This is post intended for newbies but please don’t ever feel like you’re dumb for not knowing instruments. It’s something I’ve heard people say before and I am here to tell you that identifying instruments by sight and sound is both something so simple children can do it and also something I still occasionally screw up (sometimes oboes sound like clarinets man, it happens).
I am going to try to give you the exact amount of info you need to conceivably talk about these without feeling worried you sound like a newbie*. We’ll give you video links for every instrument so you can see the instrument in action with popular pieces for that instrument (some instruments are…more popular than others). So let’s just jump into the orchestra, shall we?
We’re just going to cover the most common, standard orchestral instruments. There are many other instruments that “guest star” but we’re trying to keep it simple for now. Let’s go family by family, and here’s a basic map of where everyone sits onstage for reference.
Since they’re in the front of the Orchestra that’s where we’ll start. Almost all of the time, you will see them being played with bows as…somewhat demonstrated in the gif above, but it’s also pretty standard to see the strings plucked with fingers, referred to as pizzicato. Their non-bowing hand is moving to specific locations on the strings to produce different notes.
With the highest range of string instruments and a bright sweet quality, the violin frequently carries the melody of a piece. There are (generally) more violins than any other instrument onstage, and they are divided into first and second violins, but they sit right next to each other and unless you’re carefully watching their bows you probably won’t notice a big difference between them.
“Playing second fiddle” is less terrible than our idioms have made it out to be. Yes, it’s true that the first violins generally carry the melody and the fancy high notes whereas second violins more frequently serve as harmonic support, but truthfully in an orchestra, the melody is passed around constantly, yes even to second fiddles.
If you go to an orchestra, you will also get to see the Concertmaster. They are the first chair first violin, which is to say they have the highest position in the first violin section and the orchestra as a whole. When the CM comes out everyone will applaud partially because they are very very special and partially because the CM is also in charge of starting the tuning process and getting this show on the road. They also get to shake the conductor’s hand and play all the impressive violin solos.
Truth be told, if you stuck me in a room with an instrument and made me decide if it was a violin or a viola, I could probably do it but it definitely would take me a second…
It’s the one on the bottom. And while there are viola jokes for days, I am here to tell you violas are great. They’re like violins with a little more junk in the trunk and a warmer richer sound, like a violin-cello baby. Violas sit right in front of the conductor, and while they definitely have moments to shine, they spend a lot of time filling out harmony in the string section (which is super important and we love you for it. Thanks violas!).
The other middle child of the string section usually gets a lot more love and honestly, it’s because they sound like wood and butter and magic all wrapped up together and I can’t fault anyone for loving them.
Okay back to facts. This is the one they’re playing sitting down, with the instrument between their legs. Cellos (or celli if ya fancy) in an orchestra most typically play supporting bass harmonies and pop out with the melody from time to time.
It’s the big one! So big it’s typically played either standing up or sitting on a special stool that looks quite a bit like a barstool. The basses usually are playing (surprise!) the bass harmony line and we love them for it.
Yeah it’s a string instrument too, just minus the bows and the same general shape, you’re still using strings and a resonator. These guys usually hide out behind the violins and truthfully, you’ll often see them playing without necessarily being able to hear them come out of the general texture, but when they do…I mean there’s nothing else quite like a harp glissando .
Usually tucked in right behind the violas in the center are the woodwinds, aka the instruments you blow in that aren’t as loud as brass instruments. No, but seriously, woodwinds are either flutes (blowing air over an edge of a hole in a cylindrical instrument, causing vibrations in the flute) or a reed instrument (air is focused into a mouthpiece and vibrating the reed. Yes, a real plant reed). Unlike strings, there are only a few players per orchestra– a little goes a long way.
Flutes, are unsurprisingly, flutes. No reeds here! There are a whole lot of very different instruments called flutes, but when we talk classical music we’re generally talking a western concert flute made out of metal (typical professional flutes are gold, silver or platinum) like Tina shows us above. Flutes get plenty of solos in the orchestra as well as adding ethereal, airy quality to the orchestra.
Don’t cry piccolo girl! It’s true you are playing a tiny extra high flute that doesn’t get used all that often, but you’re probably also the second or third chair flute so you’ve got plenty to do. It looks like a half-size flute (although they can be black too) and the pitches are higher and piercing in quality.
The oboe is a double reed instrument, so they’ve got two that vibrate right next to each other *nice* and the body is made out of wood (although clearly the keys are made of metal) and there are usually 2-4 of them in an orchestra. They have the extra special job of issuing the tuning note to the whole orchestra. Sound quality is typically bright, insistent and just a little acerbic (in a good way!! I love you oboes!)
The clarinet is the most recent addition to our woodwind family coming in around the second half of the 18th century. Like the oboe, this is a reed instrument with metal keys, but the body is typically also made of metal. They come in several keys, so you’ll sometimes see a clarinet player switching out clarinets onstage. There are typically 2-4 clarinets in an orchestra. These guys have a rich round bottom range that goes up to a thrillingly reedy and tenuous top range.
