the bassoon, and many bass clarinetists perform works originally intended for bassoon or even cello.
The bassoon is a large double-reed instrument with a sound that is deeper than the other woodwind instruments. When the player blows air between the reeds, the vibrating column of air inside the instrument travels over nine feet to the bottom of the instrument, then up to the top where the sound comes out! Luckily, the bassoon comes apart into pieces for easy transport. There is a complex key work system to allow this large instrument to utilize its three-octave range with considerable agility.
The contrabassoon is twice as long as the standard bassoon, curves around on itself twice, and, due to its weight and shape, is supported by an end pin. Sometimes a strap around the player’s neck gives additional support. It is a very deep-sounding woodwind instrument. The contrabassoon is mainly a supplementary rather than a core orchestral instrument and is most frequently found in larger symphonic works.
The saxophone, while made of brass, is actually a woodwind instrument! It uses a single-reed mouthpiece much like the clarinet. The saxophone (“sax” for short) was invented in 1846 by Adolphe Sax to try to bridge the gap between brass and woodwind instruments. It is more powerful than most woodwinds, and more versatile than most brass instruments. The saxophone is used extensively in jazz, as well as in military, marching, and concert bands. There is also chamber and symphonic music written for sax, though it is less common. Still, there are some wonderful orchestral works that use the sax, so you will probably find a sax in our midst at some point every season!
Brass instruments are essentially very long pipes that widen at their ends into a bell-like shape. The pipes have been curved and twisted into different shapes to make them easier to hold and play. Instruments in the brass family produce their sound when the player “buzzes” her or his lips while blowing air through the mouthpiece, kind of like making a “raspberry”, creating a vibrating column of air within the instrument. Most brass instruments have valves attached to their long pipes. When the player presses down on the valves, they open and close different parts of the pipe, increasing or decreasing the length of the pipe when played and creating a lower sound. In addition to the valves, the player can select the pitch from a range of overtones or harmonics by changing his or her lip aperture and tension (known as the embouchure). The mouthpiece can also make a big difference in tone. Brass musicians can also insert mutes into the bell of their instrument to change the timbre of its sound.
The trumpet has been around since about 1500 years BCE! It is the highest-sounding member of the brass family and was often used for signaling/sending messages and religious purposes in the early days as the sound is very bright and clear. Air travels through six and a half feet of tubing bent into an oblong shape. The modern trumpet has three valves to change pitches, added in the early 19th century.
The trombone has a more mellow sound than the trumpet. Instead of valves or keys, the trombone uses a slide with seven positions to change the length of its approximately nine feet of tubing in order to reach different pitches. The longer the column of air, the lower the pitch. It also has a short tuning slide to adjust intonation.
The horn (often called the French horn but it really isn’t French at all!) consists of about twenty feet of narrow tubing wound into a circle with a large flared bell at the end. It has a clear, mellow sound, and is played with the bell pointing away from the audience, providing contrast to the other brass instruments. The player produces different notes on the horn by pressing valves with the left hand and by moving the right hand inside of the bell.
The bass trombone is identical in length to the tenor trombone but has a wider bore and a larger bell to create a fuller tone in the low register. It also has one or two valves which can lower the key of the instrument. There is usually at least one bass trombone in a symphony orchestra.
Made of about sixteen feet of tubing, the tuba is the lowest-sounding member of the brass family. It is one of the newest instruments in the orchestra, having first appeared in the mid-19th century. The concert tuba generally has four or five valves and is held upright in the player?s lap. While tubas are common in a marching band, in the classical orchestra there is generally only a part for one tuba.
Looking for the saxophone? While made of brass, it is under the woodwind section. Read more about it under The Woodwind Family to find out why!
The Percussion Family
The percussion section provides a variety of rhythms, textures and tone colors to orchestral music. Instruments in the percussion family make sound in one of three ways, by striking, shaking, or scraping. Percussion instruments can also be tuned or untuned. Tuned instruments play specific pitches or notes, just like the woodwind, brass and string instruments. Untuned instruments produce a sound with no definite pitch, like the sound of hitting two pieces of wood or metal together. Percussion instruments are an international family, representing musical styles from many different cultures. There are numerous kinds of percussion instruments, such as rattles, castanets, or tambourines, that are not shown here as they are used less frequently in orchestral compositions.
