My whole jam, if you’re new here, is giving people the actual information they need to enjoy and get all the life-changing awesomeness from the fine arts. That means learning to look and listen like a pro, and it also means learning bits and bobs of terminology, history, and technique so you can actually understand what you’re taking in.
So in that vein, today I’m going to teach you all the instruments of the orchestra! (Don’t worry – it will be easy and, dare I say, fun). Orchestral music is my jam, you guys (and not just because my husband is an orchestral musician). Music written for a symphony orchestra (that’s what “orchestral music” means) is the flippin’ backbone of the classical repertoire. The greatest symphonies are some of the most important human achievements of the past couple hundred years. And to really love them, you’ve gotta know the orchestra itself.
So, without further ado, here is your overview of all the orchestral instruments:
THE STRING INSTRUMENTS
Making up the majority of players are the six string sections: FIRST VIOLINS, SECOND VIOLINS, VIOLAS, CELLOS, BASSES, and HARPS. The two groups of violins, the violas, and the cellos sit up front in four wedges that radiate out from the conductor’s podium (so that there are a couple of each of them right up in front), then the basses are awfully tall, so they stand up somewhere around the back, and the harps are usually tucked in somewhere.
Each of the bowed (aka, played with a bow) string instruments is basically the same – they each have a hollow wooden body, a neck with a fingerboard (that’s where the fingers go), and four strings stretched across the top. The only big difference is size: violin is the baby (and they’re split into two groups, one plays the melody, one plays other stuff), then viola is like violin’s bigger sibling, then cello, then bass is the big daddy. As instruments get bigger, their pitch gets lower (makes sense? Makes sense.)
THE FOUR BOWED STRING INSTRUMENTS FROM HIGHEST TO LOWEST:
The littlest string instrument, who gets all the good melody lines and sounds the highest. There are two sections of violins – “First Violins” and “Second Violins.” The firsts sit at the front of the stage, and usually play the tune. The seconds either sit beside them or across from them, and they play rhythmic parts and harmonies.
The big sibling of the violin who gets all the cool secondary melodies (responses to the main melody, or… clapbacks, really). There are far fewer violists in an orchestra than violinists, and a lot of beginner orchestra-goers don’t notice them at first (which is too bad, because they often play really cool music).
The romantic-sounding low one that the musician holds between their knees. The cello section also has a lot of big melodies, plus lots of sweet rhythmic parts where they get to jam out. Cello is a lot of people’s favourite orchestral instrument, and I tooootally get it.
The big daddy of the bowed strings that the musician plays standing up (or perched on a stool). The basses play lots of harmony and rhythm, but they also play very low long notes to ground the harmony (that means: make everything sound right).
Plus, you’ve got the bonus string “section”…
The plucked string instrument that sounds like a beautiful waterfall of notes from heaven. Sometimes there’s just one harp, sometimes two… and every once in a while, the rare thrill of more harps.
THE WOODWIND INSTRUMENTS
In the middle of the orchestra are the WOODWIND instruments: they’re called that because most of them are made out of, you guessed it, wood! And they’re played by blowing through them! Wood+wind. If you were in band in high school, you probably know most of these already. What you might not know (yet!) is that woodwind players do something called “double” – that means, play different versions of their same instrument, based on what the composer wants. So, below, are the STANDARD instrument, then their primary “double” instrument:
Flute & Piccolo
The flute is a long skinny silver instrument with a high-pitched sound. While all of the other wind instruments are played by blowing through the instrument, flute is played by blowing over a hole under the player’s lips (like blowing over the top of a bottle). Flute sounds a bit like a sustained whistle – airy, but with tone and focus. Often you’ll see one of the flute players also play the PICCOLO, which looks like a tiny black and silver flute, is very high pitched, and sounds a lot like a bird.
Ah, the classic band instrument! It’s a black wooden instrument with silver keys that the player holds straight down in front of their chest and plays by blowing into the mouthpiece at the top, which has a single reed attached to it that vibrates when you blow on it, creating the sound that resonates through the wooden body. BASS CLARINET is its cousin, and it’s a really really big clarinet with a metal scoopy horn off the bottom that kind of looks like a super long black saxophone. The clarinet sounds smooth, hollow, and woody.
