A Beginner’s Guide to the Orchestra, Part 1

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In today’s beginner’s guide to the orchestra, we’re going to go on a tour of the different instruments of the orchestra – what they sound like, how many instruments are used, and what the general set-up looks like. In the next video, I want to chat about the history of the orchestra, and how it has evolved over the years.

My first experience with an orchestra was through band class in elementary school.None of us were very good, but it gave me a distinct idea about different instruments used in an orchestra, and what they looked and sounded like

Then, later on in life, I had to study the orchestra for exams, which I actually feel like boosted my appreciation of symphonies and other orchestral performances, because I understood them better.

So I’m hopeful that if you understand orchestras better, you’ll be able to appreciate them more.

Let’s get started!

Standard, modern orchestra

So let’s talk about the basic, modern orchestra, used mainly for Classical music performances. We have 4 different categories of instruments:

-Strings (like violin)
-Woodwinds (like flutes)
-Brass (like trumpets)
-Percussion (like gongs)

Sometimes you get random instruments that join the mix, like pianos and harps, but those four categories are the main standards.

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Orchestra arrangement

This is the typical arrangement of instruments you’d see if you went to see an orchestra performance. There are usually between 70-100 performers, of which you’ll notice about 2/3rds are string instruments – the violas, cello, double bass, and violins.

Then you’ve got about a dozen woodwind players, of which the smallest ones, like the flute, are placed front and centre. This is because flutes aren’t very loud, and putting them close to the front, and relatively centered, helps the sound reach the listener’s ears.

That’s the same reason why the 10 or so horn instruments are in the back, because they are much louder (same goes for the percussion – percussion almost never plays a central, melodic role).

Guide to the orchestra: strings

First of all, let’s talk about the string section. We’ll go into the individual sounds of the instruments in a bit, but let’s quickly look at what instruments we’ll be listening to.

In order from highest-pitched to lowest-pitched, we have:

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Violins – 1st and 2nd

violins are very abundant in an orchestra, and are split into two parts – part 1, which plays higher notes, and part 2, which plays lower notes. About 30 violins total

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Violas – a little larger and lower-pitched than a violin – usually around a dozen (12)

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Cello – traditionally called violoncello, nowadays shortened to “cello”. These are large instruments that have a pleasant low sound – around 10

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Double bass – even bigger than cellos, and must be played standing up. Creates a really low bass sound. – around 8

There are around 60 string instruments in a standard, modern orchestra. Now let’s take a listen to what they sound like!

Note: Audio examples in the video post only. However, examples that are used in the video are listed below.

String sounds

Violin – Bach violin sonata in G major (with keyboard)
Viola – Bach Solo Suite for Cello No. 5 in C minor (by Carl L Miller)
Cello – bach cello suite no 1 in G
Double bass – Jan Křtitel Vaňhal’s Double Bass Concerto

Guide to the orchestra – woodwinds

Just like we did with the string section, we’re going to start from the highest-pitched woodwind and work our way down to the lowest ones.

Woodwinds are called as such because you blow into them “wind”, and they used to all be made of wood. Of course, wooden flutes aren’t used in orchestras anymore, but some instruments, like clarinets and oboes, use wooden reeds.

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Piccolo – Basically a very small and high-pitched flute – usually just one of these
Flute – 2-3 in an orchestra, has a high, light and airy sound (but not as shrill as the piccolo)

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Oboes – 2-4 (usually including an english horn)

The English horn is a little bigger, mellower and lower-pitched than the oboe, which is a mellow mid-pitched instrument (alto)

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Clarinets – 2-4 (including a bass clarinet) – very versatile instrument with a big range of notes. The bass clarinet is, as you might have guessed, larger and more mellow than the regular clarinet).

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Bassoons – 2-4 – a dark-sounding instrument that generally plays fairly low (though, like the clarinet, it has a wide range). Sometimes compared to a male baritone voice.

Contrabassoon – 1-2 – larger than a bassoon and can play an octave lower

woodwind sounds

flute – 24 Etudes for Flute, Op. 15 – VI. Moderato in B minor
piccolo – arable XII for solo piccolo by Vincent Persichetti. Performed by dr. Kristen stoner
oboe – La gracieuse – 1. Prelude by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois
clarinet – brahms Clarinet Sonata no. 1, Op. 120 no. 1 – I. Allegro appassionato
bassoon – Stravinsky – Pulcinella (excerpt)
contrabassoon – Contrabassoon solo Glinka “A Life for the Tsar”

Guide to the orchestra – brass

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Horns – 4-8 – these might be German horns, French horns, Vienna horns, and so forth. The German horn has a very different sound from the French horn – it is warm and rich, whereas the French horn is lighter and more open-sounding.

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Trumpets – 3-6 – trumpets are a loud, relatively high-pitched instrument that can really heighten the drama in an orchestral performance.

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Trombones – 3-6 – these are larger and lower than trumpets, and operated with a slide (as opposed to valves)

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Tubas – 1-2 – these are the low bass instruments of the brass family. Like other low bass instruments, tubas will rarely take the lead (melody), and will almost always play a background role in the orchestra.

You’ll notice that all instrument families (strings, woodwinds, and brass as we’ll see in a moment) have instruments that fill in the highs, mids and lows.

On the high end, you have violins, flutes and trumpets. On the low end, you have double basses, bassoons/contrabassoons, and tubas.

Brass sounds

trumpet – J. N. Hummel – Trumpet Concerto 3 rd Mov. – Trumpet Solo
trombone – W.A. Mozart KV 265
French horn – Siegfried’s Horn Call by Wagner
Tuba – Vaughan Williams – Tuba Concerto – I

Guide to the orchestra – percussion

Percussion in an orchestra is a pretty large category – there are a lot of options, but percussion is usually used very sparingly – kind of like the swirly letters on the icing on the cake.

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Timpani, snare drum, bass drum – The timpani and bass drum are very large, and are fairly common. These add deep, booming rolls and hits to a performance. Snare drums are higher-pitched and more bracing, and can have a military-like sound.

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Cymbals and tam-tam/gong – These give us those satisfying, climactic crashes in a performance. They’re also really, really loud. Bass drums and cymbal crashes are usually used together to add drama to a piece. These instruments are generally the most common in classical music.

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Triangle and wood block – these are much quieter, and add some rhythm, though they’re not used much (triangle moreso than wood block).

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Mallet instruments, like the glockenspiel, xylophone and vibraphone, are pitched – which means they have a keyboard-like interface and can make different pitches. They’ve all been widely used in orchestral performances.

There are many more percussion instruments, but as these are the main ones used, I won’t be getting into the more obscure ones today.

Listening guide for a Symphony

So now you’ve heard the individual sounds of the isolated instruments, what about in the context of a performance, like a symphony?

What I’ve provided to go along with this video is a listening guide to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, the first movement. It’s about 17 minutes long. I don’t want to analyze it as a video because it’s against copyright for me to post someone else’s video. Also, the length is a bit deterring. But it’s an awesome performance, and it’s live, so you can see the different instruments in action.

Along with the video, I’ve made a simple PDF to go with it, making notes on what instruments are highlighted at various times. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is a really cool symphony, and most of the orchestra’s instruments are spotlighted except for a few – I don’t think the oboe gets much of a solo part in this one.

So definitely check that out if you’re interested in orchestral music – there’s so much to listen to that it can be really overwhelming.

Orchestra handout/listening guide

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this beginner’s guide to the orchestra, and stay tuned for part 2 of this video, which gets more into the history bits.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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