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What Are The Instruments in an Orchestra?

This author is a professional trombonist, conductor, and educator. He has a long career in music and writes about his passion for music.

When you go to an orchestra concert can you identify the instruments on stage? Are you able to name the different sections? Most people can't! In this article, we will answer the question - What Are The Instruments in an Orchestra? Read further and learn the names and sounds that an orchestra can produce.

As a professional trombonist for over 40 plus years, I performed with various orchestral groups and learned a great deal about the orchestra and how it works. Let me share this information with you.

Let's dive right in!

A Unique Medium for Performance

The orchestra is a large ensemble comprised of varied instruments. In fact, it has an incredible amount of different tone colors. Of the five basic elements of music, this is called timbre. These different tone colors or timbre represent the many instruments that form this unique medium for performance.

The instruments of the modern-day orchestra are divided into four sections:

  • Strings
  • Woodwinds
  • Brass
  • Percussion

Each section is a family of instruments that are made somewhat of the same materials but more importantly represent distinct timbres. The Strings in an orchestra are identified by four similar-looking instruments.

These four instruments feature the pitch range and timbres of the human voice. These voices we know as:

  • Soprano
  • Alto
  • Tenor
  • Bass

The Violin is the smallest of the strings and represents the soprano voice.

Nest is the Viola. Looks like the violin but a bit larger and has a deeper sounding timbre.

The third instrument in the string section is the Cello. This is the tenor voice. A much larger instrument as it is almost as tall as the player.

The fourth of the stringed instruments is the Double Bass. It represents the bass voice and stands taller than the player.


The Evolution of the Orchestra

Western art music has been categorized into 6 major historical periods. These periods help us understand how music evolved over the years. The six periods are as follows;

  • Medieval (800 - 1400)
  • Renaissance (1400 - 1600)
  • Baroque (1600 - 1750)
  • Classical 1750 - 1825)
  • Romantic (1825 - 1900)
  • Modern (1900 - present)

What we know today as the 'Orchestra', evolved from a simple concept back in the 1600s. It came about by way of the opera composer Claudio Monteverdi. He started writing for specific instruments to accompany his operatic works.

Monteverdi knew the sounds he wanted and specified them in his scores. One such opera was Orfeo (1607). These specific sounds come from brass, woodwind, and string instruments. This was the beginning of the Baroque Period Orchestra.

Instrumentation of the Baroque Orchestra

The Baroque period can be described as having powerful monarchs, intricate art, grandiose architecture. One of the greatest innovations of the Baroque era was the orchestra, a large instrumental ensemble. After Monteverdi, composers such as Vivaldi, Lully, Handel, and Bach took this new performance medium to great popularity.

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The Baroque period orchestra numbers between 20 and 30 players. Most of the instruments are in the string section. Below is an instrumentation list of a typical Baroque Orchestra.

Strings

8 -10 Violins

4 - 6 - Violas

4 - 6 Cellos

2 - 4 Double Basses

Woodwinds

2 Flutes

2 Oboes

2 Bassoons

Brass

2 Horns

2 Trumpets

Percussion

Timpani

Keyboards

Harpsichord

Harp

Lute

what-are-the-instruments-in-an-orchestra

Instrumentation of the Classical Period Orchestra

The Classical period in music history was between 1750 and 1825. The orchestra became a very popular medium for performance during the baroque period. This gave composers a playground for expansion by adding new instruments to the different sections. It also allowed composers to enlarge the instrumentation.

The three main 'rock stars' of the Classical Period were Franz Josef Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Let's remember that the expansion of the orchestra was the genius of the composers themselves. This meant a detailed knowledge of individual instrument timbres and capabilities was vital.

The Classical Period Orchestra grew to 30 - 60 players. First was the enlarged string section. The Violins were now divided into 1st and 2nd parts. The 1st violins were the featured melody voice while the 2nd violins were used as a harmonic voice.

The Clarinet was added to the woodwind section by composer Haydn.

The Brass section had Horns and Trumpets as the soprano and alto voices. It was around 1800 when Beethoven introduced the trombone to the orchestra as the tenor voice. The trombone was used sparingly and not considered a standardized orchestral instrument until the Romantic period.

The Percussion section again had two timpani but the triangle, hand cymbals, and bass drum were added by composers such as Haydn and Mozart.

Strings

10 - 12 1st Violins

10 - 12 2nd Violins

6 - 8 Violas

8 - 10 Cellos

4 - 6 Double Basses

Woodwinds

2 - Flutes

2 - Clarinets

2 - Oboes

2 - Bassoons

Brass

2 - 4 Horns

2 - Trumpets

Percussion

2 - Timpani

Instrumentation of the Romantic and Modern Period Orchestras

The modern-day Orchestra averages between 85 and 100 musicians. Below is a list of the different sections of instruments. Along with the four families is the number of musicians in that particular section.

Strings

16 - 1st Violins

14 - 2nd Violins

12 - Violas

10 - Cellos

8 - Double Basses

Woodwinds

2 to 3 - Flutes (one on Piccolo)

1 to 2 - Oboes

2 to 4 - Clarinets

2 to 3 - Bassoons

Brass

3 to 4 - Trumpets in Bb

4 to 6 - Horns

3 to 4 - Trombones

1 to 2 - Tubas

Percussion (3 - 5 players)

Snare Drum

Bass Drum

Cymbals

Mallets (Xylophone, Marimba, Bells, Chimes, Celeste)

Timpani (1 - 4)

Aux. Percussion

The String Instruments in an Orchestra

The string section is the largest group of instruments in the orchestra. It most definitely identifies the Tone Color or Timbre of the group.

