Instruments of the Orchestra

STRINGS - The four major instruments in the string family, the violin, the viola, the cello and the double bass, are built the same way. The instruments are made of many pieces of wood which are glued - never nailed - together. The body of the instrument is hollow, thus becoming a resonating box for the sound. Four strings (sometimes five on the double-bass) made of animal gut, nylon, or steel are wrapped around pegs at one end of the instrument and attached to a tailpiece at the other. They are stretched tightly across a bridge to produce their assigned pitches. 

WOODWINDS - When these instruments were first made they were made out of wood, which is why it is called the Woodwind Family. Today, a combination of materials is used including wood, metal, and plastic. They share the common shape of narrow cylinders or pipes with a mouthpiece at the top and an opening at the bottom end. Sound is made by blowing air through the mouthpiece and you change the pitch by opening or closing the holes using your fingers. Besides the flute, the holes of most woodwind instruments are covered by keys.

BRASS Family instruments produce their unique sound by the player buzzing his/her lips while blowing air through a cup or funnel shaped mouthpiece. To produce higher or lower pitches, the player adjusts the opening between his/her lips. The brass family can trace its ancestry back to herald French horns, hunting horns, and military bugles. The main instruments of the brass family include the trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba. As with other instrument families, the shorter the tubing length, the higher the sound and the longer the tubing length, the lower the sound.

PERCUSSION - With a name that means, "the hitting of one body against another," instruments in the percussion family are played by being struck, shaken, or scraped. In the orchestra, the percussion section provides a variety of rhythms, textures and tone colors. Percussion instruments are classified as tuned or untuned. Tuned instruments play specific pitches or notes, just like the woodwind, brass and string instruments. Untuned instruments produce a sound with an indefinite pitch, like the sound of a hand knocking on a door. The percussion instruments are an international family, with ancestors from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe representing musical styles from many different cultures.

KEYBOARD instruments are often classified as percussion instruments because they play a rhythmic role in some music. However, most keyboard instruments are not true members of the percussion family because their sound is not produced by the vibration of a membrane or solid material.



When an organist presses the keys of an organ, air is allowed to flow into corresponding pipes. The vibration of the air in the pipes creates the sound of the organ. The organ in the Meyerson Symphony Center was designed and created by the Fisk Organ Company of Glouceter, Massachusetts. One of the largest concert hall organs in the world, it has four keyboards, 244 keys, 32 pedals and 4,535 pipes. The largest pipe is 32 feet high while the smallest pipe is less than one inch in height.



The harpsichord is an early relative of the piano. Although it looks like a piano, it sounds much different. Small hooks called quills pluck the strings when the player's hand presses a key on the keyboard.


Sound is produced on the piano by small hammers striking strings. The hammers are controlled mechanically and strike the strings when the player's hands press the piano keys.



Chimes are a tuned instrument consisting of a set of 12 to 18 metal tubes hung from a metal frame. The metal tubes range from 1 to 2 ½ inches in diameter and from 4 to 6 feet in length. The chimes, or tubular bells, are struck with a mallet and sound like church bells when played. The longer the length of tube that is struck, the lower the pitch that is created.


First used in the orchestra just over a century ago, the xylophone is a tuned instrument made of hardwood bars in graduated lengths set horizontally on a metal frame. With the larger, lower-sounding bars on the left, the notes of the xylophone are laid out much like a piano keyboard. Striking the bars with hard mallets produces a bright, sharp sound. The xylophone was originally modeled after an African instrument and its name is Greek, meaning "wood sound".


Also called orchestra bells, the glockenspiel resembles a small xylophone, but it is made of steel bars. The glockenspiel is typically played with wooden or plastic mallets, producing a high tuned sound that is bright and penetrating. The name glockenspiel comes from the German language and means "to play the bells."


The timpani, also called kettledrums, were the first drums to be used in the orchestra over 300 years ago. They are constructed of a large copper bowl with a drumhead made of calfskin or plastic stretched across the top. When struck with felt-tipped wooden sticks, or mallets, timpani produce a specific pitch that is determined by the drum's size. That pitch is fine-tuned by tightening the drumhead with keys and foot pedals. Most orchestras use three or four timpani of varying sizes.


The triangle is made from a small round steel tube, and is played by striking it with a steel beater. Its bright shimmering sound is untuned and resembles that of a bell. The triangle first joined the orchestra in the late 1700s.


The tambourine is a shallow, handheld drum made of a circular wooden frame with a calfskin or plastic drumhead stretched across the top. The tambourine has small discs called jingles set into its circular frame which produce sound when the tambourine is shaken, rubbed, or struck on the drum head with the knuckles. Early tambourines were played by Turkish army musicians known as "Janissaries.” Mozart first used the tambourine in his music in 1782.

