In classical music, an orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians who perform in unison. With more than 100 performers in some huge symphony orchestra, it has a wide range of instruments.
String instruments are the most prevalent instruments in an ensemble. But many orchestras today also incorporate a variety of other instruments from the woodwinds, brass, and percussion families, increasing the variety and intensity of the group’s music together.
Read on to get introduced to each of the most commonly used instruments in a large orchestra.
From highest to lowest pitch, the conventional string section includes the following four instruments:
In the string family, the violin is the tiniest and, as a baby, produces the most piercing sounds. It is held under the player’s chin and sits on the left shoulder. Sitting or standing, it may be played at any posture.
Soloists and violinists in an orchestra are usually separated by a few feet. It is common for a violin to carry the theme in an orchestral piece because of its beautiful tone. In most orchestras, there are first and second violin sections with 16 violins each to play different parts.
The viola is the violin’s more mature sibling. The viola has thicker strings, which generate a richer, warmer tone than the violin, which is smaller and has thinner strings. Orchestras typically have 10 to 14 violas, with most of those violas playing harmony.
Violinists rest their chins on their shoulders while playing the viola, just as they do when playing the violin. Viola players use their left hand to hold the viola’s neck while their right hand plucks a bow to alter the viola’s pitch.
The cello resembles the violin and viola but is much longer (about 4 feet long) and has thicker strings. The cello has the most human-like tone of all string instruments, ranging from warm deep tones to brilliant higher notes. An orchestra’s cellos perform both melody and harmony.
It’s too big to put under your chin, so you sit with the torso between your knees while the neck rests on your left shoulder. A metal peg supports the cello’s body on the ground. The cello is played like the violin or viola, with the left hand pressing the strings and the right hand moving the bow or plucking the strings.
In terms of symphonic string instruments, the double bass is the largest and heaviest. The upright bass, contrabass, or string bass is sometimes referred to as this instrument. In terms of pitch, it is an octave lower than the cello, making it the lowest-sounding string instrument.
Due to the large size of double basses, they are typically played standing up or on a stool. A typical orchestra has six to eight bassists.
Instruments in the brass section are basically long pipes that performers blow air into, making up the entire section. By buzzing their lips, they exhale air via the mouthpiece.
The following four instruments make up a standard brass section in an orchestra:
- French horn
Among the brass instruments, the trumpet has been around the longest, making it one of the oldest.
A trumpet player can alter the air’s path by pressing one of three valves on the instrument. This modifies the note’s pitch. In a standard orchestra, there are usually between three and five trumpets.
The French horn’s origins date back to the French hunting horns of the 1600s, and it can create a wide array of tones, from the harsh and piercing to the soothing and mellow. With its 18 feet of tubing in a round shape, the French Horn has a massive bell at its end.
Depending on the orchestra, there can be anywhere from two to eight French horns, which are used for both harmony and melody, as well as rhythm.
The French horn can be played by holding the instrument with the bell curving down and buzzing into the mouthpiece. The three valves on your left hand are controlled by your right hand, and you can alter the sound you produce by shifting your hand position in the bell.
The trombone is one of the most distinctive brass instruments. Slides are used to modify the pitch of notes instead of valves because there are seven positions.
A lower pitch is produced when the slide is fully extended, and the opposite is true when it is entirely retracted. In most orchestras, there are three trombones.
The tuba is the lowest-sounding brass instrument. It was originally utilized in the orchestra in the mid-19th century, making it one of the younger instruments.
As with other brass instruments, the tuba consists of a long metal tube bent into an oval shape with a large bell at the end.
Tubas provide a lower, more resonant tone. It’s a huge instrument, so it’s normally put on the musician’s lap and employs valves to produce different pitches. There is normally only one tuba in an orchestra.
Woodwind instruments are now mostly composed of metal or plastic, although they used to be exclusively made of wood, hence the name.
Woodwinds are played by blowing into the mouthpiece and down a tube. Pitch can be changed by playing keys that cover different holes where air escapes, resulting in varied pitches.
The woodwind section’s four major instruments are:
The flute is a wind instrument with holes in the side that may be closed with the fingers or pads that can be controlled by keys. It can be made of wood or metal. The air in the tube vibrates due to the breath being channeled across a mouth hole cut into the side.
The range is from middle C, about three octaves upward. In most orchestras, there are four flutes.
The oboe, a woodwind instrument, is one of two double-reed pieces used in an ensemble. The sound is created by blowing between the two reeds and causing them to vibrate. One of the most distinctive aspects of the oboe’s sound is the vast variety of pitches it can generate, from haunting to silky smooth.
There are usually two to four oboes in an orchestra. Besides performing in the ensemble, the first oboist is also involved in tuning the orchestra before each performance.
Unlike the oboe, the clarinet has only one reed to play. Musicians blow into the reed with their mouthpiece, causing the reed to oscillate and produce sound. In a typical orchestra, there are normally four clarinets.
Another double reed instrument is the bassoon. The bassoon is the woodwind family’s lowest-sounding basic orchestral instrument, but a double bassoon is much lower. In a typical orchestra, there are four bassoons.
There are more percussionists than any other instrument family in the orchestra. Any musical instrument that produces a sound when struck, shaken, or scraped is considered a percussion instrument.
Percussion instruments can be divided into two categories- pitched and unpitched. This means, percussion instruments can create multiple pitches, while some produce a sound that does not have a specific pitch.
Pitched Percussion Instruments
A percussion instrument with a fixed pitch produces a specific sound when played. They’re typically played with a mallet or stick, which is used to strike the instrument that makes the music. For the most part, countermelodies and harmony are created using pitched percussion instruments.
A few examples of pitched percussion instruments are:
- Tubular bells
- Celeste (celesta)
Unpitched Percussion Instruments
Percussion instruments that lack a distinct pitch are known as “unpitched” instruments. Pitched percussion is used to produce melodies and harmony, whereas these instruments are used to play beats.
With a mallet or stick, they’re typically played by stomping and scratching them. Following are a few of the most popular unpitched percussion instruments:
The instruments in a given family are all interconnected, just like human families. They are generally composed of the same materials, have a similar appearance, and make sounds in a similar manner. Some are larger than others, just like parents are larger than their offspring.
We really hope that this article has provided you with a better understanding of the various orchestral instruments. Please reach us through email for any further information.