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What are the Orchestra Instrument Families?

Orchestra instrument families are the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, each with unique sounds that harmonize to create symphonic magic. Strings resonate with emotion, woodwinds sing with agility, brass projects power, and percussion adds rhythm and drama. Together, they form the backbone of the orchestra's rich tapestry of sound. Curious about how each family contributes to the whole? Let's delve deeper.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

An orchestra includes four main instrument families: woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion. This is how the instruments are arranged on a stage, with minor exceptions, and how the performers' parts are arranged in the conductor’s score, except for soloists, whose parts may be given special treatment. The keyboards may be considered a separate section, as may the plucked string instruments, depending on their role in the piece. Sometimes, a keyboard or plucked string instrument will be grouped with percussion.

The string section consists of the bowed string instruments. This is the part of the orchestra that most usually distinguishes it from other ensembles, particularly a band. The strings have four types of instruments, but five sections: first violins; second violins; violas; violoncellos, familiarly called cellos; and double basses or contrabasses, also known as string basses. The number of players in each section depends on the overall size of the orchestra, but the numbers are balanced between sections.

Partial string section of an orchestra.
Partial string section of an orchestra.

The woodwind section includes reed instruments — both single and double reeds — and those that make sound from air passing over the mouthpiece. This section often has only one or two players on each instrument, again depending on the ensemble's size. There may be, for example, two flutes, with one performer doubling on piccolo; two oboes, with one performer doubling on English horn or Cor Anglais, if necessary; an Eb clarinet, two Bb clarinets, and a bass clarinet; and two bassoons and one contrabassoon. Depending on the piece, other instruments may be included, such as saxophone.

Partial brass section of an orchestra.
Partial brass section of an orchestra.

The brass section, like woodwinds, have their sound produced by air, but the brass sound is created by the vibration of the performer’s lips as she or he blows into the resonating mouthpiece. This section generally includes four French horns; two or three trumpets; two or three trombones, including both tenor and bass trombones; and tuba. Sometimes, there will also be cornets or Wagner tubas, and possibly euphoniums.

A double bass, part of the string family.
A double bass, part of the string family.

The percussion section includes instruments that make sound when struck with hand or mallet or when struck together, like cymbals. This section often includes timpani; chimes or tubular bells; celesta, harpsichord, or piano; concert harp; other pitched percussion, such as glockenspiel or xylophone; snare drum; and auxiliary percussion, such as triangle, tambourine, bass drum, and cymbals.

The keyboard section of the orchestra includes piano, celesta, harpsichord, organ, and harmonium. Which of these — if any — is employed will depend on the date and style of music.

The plucked string section includes the concert harp, guitar, mandolin, banjo, zither, and other plucked instruments that may have a role in a particular piece. The harp is the most common.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main families of instruments in an orchestra?

There are both first and second violin sections.
There are both first and second violin sections.

The main families of instruments in an orchestra are strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The string family includes violins, violas, cellos, and double basses, known for their lush and versatile sound. Woodwinds, such as flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, offer a range of tonal colors and are often used for melody and harmony. Brass instruments like trumpets, horns, trombones, and tubas provide powerful and resonant tones. Percussion instruments, which include drums, xylophones, and cymbals, add rhythm and texture to the music.

How many instruments are typically found in a full symphony orchestra?

Pianos are part of the keyboard family of orchestra instruments.
Pianos are part of the keyboard family of orchestra instruments.

A full symphony orchestra typically comprises about 70 to 100 musicians, although the exact number can vary based on the work being performed and the size of the venue. According to the League of American Orchestras, a standard symphony orchestra might include around 30 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, and various woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments, each section having a different number of players.

Which instrument family usually plays the main melody in an orchestra?

The flute is a woodwind instrument that is played in an orchestra.
The flute is a woodwind instrument that is played in an orchestra.

In an orchestra, the main melody can be played by different instrument families depending on the composition and the composer's intentions. However, the string family, particularly the first violins, often carries the main melody due to their expressive range and the large number of players. Woodwinds also frequently play melodic roles, offering contrasting timbres and emotional depth to the music.

What role do percussion instruments play in an orchestra?

Violin concertos are typically written for a soloist, who is accompanied by an orchestra.
Violin concertos are typically written for a soloist, who is accompanied by an orchestra.

Percussion instruments play a crucial role in an orchestra by providing rhythm, accentuating beats, and creating unique sound effects that enhance the overall texture of the music. They can drive the tempo, highlight dramatic moments, and contribute to the character of a piece. Percussionists often switch between multiple instruments, showcasing their versatility and the vast array of sounds available within the percussion family.

Are there any non-traditional instruments that can be part of an orchestra?

While orchestras typically consist of the four main instrument families, composers sometimes incorporate non-traditional or less common instruments for special effects or to achieve a particular atmosphere. Instruments like the piano, harp, and saxophone can be found in certain orchestral works. Additionally, some contemporary compositions might include electronic instruments, world instruments like the sitar, or even custom-made devices to create innovative sounds.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

helene55

I know many musicians who think that keyboards are most certainly percussion, because the sound they make is achieved by the keys hitting the strings within the instrument.

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    • Partial string section of an orchestra.
      By: yang yu
      Partial string section of an orchestra.
    • Partial brass section of an orchestra.
      By: bepsphoto
      Partial brass section of an orchestra.
    • A double bass, part of the string family.
      By: Valeriy Lebedev
      A double bass, part of the string family.
    • There are both first and second violin sections.
      By: kirvinic
      There are both first and second violin sections.
    • Pianos are part of the keyboard family of orchestra instruments.
      By: surpasspro
      Pianos are part of the keyboard family of orchestra instruments.
    • The flute is a woodwind instrument that is played in an orchestra.
      By: xixinxing
      The flute is a woodwind instrument that is played in an orchestra.
    • Violin concertos are typically written for a soloist, who is accompanied by an orchestra.
      By: zea_lenanet
      Violin concertos are typically written for a soloist, who is accompanied by an orchestra.