Thursday, March 10, 2016

Orchestra Instrument Families

Since the 1600s, the instruments of the orchestra have been undergoing developments and physical changes. Composers helped push the need for new instruments with increasingly complex instrumentation requirements which resulted in instrument makers responding to new instruments. Most of the instruments used in the orchestra today have been standardized and are not undergoing major overhauls. Knowing how to identify instruments in the orchestra by their family names is an important part of learning to compose.

Strings

String instruments rival the voice for complexity and nuance of expression. In a typical composition, the string players will play continuously without a break. This is possible in large part due to the construction and manner in which the instruments are played. Since a string player does not have to take a breath, it is possible for them to play for extended periods of time. The strings are a homogeneous set of instruments that do not change timbre greatly from the lowest to the highest instrument. Violins, violas, cellos, and basses are all members of the string section and most orchestras also have one or two harps on hand when the music calls for them.

Woodwinds

Woodwind instruments play both a melodic and harmonic role within the orchestra. Instruments from the woodwind family blend well with other string instruments. This makes it easy for these instruments to double and create a combined timbre with the strings. When an entire woodwind section plays together, it is much easier to identify the different instrument timbres. Bassoons and clarinets, for instance, sound remarkably different than a violin and a cello. Piccolo, flutes, oboes, English horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons, and contrabassoons are members of the woodwind instrument family.

Brass

The brass family of the orchestra is undeniably the most powerful orchestral wind section. Brass instruments were created for military use and designed to be heard even when playing outside. Like the string family, brass blends well due to the homogenous sound. Brass instruments build powerful climaxes and have the capability of playing from very soft to extremely loud. The brass family can be found in many roles from playing a melody in a solo passage to providing coloristic effects to the orchestra. Brass family members include trumpets, cornets, flugal horns, French horns, trombone, bass trombone, euphonium, baritone, and tuba.

Percussion

Percussion instruments are the most primitive instruments in the orchestra creating rhythms and low rumblings to create suspense and aid in the development of climaxes in the orchestra. Percussion instruments can be broken into pitched and non-pitched instruments and further classified by mallet and non-mallet percussion. The variety of percussion instruments makes it difficult to list all of them; however, there is a standard set of instruments that appear in most orchestral scores. Pitched instruments include the xylophone, marimba, timpani, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, and crotales. One interesting effect of the crotales is that they can also be bowed to create an ethereal sound. Non-pitched instruments include cymbals, cowbells, triangles, sleigh bells, wind chimes, castanets, wooden blocks, snares, tenor and bass drums, tom-toms, bongos and congas, and tambourines.

Keyboards

Keyboard instruments use a keyboard to initiate the sound of the instrument. Generally, a hammer will strike a string after a key is depressed. Piano, celesta, harpsichord, organ, and harmonium are all examples of keyboard instruments. Keyboard instruments support melodies, reinforce harmonies, and perform solo lines and duets with other orchestral instruments.
In instrumentation, there are five basic categories of instruments that a composer needs to be aware of - Strings, Woodwinds, Brass, Percussion, and Keyboards. The instruments are listed in score order.

Woodwinds

  • Piccolo
  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • English Horn
  • Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • Bassoon
  • Contrabassoon

Brass

  • Horn
  • Trumpet
  • Cornet
  • Trombone
  • Euphonium
  • Tuba

Strings

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Bass
  • Harp

Keyboards

  • Piano
  • Celesta
  • Harpsichord
  • Organ
  • Harmonium

Percussion

  • Mallet Instruments
  • Xylophone
  • Marimba
  • Vibraphone
  • Glockenspiel
  • Chimes
  • Crotales
  • Steel Drums
  • Timpani
  • Roto Toms
  • Metal Instruments
  • Cymbals
  • Triangle
  • Anvil
  • Cowbells
  • Tam-Tam
  • Wind Chimes
  • Sleigh Bells
  • Bell Tree
  • Brake Drum
  • Thunder Sheet
  • Wooden Instruments
  • Wood Blocks
  • Temple Blocks
  • Claves
  • Castanets
  • Sand Block
  • Maracas
  • Vibraslap
  • Guiro
  • Ratchet
  • Hammer
  • Drums
  • Snare
  • Tenor
  • Bass
  • Tom-Toms
  • Bongos
  • Conga Drum
  • Tambourine
  • Lion's Roar
  • Miscellaneous
  • Wind Machine