A Beginner’s Guide to Instruments of the Orchestra

Updated on March 29, 2020
dumdummy profile image

Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU, TN. He is the founder of Just Violin—a free resources site for violinists.


The string instruments found in an orchestra can be categorized into two groups – bowed string and plucked string. The bowed string instruments, also known as the violin family, consist of the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. These instruments have four strings and are played with a bow. Sounds are produced by drawing the horsehair of the bow across the strings, creating vibrations that would be amplified by the wooden body of the instrument. The bowed string instruments can also be played by plucking on the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) or tapping the strings with the wooden part of the bow (a performance direction known as col legno).

The most common plucked string instrument found in an orchestra is the harp. Some people may consider the harp as a standalone instrument, not belonging to the orchestral string family. The harp is a beautiful instrument capable of playing glissando and arpeggio passages very effectively. The harp has seven pedals that are used to change the notes chromatically so that it can play in any key. The guitar, banjo, and mandolin are also plucked string instruments, but they are rarely seen in an orchestra.

String Instruments
String Instruments


The four main woodwind instruments found in an orchestra include the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. Some orchestra music, especially music from the Romantic and 20th-century periods, tend to have a more elaborate woodwind section that uses instruments such as piccolo, alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, double bassoon, and saxophone.

The flute (includes piccolo and alto flute) is held horizontally and played by blowing through a mouth hole. The flute and piccolo can often be seen playing rapid passages in the orchestra. The clarinet is a transposing instrument – in which the written pitch is different from the actual sounding pitch. The most commonly used clarinets are the clarinet in B flat and A. In general, the clarinets are capable of playing with a wide range of dynamics. The saxophone family includes the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones. They are used occasionally in some of the modern orchestral pieces. The clarinet and saxophone are single-reed instruments of the woodwind family.

The oboe’s sound is very projecting, and it plays the concert A for the orchestra to tune to before the start of an orchestra concert or rehearsal. The cor anglais, also known as the English horn, is quite similar to the oboe. It produces a much deeper and warmer tone than the oboe. Bassoon is a low-sounding woodwind instrument. The bassoon and double bassoon (also known as contrabassoon) usually play the bass part of the music, and they are very effective in playing articulated passages. The oboe, cor anglais, bassoon, and double bassoon are double reed instruments of the woodwind family.

Listen and Learn: Prokofiev's Peter and The Wolf


The four main brass instruments include the horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba. The horn is a transposing instrument, and the horn in F, in particular, is known as the French horn. The sound of the horn blends in nicely with the woodwind instruments, and therefore, it is used in a woodwind quintet. The trumpet is the highest sounding instrument of the brass family, commonly featured in loud and rhythmic orchestral tutti passages. Like the horn, trumpet is also a transposing instrument. The cornet looked like a trumpet and was favored mainly by French composers in the early romantic period.

The trombone is the only brass instrument that uses a slide instead of valves. The slide has seven positions, and that allows it to play in every key. The trombone is not a transposing instrument, and its parts are written in the bass clef. The tuba is the largest and lowest sounding instrument of the brass family. It is also a non-transposing instrument. The euphonium looks like a smaller tuba, and it is a brass instrument rarely seen in an orchestra, but more prominent in a symphonic band or wind ensemble.

Woodwind & Brass Instruments
Woodwind & Brass Instruments


The percussion family covers a wide range of instruments, and they can be divided into two categories – definite pitch and indefinite pitch. Percussion instruments that give a clear pitch include timpani, xylophone, tubular bells, and glockenspiel. The timpani are always used in pairs or more, with each timpani pre-set to a specific pitch. Also known as the kettledrum, the timpani is a very prominent percussion instrument in the orchestra. It is often used to make drum rolls and to enhance the rhythmic effect of the music. Notes on the xylophone (wooden bars), tubular bells (metal tubes), and glockenspiel (metal bars) are arranged like a piano keyboard and played by hitting them with mallets.

Instruments of indefinite pitch are used primarily for rhythmic purposes, and their music scores are usually notated on a single line. The more commonly seen instruments in the orchestra include the bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, gong, triangle, and tambourine.

Percussion Instruments
Percussion Instruments

Watch and Learn: Britten's Young Person's Guide to The Orchestra

"How could you have a soccer team if all were goalkeepers? How would it be an orchestra if all were French horns?" - Desmond Tutu

© 2017 Goh Tong Keat


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      2 years ago from Norfolk, England

      I'd love to be able to play the harp. That sounds so beautiful.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, spinditty.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)