Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
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Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.
Ah, the orchestra. The pinnacle of sophistication, acting as the backdrop for the hoity-toity elite and commercials for expensive cars. But really, it's just a group of musicians getting together to make music. How do they make these instruments work? Which instruments are related and why?
To start, we can break the instruments into four families. Each family is grouped by the way the instrument produces vibration. This kind of classification gives us the string family, the woodwind family, the brass family and the percussion family.
When you think of the orchestra, you most likely think of the violin, or at least some sort of string instrument. This is probably because they make up the majority of the instruments in the orchestra, so good thinking! All string instruments use string vibration to produce sound, so it makes sense that they are called the string family! There are four main string instruments. These are the violin, the viola, the cello and the bass. Each of these instruments can be plucked or bowed.
As you can see here, the main difference between the four instruments is their size. As with any instrument, the smaller it is, the higher the pitches it plays, and the larger the instrument is, the lower the pitches it plays. A very common arrangement would have the violins playing the melody and the violas, cellos and basses playing supporting roles. This is not always the case, but it's important to know.
These instruments are some of the oldest instruments made for the modern orchestra, and some early orchestral music is even written solely for this section. Lastly, the harp and the piano are sometimes included in the string family, just depending on the time period when the music was being played.
The next largest section of the orchestra is usually the woodwind family. Most woodwind instruments use a small piece of wood called a reed to produce their vibration. The reed vibrates when air is blown across it. This is how instruments like the clarinet work. Saxophones also use a reed. This is why they are classified as a woodwind and not a brass instrument. As far as instruments go, saxophones are fairly new, having only been created in the mid-1840s. Because of this, there aren't really many orchestral pieces that include saxophones.
Some woodwind instruments have a reed that has two parts called a double reed. Instruments like the oboe and the bassoon use a double reed. In this case, both reeds vibrate and tend to create a nasal sound.
There's also one woodwind which uses just the 'wind' part - it's the flute. The flute does not have a reed. Instead, the player just blows across a hole in the instrument, much like you would do if you were blowing across the top of a pop bottle.
You might have noticed that this family has all the instruments with a ton of buttons, or keys as they're actually called, on them. One of the most challenging parts of playing a woodwind instrument is just knowing which keys to press down and getting your fingers to the right spots without getting tangled. Once mastered, a woodwind player can play quickly with ease, as you can hear in Bach's 'Partita for Flute.' In the orchestra, the higher-pitched woodwinds, like the flute and oboe, tend to play the melody, while lower-pitched woodwinds, like the bassoon, tend to play supporting harmonic parts.
It's on to the brass family. The brass family gets its name from the shiny material that its instruments are made from. All brass instruments use the player's lip vibration and air to make sound. The player's lips vibrate rapidly against a metal mouthpiece, and the buzzing sound produced bounces and echoes its way through the instrument to make a tone you are probably familiar with.
Unlike the woodwind instruments, brass instruments have few keys. In fact, the trombone doesn't have any keys - it just uses a slide. Of course, the brass player does have more than just three notes available to them through pressing the keys. Brass players also change notes through changing the shape of their lips, where tenser lips play higher pitches and looser lips play lower pitches. If you've heard 'Taps,' you've heard a brass player just using their lips to change notes.
The five main brass instruments in the orchestra are the trumpet, the horn, the trombone, the euphonium and the tuba. In the orchestra, trumpets and horns occasionally play the melody, but much of the brass section's job is to play supporting notes.
All the way in the back of the orchestra, we have the percussion family, known for its loud banging and crashing. The percussion family has instruments that are struck or shaken to make their vibrations. Early orchestras didn't have much percussion and usually just had low pitched drums called timpani, or kettle drums, to accompany the melody. Other drums, like the snare drum and the bass drum, were added later, and apparently composers really like percussion instruments because they haven't stopped adding to the long list of available sounds.
Aside from drums, the percussion family includes cymbals; auxiliary percussion like the tambourine, triangle and shakers or maracas; and mallet instruments like bells, xylophone and marimba. Most of the time, percussion instruments play a supporting role, though bells and xylophones occasionally get the melody.
You now know that the four families of the orchestra are the string, woodwind, brass and percussion families. The string family uses string vibration, the woodwind family uses reed and air vibration, the brass family uses lip vibration and the percussion family contains instruments that are struck or shaken to make vibration.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
12 chapters | 101 lessons