Instruments of the Orchestra

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Instruments of the Orchestra 


Part I: Strings and Woodwinds


Please feel free to add whatever info you have on certain instruments, especially ones you play!

This would be especially helpful in the sections on percussion and keyboard instruments on the second page.

Thank you! - Rose


This page, along with the second part, will give an overview of the instruments in the full orchestra, focusing on the modern ensemble but including some important historical instruments as well.


If you want to get a good idea about how the instruments in the orchestra work, you should listen to one of the following two pieces:  Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra or Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.  In the Britten, the listener is introduced to each of the instruments in each choir, starting with the woodwinds (flute and piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), then the strings (violin, viola, cello, bass, harp), then the brass (French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba) and finally the percussion section (a selection of the more-commonly used percussion instruments).  In the Prokofiev, the listener is introduced to a selection of the orchestral instruments by casting them as characters (leitmotifs) in a story about a young boy named Peter and his adventures capturing a wolf.  The string choir (see below) represents Peter; the flute is the bird; the oboe is the duck; the clarinet is the cat; the bassoon, Peter's grandfather; the French horns, a fearsome wolf; and the percussion (snares and timpani), a set of confused hunters.


Maurice Ravel's Bolero also introduces listeners to most of the wind instruments present in the orchestra.  It includes solos for flute, B-flat clarinet, bassoon, E-flat clarinet, oboe d'amore, trumpet, tenor saxophone, sopranino saxophone, soprano saxophone, French horn, and trombone.


This page will focus on the instruments of the string and woodwind choirs, particularly the violin, viola, cello, bass, harp, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and saxophone.  For the other instruments, see the second page.



The String Choir


The strings are the largest choir in the modern full orchestra.  They consist of two violin sections of roughly 20-25 members each, a viola section of roughly 10-15 members each, a cello section of roughly 8-12, and a double bass section of 4-9.  These instruments (with the exception of the bass) make up the "violin" family.  They are all played by either moving a bow, made of horsehair with a wood handle, across one of the four strings, or by plucking the strings with the index finger.  They are the oldest choir in the full orchestra, as they have been common members since the late Baroque period.  Harps are also commonly found in the full orchestra, but do not operate along the same principles as the other stringed instruments.  All stringed instruments are tuned in C.

It is not uncommon for orchestras to use other stringed instruments besides those here.  While the harp is the only plucked stringed instrument that is a standard member of the orchestra, others that can make appearances include the guitar (which has a number of concertos written for it), mandolin, banjo, and the zither.  The violin family and the double bass are generally the only bowed stringed instruments that are used in orchestral literature.  However, viols (such as the viola da gamba) are not uncommon in chamber music, especially that with a Renaissance or Baroque flavor.

The string choir, from the early days of the orchestra, was generally favored over the other three choirs when it came to melodic material.  In the classical period, woodwinds, brass, and timpani (the only common percussion instrument at the time) were used more to accompany the strings' melodies.  This, however, began to change in the Romantic period, but even today it is a rare piece that does not include at least one soaring melody in the strings.






A Stradivarius violin.  Antonio Stradivari was a famous violin luthier from the Baroque period. Many of his great stringed instruments (violins, violas, cellos, guitars, and one harp) still exist and are among the most sought-after instruments in the world.


The violin is the treble voice of the string choir (and reads treble clef), and violinists today make up the largest group in the modern full orchestra.  Their four strings are tuned in fifths: E (the highest), A, D, and G (the lowest).  Considered by many to be the "king of instruments," the violin is a very versatile instrument that has inspired a great number of virtuosic works since its creation.


The violin is played over the players shoulder.  The player fingers the notes on the violin with their left hand and moves the bow across the strings with their right hand.  There are a variety of different techniques for playing the violin.  One is pizzicato, where the violinist sets down their bow and plucks the strings with their index finger.  Another is spiccato, where the violinist bounces the bow lightly on the string.  One technique quite popular on stringed instruments is vibrato, where the player moves one of the fingers of their left hand back and forth in order to achieve a shakier sound.  (This can be done on other instruments as well, but strings are particularly well-known for it.)


The violin, along with the viola, cello, and bass, is a continuous pitch instrument, meaning that it has no set intervals which it can play.  Thus, it can play microtones (intervals smaller than a half-step, or semitone) and glissando (a "slide"). 


As well as classical music, the violin is also popular in folk, bluegrass, and country music, where it is usually known as a fiddle.  It is also, less commonly, used in jazz and popular music  (one famous violinist who played jazz was Stephanie Grappelli).  In those cases, it is not uncommon to see an electric violin such as this one:


The main difference in appearance between an acoustic and electric instrument is the lack of a body; with the use of an amp, it does not need its body to give it a big sound.  Electric violas, cellos, and double basses look similar to electric violins.


