Orchestra Configurations and Instruments
There’s something magnificent about hearing an orchestra live. Whether it be witnessing the sheer amount of players and instruments. Or being hit by the wall of sound that has been perfectly placed and configured. In today’s blog, we’ll be talking about what instruments make up an orchestra and how they’re placed on the stage.
The Instruments of An Orchestra
An orchestra is split into 4 distinct sections. These groups comprise of instruments which are part of the same family:
Let’s meet their members!
The String Family
These instruments look very similar apart from their sizing. String instruments are hollowed-out wooden vessels. They have four strings stretched across their bodies. Tightening the strings of different thicknesses to different lengths produces varying tones. Placing a finger on a string creates a different note.
- Violin. The smallest and highest-pitcher member. Because of its range, violins usually carry the melody in the orchestra.
- Viola. This instrument is slightly larger than the violin and thus lower. It has a warm quality that often plays the harmony to the violin’s melody.
- Cello. Much larger than the violin and viola, the cello also plays much lower. This is a very versatile instrument in the orchestra because it can be a supportive bass at one moment and a lovely tenor solo at another.
- Double Bass. Even bigger than a cello, the double bass plays the lowest of all the string instruments. Thus, it supports the orchestral piece by providing a bass line.
- Harp. The harp is the odd-one-out of the string family. It does not look like the other members. Instead, it is a tall triangular-shape with 45 vertical strings. Seven pedals by the player’s foot adjust their length.
The Woodwind Family
These instruments are tubes with an opening at one end and a mouthpiece at the other. Metal caps called keys cover the rows of holes on the tube. Pressing on a combination of different keys produces different musical notes. Because of their differing shapes and playing styles, woodwinds are divided into: no reed; single reed; and double reed categories.
- Flute. This instrument doesn’t have a reed. Instead, players blow air across the small hole in the mouthpiece to produce a sound. This tone can be soft and mellow or high and piercing. Much like the violin, flutes often carry the melody line of the orchestra as they can be heard over other instruments.
- Oboe. The oboe is a double reed instrument: two reeds are tied together to form a mouthpiece. It has a more mellow sound than the flute but is still bright enough to carry a melody.
- Clarinet. Blowing air between a single reed and a mouthpiece produces sound on this instrument. Clarinets have a very large range thus making them a very versatile instrument. They can also produce a wide range of different tonal qualities.
- Bassoon. One of the deeper woodwind instruments, bassoons are double-reeded. Like the cello, the can provide supportive bass lines or beautiful tenor solos.
- Saxophone. Although made of brass, saxophones are actually woodwind instruments! This is because they are played on a single-reed mouthpiece. Powerful and versatile, saxophones have proven to earn their seat in an orchestra.
The Brass Family
Brass instruments are long pipes that widen at the end into a bell-like shape. These pipes are curved and twisted which makes them easier to hold and play. To create sound, players must “buzz” into the mouthpiece to vibrate air into the instrument. Like in woodwinds, brass have valves that are pressed to produce different notes.
- Trumpet. The highest-sounding brass fairy member, trumpets have been used for centuries to send messages. They are loud, bright, and clear.
- Trombone. Unlike other brass instruments, trombones don’t have valves. Instead, a slide is moved to produce different pitches.
- French horn. These instruments have intricate piping and produce a clear, mellow sound. Players move their hand around the inside of the bell to help the instrument create different notes.
- Tuba. The lowest-sounding member of the brass family, this instrument is fairly new to the orchestra. Generally, there is only one tuba per ensemble.
The Percussion Family
Percussion provides a variety of rhythms, textures and tones to an orchestral piece. Sound is produced by striking, shaking or scraping the instrument. Percussion are divided into two categories: tuned (plays specific notes) or untuned (produces sound with no definite pitch). There are many many instruments in this family so here are but a few:
- Timpani. These instruments are large copper bowls covered by stretched plastic. Therefore, they have the ability to be pitched to specific notes that are produced by striking the top of the instrument.
- Snare drum. An untuned instrument, snare drums contain a rattle that adds a rolling effect.
- Triangle. Named because of its shape, triangles produce a ‘ding’ sound. They are a lot more challenging to play than they look!
- Cymbals. These instruments are thin metal plates which are crashed together to produce a loud sound. They are then pressed again the players body to “dampen” or end the noise.
- Marimba. One of many keyboard-like instruments, the marimba consists of wooden “keys” that are hit with mallets. This particular instrument has a mellow tone.
- Piano. Did you know that the piano is considered a percussion instrument? This is because the strings are hammered. Pianos aren’t always present in orchestras but do appear in smaller ensembles and chamber music.
Think of the orchestra as one large circle. Within it are circles that keep getting smaller: each housing certain instruments. In the smallest lower circle sits the conductor: they are in charge of the leading the orchestra.
In the circle just in front of the conductor sits the:
The next largest circle houses the:
And, the largest circle is where the brass sits. This is because they are the loudest and therefore need to be the furthest away from the audience. And, there you have: the orchestra!