A Visitor's Guide to the Orchestra
.....As you sit in the balcony at Symphony Center and the enchanting music of Mozart emanates from the stage, do you know which instrument is responsible for the sweet, dulcet tone of the serenade? Or which instrument is sounding the triumphant fanfare? If you take a little time to find out what all those instruments are, and how they're played, you will find yourself enjoying your orchestral experience even more. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a guided tour of the orchestra!
.....Let's start with the string section. The string family makes up about two-thirds of the orchestra. The members of the string family are the violin, viola, cello, and bass. All members of the string family have several things in common: they are shaped similarly, they have four strings, and they are played with a bow.
.....But although they have similarities, these instruments sound remarkably different. The violin is the smallest, and is played while resting on the musician's shoulder. It has the highest, and some say the sweetest, sound. There are usually thirty violin players in an orchestra.
.....The viola is slightly larger than the violin, and is also played by being held on the musician's shoulder. Its sound is a little deeper, softer, and mellower than the violin. There are only sixteen or eighteen violists in the orchestra.
.....The cello is substantially larger than either the violin or the viola, and is played by being held between the musician's legs while the musician is sitting. The cello has a lower, louder sound than the viola, and often has solos in orchestral music. You can find eight or ten cellists in an orchestra.
.....The double bass, or the bass fiddle, as it is sometimes called, is the biggest of the string instruments. So big, in fact, that it has to be played while the musician is standing up! The bass has the very lowest range, and is fairly quiet. It also has the fewest number of players in this family—only two!
.....Next to the strings, we have the woodwinds. The woodwind family has an extensive family tree, with many more members than the string family. The flute is an excellent example of what you might think of when the term woodwind comes to mind. This is a fairly small instrument, held up horizontally to the musician's lips. The flute is played by blowing air across a hole at the top while pressing keys to make different tones. Typically, there are two or three flutes in an orchestra.
.....The piccolo is the flute's younger sister and is played the same as the flute. The piccolo is much shorter than the flute, though, and has a much higher sound. In fact, the piccolo is the loudest and highest instrument in the orchestra. Usually there is only one piccolo player in an orchestra.
.....Next to the piccolo are the oboe, and its brother, the English horn. Both of these instruments are classified as double reeds because to play them, the musician blows on the reed's two lips. There are usually three oboists in the orchestra.
.....The English horn is longer and lower than the oboe, and is a lone instrument in the orchestra.
.....Musicians hold both instruments vertically to play them, and both instruments have a focused, almost nasal, sound.
.....The next two instruments are the clarinet and the bass clarinet. These are single reeds. (Single reeds have only one lip that is slightly larger than the lips on their double reed cousins.) To play a single reed, the musician blows on the lip. Clarinets have a “hoot-y,” almost owl-like sound, and tend to flock in groups of four.
.....The bass clarinet is so long that its bottom rests on the floor, and has a deep, throbbing sound. The bass clarinet is also a solitary creature in the orchestra.
.....The brass family has only four members, but they are, by far, the most boisterous section of the orchestra. The trumpets are the smallest of the brass instruments and are played by blowing through a mouthpiece with great force while pressing keys on top of the instrument. Because trumpets are brassy, gutsy, and sometimes grating, it is rare to find more than four trumpets in the same orchestra.
.....Trombones are larger, lower, and more relaxing to hear. These instruments are also played by blowing in a mouthpiece, but instead of keys, trombones have a slide that is used to change notes. There are usually three trombones found in an orchestra.
.....The largest member of the brass family is the tuba. The tuba, which has keys like a trumpet, can weigh as much as forty pounds! A musician can only play a tuba by holding it on his/her lap. Because these instruments have the deepest, darkest, boomiest voice of any instrument in the orchestra, there is only one tuba in an orchestra.
.....The last member of the brass family is the French horn. While all brass instruments are made from coils of brass tubing, the French horn has the most tubing—more than twenty feet! Because the French horn is so tightly coiled, it is a fairly small instrument that can comfortably be held on a musician's lap. This instrument also has keys, and is played by blowing in a mouthpiece. The French horn is said to have the loveliest, purest sound of all the brasses, and is found in groups of four.
.....We come now to the percussion section, where things are struck, hit, shaken, and chimed. There are far too many percussion instruments for me to name all of them, but the most common ones are the timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, and piano.
.....Timpani are four large kettledrums and each drum has a different tone. These drums can be played loudly or softly, and does wonders for setting the mood of a piece.
.....The snare drum is the rat-a-tat-tat drum that you think of when you hear a military band. One snare drum makes enough noise to cover half the orchestra!
.....The bass drum is an enormous drum that can sound like a gun shot when hit hard.
.....The triangle is just that—a small, triangular-shaped piece of metal that makes a high-pitched "tink" when hit.
.....Now, you may ask, "Why is the piano a percussion instrument?" A percussion instrument, by definition, is something that is struck by a mallet. The piano is a percussion instrument because, when a musician tickles those ivories, a hammer strikes the piano's strings. The piano is the most sophisticated of the percussion instruments and can play eighty-eight different notes. (Those interested in the piano can learn piano with TakeLessons.)
.....There is one more part to the orchestra—not another instrument family, but very important nonetheless: the conductor. With a wave of the baton, the conductor conveys to the musicians the mood of the music, and tells them when to start playing, how loud to play, and how fast to play. Without the conductor, the orchestra would have a hard time playing cohesively.
.....There you have it, your guided tour of the orchestra. Now that you have a better understanding of an orchestra, go out and hear one play! Impress your friends and family with your knowledge of all the instruments, and enjoy the concert!
©2007 Sarah Wilfong
Sarah Wilfong, folk music fiddler and classical violinist, performs regularly in the Chicago area. To contact Sarah directly, click here.
For information about Sarah's Fiddle Soup CD, click here: Sarah Wilfong - Fiddle Soup