Welcome to Classical.com's Guide to the Instuments of the Orchestra! Back to Classical Academy
If you are new to classical music you may be unfamiliar with the instruments of the orchestra. This is the section for you! Pictures, descriptions and playlists will introduce you to the huge variety of sounds that can be produced by an orchestra.
Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was written in 1936 for the newly opened Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow. Composed in a single week, the piece alternates orchestral music with narration to tell the story of Peter, a young boy, who displays bravery and cunning to capture a bloodthirsty wolf. The piece helps the listener to identify the different instruments of the orchestra by musically representing each character in the story with a different instrument or section. Although Prokofiev called the piece a ‘gift not only to all the children of Moscow, but to my own as well’, it’s equally popular with old and young alike. The narrator has been voiced by many famous actors and celebrities including Ralph Richardson, Lenny Henry, Patrick Stewart, John Geilgud, and even Dame Edna Everage!
All the string instruments consist of vibrating strings stretched over a resonating wooden box. They use a horse-hair bow to start the strings vibrating, and the string may be stopped at various points to change the pitch of the note produced. They are the family capable of most expression and are grouped into large sections, with many players performing the same line of music.
Violin: the highest pitched instrument in the string family often plays the melody line. Violinists also tend to have the most notes to play and have a reputation for being highly strung.
Viola: plays a range of notes below the violin, often filling in important middle harmonies. Viola players are unfortunately the butt of many jokes. Some of them are very good (the jokes that is)!
Cello: held between the knees, the cello has a deep rich sound, and is often used to play the bass line. The cello can also be very expressive when playing melodies.
Double Bass: the deepest and biggest of string instruments, the double bass plays notes at the very bottom of the orchestra. Players have to stand or sit on a high stool to reach the top of the instrument!
A large family of different instruments, not all made of wood, that create sound by causing a column of air to vibrate. By pressing keys, the column of air is shortened and produces a different note. Each instrument has a separate solo line, though there may be two or more of players of each. The main instruments of this family are:
Flute: now made of metal, the flute is held horizontally and plays some of the highest notes the orchestra. In the hands of a skilful player, the flute can be highly expressive.
Oboe: a melody instrument that plays notes of a lower range than the flute. Because the oboist has to contort their face to play, they are sometimes perceived as slightly warped characters!
Clarinet: comes in several different sizes depending on the notes required. The clarinet uses a single reed to vibrate the column of air, rather than the double-reed of the oboe and bassoon.
Bassoon: the deepest of the woodwind family, the bassoon tends to play the bass line, though it is often used as an alternative melody instrument.
The loudest section of the orchestra, with a reputation for loud behaviour as well (!), brass instruments work on a similar principle to the woodwinds. They create a vibrating column of air using a cup-shaped mouthpiece, and can change the fundamental note produced using valves or a slide. Like the woodwind, each instrument plays its own solo line. Principal members of the family include:
Horn: originally used in hunting, the orchestral horn can be soft and expressive, or loud and strident. A typical orchestra has between 2 and 8 horns depending on the music being played.
Trumpet: produces a bright clear sound particularly suited to fanfares. Like the clarinet, the trumpet can come in different sizes, each with a slightly different sound.
Trombone: playing more of the bass line than the melody, the trombone changes its fundamental note by sliding a section of tubing back and forth. It was probably the trombone that the conductor Thomas Beecham was referring to when he said: ‘Are you producing as much sound as possible from that antique drainage system which you are applying to your face?'!
Sometimes affectionately known as the ‘Kitchen department’, the percussion section mainly consists of a myriad of instruments that are struck with sticks or beaters. Some of the exceptions include a set of car-horns and a wind machine! Two of the principal instruments are:
Timpani: Sometimes called Kettle Drums, these are tuned drums that can be played incredibly loudly, or rumble away very softly. They come in pairs or a group of three and, when being played, can be very dramatic to watch!
Cymbals: As the conductor Leonard Slatkin said: ‘The thing that really gets to a cymbal player is Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. The poor soul has nothing to do for the first two movements. It’s not until the climax of the third movement that he has one huge crash, then you don’t hear him again. The Symphony lasts 90 minutes and he’s on for three seconds. Can you imagine the responsibility of getting that right?’ Enough said.