It’s the big one! It has…lots of components. Let me just say that what you need to know is it’s got a wooden body, another set of sexy double reeds like the oboe and metal keys. A typical orchestra has 2-4 bassoons and they are always enjoyable to watch in my personal opinion. I mean look at that gif. Bassoons have a sound that is somehow both mellow and deeply emotional while also sinister and frequently used for comic effect in works. It’s a shapeshifter.
Ah, Brass section. The section so loud they have to sit in the back by the percussion since they’re all slowly going deaf anyway (jk…kind of). The brass instruments are actually quite different from each other in terms of mechanics but they share flared bells at the end, and you “buzz” into a mouthpiece. Then magic happens.
Ah, the noble French Horn. They get a lot of the good hero and romantic musical themes and produce a beautiful full soft sound that suits it well. It’s the round one so it’s easy to spot and the number of horns in an orchestra can vary from 2-8. If you want to watch a bunch of super talented (but not french horn players) musicians try to play it, I highly recommend you spend some time with Sarah Willis.
Yay trumpets! The first violins of the brass section, these guys get all the high notes and therefore a lot of the melodies and fanfares and fancy bits. You get about 2-4 of these in an orchestra and their sound (as you probably already know) is brilliant and metallic up top and warm and dark at the bottom.
Trombone! Without the trombone we would be missing out on so many great sound effects, but it’s also a great contribution to the orchestra. The trombone is unique among brass because having a slide (instead of buttons/valves like the rest) means they can pull off glissandos (gliding through a string of notes rather than playing each note individually). Usually, you get 3-4 of them per orchestra and their sound is brilliant and penetrating.
Good ole’ Tuba. Like the bassoon and the string bass, the lowest voice in the section gets pulled out for comedic effect sometimes but don’t be fooled, these guys can pack serious emotion as much as anyone else. Tubas have a robust and smooth sound but don’t have many big solo moments unfortunately! They definitely pop out of the harmony with big fat bass notes much like the bass trombones.
Tuba listening suggestions: Vaughan-Williams’ Tuba Concerto and Gershwin’s An American in Paris (starts at Tuba solo)
Okay guys so percussion…I mean there are so many things that fall into the Percussion section from hitting giant blocks with hammers to bells, whips, typewriters etc. Basically, if you are hitting an object to make a sound it’s percussion. We’ll just cover the most standard percussion here for now (sorry Mahler hammer! We’ll get to you another time) which is generally divided into three sections: Tuned percussion (bells/marimba/anything with pitch), Auxiliary percussion (everything UNpitched), and the extra special Timpani stands alone.
So I’m guessing you have a pretty good concept of how drums work, and what makes the snare on a snare drum is a set of wires on the outside of the drum that rattle when you play, making that singularly unnerving sound of the snare drum.
Snare drum listening suggestions: Ravel’s Bolero
These are the big ones! Unlike the snare drum, the timpani are tuned to specific pitches. They’re also crazy loud so the timpanist is usually exercising incredible control to keep from blowing everyone out of the water. You might only have two timpani for earlier works, and then later (romantic era onward) four became standard.
Okay we all have a pretty good idea of what cymbals are and how they work, but I’m here to tell you they can be a nuanced and complicated lil instrument. You can slap them together, or you can play them with mallets/brushes and basically transform these lil metal frisbees into a wide range of sonoric effects.
I don’t like to play favorites but I have a special place in my heart for the bass drum. Do yourself a favor and get close to one of these while it’s playing some time because you can feel the sound in your whole body because the bass drum is the biggest standard percussion, and it’s really loud and really low. It’s awesome. Typically you hit it with a mallet rather than a ping pong ball but percussionists get to do most of the weird fun stuff anyway.
There’s more percussion! Lots more! We know! But this is probably what you need to feel confident talking about a basic orchestra.
Yes! Orchestras have pianos! It’s really mostly just the piano and occasionally the celesta but I will get to that in our next instrument intro post. So piano it is. You are probably pretty familiar with how a piano works; the pianist hits a key, which hits a hammer which hits a string, technically making this a percussion instrument. Frequently in orchestral works you’ll see the piano playing more than you’ll distinctly hear it because it’s either doubling or supporting harmony, but it’s always awesome when they pop out and remind you that they can basically play a whole symphony on just one instrument. It’s unfair and awesome all at the same time.
TL;DR the bigger instruments are lower and play harmony, the smaller ones are higher and play melodies, and you probably can’t hear all the instruments all the time so don’t sweat it and if you get it wrong who cares.*
This amazing Vienna Symphonic Library site will give you almost every detail I omitted about instrument designs, a thousand adjectives describing the sound quality of almost every instrument here and extensive histories and repertoire lists.
*Although really if anyone ever, ever gives you crap about that just yell “I AM THE FUTURE AUDIENCE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC! STOP HARSHING MY MELLOW AND LET ME ENJOY THE MUSIC YOU SNOB!” and storm away