What Instruments Are Used in a Symphony Orchestra?

The orchestra has several sections of instruments. The orchestra as it exists today has developed steadily since 1600. Composers and instrument makers all played a role in its creation and development. From stabilization to eventual refinement, the orchestra is mostly standardized. Knowing what instruments make up the Symphony orchestra is an essential step towards becoming a well-informed composer and listener.


The violin often leads the orchestra. The string section of the orchestra has an enormous range and the ability to perform as expressively and with as much nuance as the human voice. The role of string instruments in a majority of orchestra compositions is to play almost continuously throughout the piece. These were the first orchestra instruments to achieve maturity and are a crucial part of the Symphony orchestra.

Violins, violas, cellos, and basses all contribute to the string section with the Harp occasionally adding to the overall atmosphere of the orchestra.


Woodwinds make up a crucial part of the orchestra. The woodwind section serves a less intensive, but very important role in the orchestra. They serve to perform solo passages, provide harmonic background, add contrasting timbres to the orchestra, and to double other instruments and enhance the overall texture and sound. This group is not homogenous and when the entire woodwind section is playing, it is not difficult to pick out individual instrument timbres.

The woodwind section also has the ability to match its sound to the string instruments of the orchestra. Piccolo, flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons are all members of the woodwind family of instruments in the orchestra.


Brass instruments make up a crucial section of the orchestra. The brass section of the orchestra is undoubtedly the most powerful section of the orchestra. Brass instruments initially served for use outdoors and can easily overpower the rest of the orchestra. They have several uses depending on the goal of the composer. They blend well as a single unit, with every instrument playing alone or in combination with other orchestral members. They are powerful climax builders as they can easily go from very soft to loud and triumphant.

Individual brass instruments often play the melody in a solo line independently or with another instrument and coloristic effects are plentiful with the brass choir as there are several techniques that are specific to these instruments.

The members of the brass section include trumpets, cornets, horns, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. This section is much like the string section in its homogeneous texture and ability to play as a choir.


The timpani is a standard percussion instrument in the orchestra. Perhaps the earliest instruments in history were percussion instruments. They create rhythms and low rumblings to enhance climaxes and create suspense. Some percussion instruments can play specific pitch while others carry no definable pitch. There is a mind numbing number of percussion instruments today, but the standard percussion instruments find themselves in most orchestra scores.

Percussion instruments are broken up into several groups. The first group consists of instruments that use a mallet to produce sound. These instruments include the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiels, chimes, timpani, toms, and crotales.

The second group of percussion instruments involves instruments that have no definite pitch. These instruments include cymbals, triangles, cowbells, wind chimes, sleigh bells, wooden blocks, castanets, and several other non-pitched instruments.

Finally, there are the traditional drums that have a membrane, which cover the head of the drum and include snares, tenor drums, bass drums, tom-toms, bongos, congas, and tambourines.


The piano is a common keyboard instrument used in orchestras. Keyboard instruments have gone through a long history of development, and there is some debate about what makes a keyboard instrument a keyboard. Nevertheless, these instruments generally consist of pianos, celesta, harpsichord, organ, and even harmonium.
While these instruments are not included in every orchestral score, they are a common part of the developed orchestra. They exist to provide support for melodies, reinforce harmonies, and even perform solo lines and duets with other instruments in the orchestra.


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