Symphony Orchestras & Instruments

All of the instruments in a typical symphony orchestra are listed here, along with what role they play in a symphony orchestra. Also, what kinds of music the orchestra plays.

The most prominently known instrument in a symphony orchestra is, of course, the violin. It is only one small part of a very large group of instruments that are used to produce the brilliant effects one hears when listening to such an orchestra. The violin is the smallest of the string instruments and has the highest sound. There are three times as many of them as there are either violas or cellos.

The lower strings include the viola, which is slightly larger than the violin and is often used in harmony. Sometimes the violas get the melody, but it sounds very similar to a violin - it is only tuned one fifth lower. The cello is an octave lower than the viola and is played between the instrumentalist's knees. It has a mellow sound but often doubles the violin's melody. The bass is the lowest of the strings and is played standing upright. It has the same strings as the violin, but in the reverse order and several octaves lower. It is often plucked rather than bowed, and often doubles the cello.

Other than the string instruments, few people know exactly what's in an orchestra. They often wonder just what's making that interesting effect. Woodwinds are quite common, which include the flute, the clarinet, the piccolo, the bassoon, and the oboe. The piccolo is the highest of the woodwinds and is used often for solos, which are high enough to soar above the orchestra at times. The flute and clarinet both often double the strings. In more recent times, they have had melodies. The bassoon is the lowest of the woodwinds and is used to add color to the strings. It has a lot of harmony, and sometimes doubles one of the string parts. The oboe was a very prominent solo instrument in the orchestra a few centuries ago, which is less common now. It is used for tuning purposes in the orchestra. It still has the melody sometimes, but often doubles either the brass or strings.

The brass is another very important section in the orchestra. These instruments project quite a bit and are used often in melodies. The French horn is the most useful of the brass because it can double the rest of the brass or it can double the woodwinds. The trumpet is one of the most prominent solo brass instruments. It is rather high and can soar above the orchestra to be heard. The trombone is also important in this way, but its tone is lower and it projects slightly less. The tuba is used less often and is the lowest of the brass instruments. It's usually used in harmonies. There are usually very few brass instruments (one to three players on each) because the project so much.

The percussion is also very important. The tympani drum is probably the most important of all the percussion because it can provide a beat as well as different tones. Snare drums, bass drums, gongs, xylophones, bells, triangles, etc. are also used. There are many more percussion instruments than there are percussionists, because not all instruments are used at one time in a song.

Most of what orchestras play is classical, and much of it baroque music. Vivaldi, Handel, and Dvorak are favorite composers. Also, orchestras play music like The Nutcracker. This music often includes effects in the woodwinds that are offset by what is going on in the string sections, which is why a full orchestra is required to play it. Music which is prominently string parts (also often baroque) is played by chamber orchestras.

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