Oboe & English Horn
The oboe looks like a smaller, skinnier clarinet, except instead of a mouthpiece with a single reed, it just has a double reed (two reeds sandwiched together) that you stick into the top of it and blow directly into. Oboe sounds like when you put a piece of grass or wax paper between your thumbs and blow (that high pitched, zippy sound – but, like, awesome). The ENGLISH HORN is a really long oboe with a super buttery, mellow tone.
Bassoon & Contrabassoon
Bassoon’s also got a double reed (a bigger one), but the body of the instrument is MUCH larger. Bassoon is played off to the side like a saxophone, and looks like a brown or reddish big long stick with a hole up at the top that the player plays into the middle of. The CONTRABASSOON is just a bigger version, with more wooden “piping” wrapped around, and it sounds super frickin’ low. The bassoon sounds vibrate-y – a bit like a duck, or an electronic sound, but in a really good way.
THE BRASS INSTRUMENTS
The brass instruments are the other ones you might know from high school band. They generally sit around the back, since they’re awfully loud. The primary mechanic is the same for all the brass: “buzz” the lips together (like blowing a raspberry really intensely), then put a metal mouthpiece in front of it to turn that buzz into a sound in the instrument. But, the rest of the set-up varies a lot from brass instrument to brass instrument:
You probably already know trumpets – they’re the smallish, forward-facing instruments played by pressing down the three valves on top in different combinations. You might see two different kinds of trumpet, especially if you’re clicking around YouTube and seeing orchestras from different countries: piston trumpets (the buttons make the valves go up and down, common in North America), and rotary trumpets (played “sideways” so that pressing the buttons makes the little round valves rotate in a circle, common in Europe). The trumpet sounds bright, focused, and lively.
The French horn is the one where the metal tubing is wrapped around in a circle (actually, a bunch of circles), then the sound goes out a big bell to the side and kind of behind the player. The player actually holds the instrument by putting one hand inside the bell (the part where the sound comes out) and plays the notes with their other hand on the valves (which are basically the same as a rotary trumpet!). The horn sounds mellow, warm, and pleasantly muffly.
Trombone is the long one without any keys or buttons; instead, it has a long “slide” that the player, yes, slides back and forth to make the instrument longer or shorter (which changes the notes lower or higher). Part of the trombone rests on the player’s shoulder, then the big mouthpiece sits over (you guessed it), their mouth, then the slide comes out toward the conductor. Trombone sounds like “mwomp mwommmmp”.
The biggest brass instrument, you probably already know it. It’s the giant instrument way at the back that has a bell that (mercifully for the people around it) goes straight up in the air. Because it’s sooo big, it sounds soooooo lowwww. So low you actually might not even realize it’s playing in the big loud parts.
The last part of the orchestra is percussion – that means things you hit. Percussion includes all the drums (most notably, SNARE DRUM, which is the one like little drummer boy plays; BASS DRUM, the giant upright drum the player hits on the side; and TIMPANI, the set of four or five big round drums that the player sits behind and swivels around to play all of them). Percussion also includes all of the keyboard instruments (ones where the things you hit are like the keys of a piano, like the BELLS, which are made of metal and sound like, well, bells; XYLOPHONE, which is made of wood and sounds like… wood; and, MARIMBA, which is also made of wood but is really big and sounds much more low and mellow). You’ve also got AUXILIARY PERCUSSION, which means everything else (aka, TRIANGLE, TAMBOURINE, CASTANETS, etc… all the fun stuff percussionists get to play for extra special effects).
One of the most noticeable members of the percussion family, it’s a set of drums set up in a semi-circle around the player, from lowest drum to highest drum – and the player actually changes the pitches (the notes the drums play) with pedals on the ground (so you might see them put their ear to the drum to tune it!).
Fun fact, the percussion family also includes the PIANO (yes, piano is also an orchestral instrument, and you’ll see one tucked right in amongst the instruments for lots of symphonies). Sometimes you might also see a variation on a piano called a CELESTA (looks like a little piano and sounds like magical bells), or the piano’s forefather the HARPSICHORD (sounds like an extra clangy piano (in a good way).
YOU GUYS, THAT’S IT!
Now you know all the orchestral instruments and you’re ready to take YouTube or the concert hall by storm! Or, at least, you’ll know where to look when the program notes tell you there’s a “solo played by the contrabassoon” (you know what that is now!). Enjoy your newfound orchestral confidence, you savvy connoisseur, you!