Bass Drum

The composer Mozart added the deep, booming, untuned sound of the bass drum to the orchestra in 1782. Constructed like a snare drum, but without snares, the bass drum is much larger and is played on its side, so that either head may be struck. The beater or mallet for a bass drum is large with a soft material such as sheep's wool covering the end. 


Made from two large, slightly concave brass plates, cymbals are fitted with leather hand straps and are shaped so that when they are crashed together, only the edges touch. Although cymbals are untuned instruments, different sized cymbals produce a wide range of sound effects. Some are so small that they are played with just the fingers. Cymbals are also played by being struck with drumsticks or mallets while suspended on a string or stand.

Snare Drum

The snare drum joined the orchestra nearly 200 years ago. It has two calfskin or plastic drumheads stretched tightly over a hollow metal frame. The top head is struck with wooden drumsticks, and is called the batter-head. The bottom head, or snare-head has catgut or metal wires called snares stretched tightly across it. When this untuned drum is struck on the top head, the snares produce a characteristic sharp rattling sound as they vibrate against the bottom head.

French Horn

The horn or French horn consists of about 12 feet of narrow tubing wound into a circle. The player obtains different notes on the horn with a clear mellow sound by pressing valves with the left hand and by moving the right hand inside of the bell.


Made of about 16 feet of tubing, the tuba is the lowest sounding member of the brass family. The tuba has four to five valves and is held upright in the player’s lap.


The mouthpiece of the trombone is larger than that of a trumpet, and gives the instrument a more mellow sound. Instead of valves, the trombone has a slide which changes the length of its approximately 9 feet of tubing to reach different pitches.


The trumpet is the highest sounding member of the brass family. The brilliant tone of the trumpet travels through about 6 - ½ feet of tubing bent into an oblong shape. The player presses the three valves in various combinations with the fingers of the right hand to obtain various pitches.


Conically shaped, the saxophone is the only woodwind instrument made of brass. Although it is found only occasionally in the symphony orchestra, it is considered a member of the woodwind family because it has a single reed like the clarinet.


The contrabassoon is another double-reed instrument in the woodwind family.  Although much like the bassoon, it is larger and its sound much lower.


The bassoon is a large double reed instrument with a lower sound than the other woodwind instruments. Its double reed is attached to a small curved tube called a bocal which fits into the bassoon. When the player blows air between the reeds, the vibrating column of air inside the instrument travels over nine feet to the bottom of the instrument, then up to the top where the sound comes out.

Bass Clarinet

The bass clarinet is a larger and lower sounding relative of the clarinet. Like the clarinet, the bass clarinet is a single-reed instrument and is made of wood.


Made from wood, the clarinet produces a fluid sound when air is blown between a single reed and the mouthpiece. By pressing metal keys with the fingers of both hands, the player has the ability to play many different notes very quickly.

English Horn

The English horn is another double-reed instrument in the woodwind family. Although much like the oboe, it is larger than the oboe and its sound is much lower.


The oboe is similar to the clarinet in many ways. Both are made from wood and have metal keys that can produce many notes rapidly. Unlike the clarinet, the oboe does not have a mouthpiece, but has two reeds tied together. By placing them between one's lips and blowing air through them, the reeds vibrate and produce a sound.


Originally made of wood, the flute is now made from silver or gold and is about 2 feet in length. It looks like a narrow tube with a row of holes covered by keys along one side. The player blows air across the small hole in the mouthpiece to produce a sound that can be either soft and mellow or high and piercing. 



The piccolo is exactly like the flute except that it is much smaller and is usually made of silver or wood. The pitch of the piccolo is higher than that of a flute.



The harp is not like any other member of the string family. It has about 45 strings stretched across its tall triangular frame. The strings are plucked by hand while seven pedals at the bottom of the harp adjust the length of the strings to produce additional notes.


Double Bass

The double bass, or string bass is the largest and lowest instrument of the string family. The double bass has rounded shoulders instead of square shoulders like the other string instruments. Because of its size, the player stands or sits on a high stool to play it.



The violoncello or cello is the tenor voice in the string family. While shaped like a violin, the cello is much larger and is held between the player’s knees. Because it can produce beautiful sounds from its lowest to its highest notes, it is a popular instrument.



The viola is the alto voice in the string family. Like the violin, it is held under the chin, resting on the shoulder. Unlike the violin, the viola is slightly larger and is tuned five notes lower. It has a darker and warmer tone quality than the violin, but is not as brilliant.



The violin is the soprano voice in the string family. It is held under the chin, resting on the shoulder. The violin has a lovely tone that can be soft and expressive or exciting and brilliant.