Keyboard instruments are a special class of percussion instrument.
Timpani, also known as kettle drums, are large copper bowls covered with calfskin or plastic stretched over the top. Timpani are pitched instruments, tuned to a specific pitch that fits into the key of the composition being played. The performer strikes the top of the instrument with wooden sticks or mallets to produce the note. The larger the drum, the lower or deeper the sound.
The snare drum is a widely used unpitched percussion instrument, though the sound can be changed slightly by tightening the drum head. Snare drums may be made from various wood, metal, or acrylic materials, and come in a variety of sizes. Most modern drum heads are made of mylar (plastic). A typical orchestral snare drum might be 14″ in diameter and 6″ deep. The snare drum is almost always double-headed, with rattles (called snares) of gut, metal wire or synthetics stretched across one or both heads. The snare drum is played by hitting with drum sticks.
The bass drum (pronounced “base” as in first base) is a large tuned percussion instrument with a calfskin or plastic drum head that covers both sides of the hollow, wooden cylinder. The bass drum has a deep or low sound. The bass drum is mounted on a stand because of its size, and the player strikes either side with felt-covered mallets.
The triangle, named because of its shape, is made from a small cylindrical piece of steel that is suspended from a loop and played by striking with a steel beater. While it looks easy to play, getting the volume and rhythm correct can be challenging!
The gong is a brass disc-shaped instrument that is hit with a large, soft mallet. Gongs can range in size from very small, producing a high-pitched sound, to larger than a person (!), producing a low or deep reverberating sound.
Cymbals are made of thin, round plates of metal alloys. Most cymbals are of indefinite pitch. The size of the cymbal affects its sound – larger cymbals are louder and can sustain their note longer. The unique sound of the cymbals allows them to project above a full orchestra, but they can also be played very softly, and offer a wide variety of options for making different sounds. Orchestral cymbals are traditionally used in pairs, each one having a strap by which they are held. Sound is created by rubbing their edges together in a sliding movement, striking them against each other, and several other techniques. Cymbal pairs are usually damped when the sound is supposed to end by pressing them against the player’s body. Another use of cymbals is to hang a cymbal by its strap, which allows the cymbal to vibrate freely when struck by mallets or drum sticks, making a very different sound than two cymbals hitting each other.
There are several percussion instruments that are played by striking them with mallets. The Arapahoe Phil uses the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel and chimes depending on the works being performed. All are tuned to specific notes in the musical scale, and all are played standing up. The xylophone (photo) is made of consistently-sized wooden bars that are played with hard mallets. The marimba is also made of wooden bars, but it has a more mellow tone than the xylophone due to the bars being wider and thinner, and it is played with softer mallets. Vibraphones have bars made of aluminum, so a note can sound longer. A damper pedal much like that on a piano can also extend the sound of the notes. Lower bars are wider and higher bars are narrower, and softer mallets are generally used. The Glockenspiel is similar to the xylophone in layout, but has metal bars and is smaller, lacking the resonators. Using a hard mallet gives a clear bell-like tone. Chimes are made up of hanging tubes of metal, with the length determining their pitch. Chimes are struck on the top edge of the tube. Since they are quite tall, it can be a challenge to find the right chime, read the music, AND watch the conductor!
The piano is probably one of the most familiar musical instruments. Not only is it used for solo performances, but it often appears in ensembles and chamber music, and is frequently used to accompany, rehearse, and compose. The piano has figured prominently in all kinds of music from classical to music halls to ragtime to jazz to rock and roll. It is a keyboard instrument that produces sound when the player presses the keys with her or his fingers, causing small padded hammers to strike the strings. The sound is stopped by a damper when the key is released, though pedals can sustain the note a bit longer. The piano can produce a great variety of dynamics (soft to loud), based on how hard or softly the pianist hits the keys. There are 88 keys (52 white and 36 black) on a standard piano!
Special thanks to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for granting us permission to use some of their instrument images on our website.