An orchestra string section is comprised of violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. These four instruments are different sizes and represent the four tone colors of the human voice. Most often these four instruments are played with a bow across the strings. Occasionally, they are played by plucking the strings for a special timbre. This is called “pizzicato”.

  • Violin (Soprano)
  • Viola (Alto)
  • Cello (Tenor)
  • Double Bass (Bass)

The amount of each of the stringed instruments is proportional to the size of the orchestra.

Stringed Instruments

Violin - Soprano Voice

Violin - Soprano Voice

Viola - Alto Voice

Viola - Alto Voice

Cello - Tenor Voice

Cello - Tenor Voice

Double Bass - Bass Voice

Double Bass - Bass Voice

Grand Piano

Grand Piano

Harp

Harp

Woodwind Section

what-are-the-instruments-in-an-orchestra

The Woodwind Instruments in an Orchestra

There are four major woodwind instruments in an Orchestra.

  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon

As you will notice in each section of the orchestra they are built according to the ranges of the human voice. The woodwind instruments all have different tone colors (timbre). These instruments give great blending possibilities for the composer. Additional instruments are added to the woodwind section in order to widen the sound spectrum for the composer. These include:

  • Piccolo
  • English Horn
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Contra Bass Clarinet
  • Saxophone
  • Contra Bassoon

    The woodwind section contains the largest amount of varied timbres in the orchestra.

Many compositions were written exclusively for the woodwind instruments and performed as part of what was called Chamber Music. This type of music was the featured concert music before the formal Orchestra concerts.

Below is a video of a Woodwind Octet performing the Beethoven Octet in E flat Major.

Listen to this to get a good idea of how the individual woodwind instruments sound separately as well as an ensemble.

Woodwind Octet: Beethoven Octet in E flat Major

what-are-the-instruments-in-an-orchestra

The Brass Instruments in an Orchestra

The next area in our quest for What are the instruments in an orchestra, is the brass section. Brass instruments are classified as “aerophones“, which means they are instruments where the musician must blow air into metal tubing.

Musicians produce a tone by buzzing their lips into a cup-shaped mouthpiece. Muscles in the players mouth are developed over a period of time. This is called an embouchure.

There are four brass instruments in an Orchestra. Each of these instruments has its own distinct tone color. Brass instruments developed slowly as part of the orchestra.

As musical instruments were invented and developed composers found their sounds appealing. These instruments would eventually form the present day brass section of an orchestra.

The first brass instruments to be written for in orchestra compositions were the Horn and the Trumpet. The next instrument added to the brass section was the trombone. Ludwig van Beethoven was the composer responsible for this addition.

The final instrument added to the orchestra brass section was the tuba. This addition took place during the romantic period.

Keeping with the concept of instruments duplicating the spectrum of the human voice, the brass instruments are:

  • Trumpet (Soprano)
  • Horn (Alto)
  • Trombone (Tenor)
  • Tuba (Bass)


Listen to the video below to hear the different timbres of the brass instruments.

The Canadian Brass performing excerpts from West Side Story

The Percussion Instruments in an Orchestra

There are many different instruments in the percussion section. Percussion meaning to strike allows a composer to create an unlimited amount of sounds. The list below represents the five major ones. Percussionists in an Orchestra must be proficient players on the many instruments in this family.

  • Snare Drum
  • Bass Drum
  • Cymbals
  • Mallets - Xylophone, Marimba, Bells, Chimes
  • Timpani


Snare Drum

The snare drum is a percussion instrument that is played with two sticks. The sound produced on a snare drum there’s usually a loud and short sound when struck by the drumstick.

The instrument gets its name due to a set of rigid wires attached to the bottom head of the drum. These wires are called snares.

The snare drum is not only part of the orchestra but can be found in other performance mediums. (concert or symphonic bands, marching bands, jazz drum kits)

Bass Drum

The bass drum of the orchestra is a large cylindrical instrument. It is usually placed on a support stand and placed sideways. This position is best for the percussionist. One or two large mallets are used to play the bass drum.

Composers use the bass drum to keep a steady recurring pulse in a Concert March. They can also write in dramatic effects in a large symphonic work. Along with the sounds of the snare and cymbals, the booming sound of the bass drum is unmistakable.

Timpani

The largest of all percussion section instruments is the Timpani. For clarification's sake, the word timpani is an Italian plural for “timpano”. This was the first percussion instrument used in an orchestra dating back to the 1600s.

Because of the look many people refer to the term as kettledrums. A set of timpani usually numbers between three and four.

Idiophones

An idiophone is a percussion instrument that creates sound by the vibration of the instrument itself. This is done without the use of air, strings, or membranes. Materials used are wood, metal, or stone. Idiophones can be plucked, shaken, rattled, scraped, or struck.

The two types of idiophones are: Tuned and Untuned. The five instruments below are categorized as tuned idiophones. They all represent the chromatic pitches of the piano keyboard.

  • Xylophone
  • Marimba
  • Vibraphone
  • Orchestra Bells
  • Chimes

The Untuned Idiophones

An unpitched idiophone refers to a percussion instrument that produces an indeterminate pitch. There are many of these instruments in the orchestra. The term used by composers and musicians is termed auxiliary percussion. The instruments below fall into this category.

  • Tambourine
  • Claves
  • Temple Blocks
  • Woodblock
  • Cymbals
  • Triangle

In Conclusion

As we come to a close in this article and think about what are the instruments in an orchestra you might agree that they are many instruments to listen to. In fact, as outlined in this article you might want to think about what to listen for in the orchestra.

After reading this article are you more informed and have a better grasp on the mechanics of the instruments in an orchestra?

please listen to the examples provided in this article to give you a more solid background on what makes the orchestra sound the way it does.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Reginald Thomas

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