(Other stringed instruments, including the viola, cello, and especially the double bass, can be found in electric form.  In fact, the bass guitar is modeled after the double bass.)


Well-known violinists alive today include Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Nigel Kennedy.


In our class, Emily, Gahyun, and Paige all play violin.


If one wants to really experience virtuosic violin-playing, one should listen to the work of Romantic composer and violinist Niccolo Paganini, one of the greatest virtuosos in the history of the instrument.  In addition, here are some of the great works of the many composed for violin (the links below lead to PDF files of the works):



Baroque Period:

  • Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (a set of four violin concertos)
  • J.S. Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor 

Classical Period:

  • Mozart: Violin Concertos no. 3 and 5
  • Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola
  • Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major

Romantic Period:

  • Brahms: Violin Concerto in D
  • Max Bruch: Violin Concerto in G Minor
  • Lalo: Symphonie espagnole
  • Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor
  • Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D

20th Century:

  • Bartok: Violin Concerto no. 2
  • Berg: Violin Concerto
  • Prokofiev: Violin Concerto no. 1 in D
  • Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor

And as for today's concert music:

  • Philip Glass: Violin Concerto

Solo Music

  • J.S. Bach: Violin Sonatas and Partitas (Baroque)
  • Beethoven: Kreutzer Sonata in A Minor  (Classical)
  • Brahms: Violin Sonatas (Late Romantic)
  • Franck: Violin Sonata in A (Late Romantic)

    The violin has so many great moments in the orchestral literature, it would be impossible to include a list.  However, there are a few orchestral pieces which feature frequent violin solos, one of the most famous being the Sheherazade Suite by Rimsky-Korsakov, where the violin serves as a leitmotif representing Sheherazade herself.  Camille Saint-Saens also includes frequent violin solos in his Danse macabre.

    In another piece by Saint-Saens, the Carnival of the Animals, the movement "Characters with Long Ears" uses two solo violins to portray hee-hawing donkeys.




A viola from the Baroque period.


Mr. Wolf's instrument!


The viola is the alto voice of the string choir.  Sometimes it looks exactly like a violin, but usually it is slightly larger.  Like the violin, the viola is played over the player's shoulder.  It is tuned a fifth lower than the violin, using the tuning A (highest string), D, G, and C (lowest).  The viola usually reads alto clef, except in the upper reaches of its range, where it switches to treble.  The viola is best known for playing passages that require a haunting, mournful sound, but like the violin (and the other strings) it can produce a wide range of musical colors.


The viola is arguably the most difficult stringed instrument to play.  It uses many of the same fingerings as the violin, but because the viola is slightly larger, the violist is required to stretch their fingers slightly more.  Thus, the viola and those who play it have gained a bad reputation among musicians.  However, if played by a skilled violist, it can be one of the most beautiful and haunting instruments in the orchestra.


The viola is not as popular with composers as the violin, but has an excellent solo repertoire of its own, especially from the Romantic and Modern periods.  One of the first composers to really exploit the viola's sound was Hector Berlioz.  Paul Hindemith is a 20th century composer who wrote a number of great works for the viola, as he himself was a celebrated violist.


Violas are even more rarely used outside of classical music.  However, some rock bands, such as the Velvet Underground, have added a viola to their line-up, and violas are capable of playing any style of music.


Great works to listen to if you want to hear the viola:



  • J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 (two solo violas) (Baroque)
  • Telemann: Viola Concerto in G (Baroque)
  • Mozart: Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola  (Classical)
  • Hindemith: Trauermusik (for solo viola and strings) (20th Century)
  • Walton: Viola Concerto (20th Century) 

Solo Works

  • Hummel: Sonata in E-flat for Viola and Piano (Classical)
  • Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano (20th Century)

Notable Orchestral Works

that feature the viola or contain great viola passages

  • Berlioz: Harold en Italie (Early Romantic)
  • Franck: Symphony in D minor: Mvt. II (Late Romantic)
  • Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy (20th Century)
  • Richard Strauss: Don Quixote (20th Century)
  • Stravinsky: Rite of Spring: Part II: II. Mysterious Circles of the Adolescent Girls (20th Century)




A cello, with its bow. 


The cello (which is short for violoncello) is the tenor and baritone voice of the string choir, and the lowest member of the violin family.  It is the second favorite stringed instrument of composers, after the violin, and has a varied solo repertoire.  The cello is pitched an octave below the viola, so it has the same open strings (A, D, G, C).  Because the cello is too large to be played on the chin, cellists play by sitting down, and anchoring the cello in the ground with an endpin (the long thing sticking out of the bottom of a cello).  Cellos most commonly use bass clef, but often play in tenor or even treble clefs if they are going up high in their range.


The cello is best known for a very lyrical, graceful sound; it is no wonder that Camille Saint-Saens, in his work Carnival of the Animals, chose the cello to depict the swan.  However, the cello can also sound very aggressive, as can be shown at the beginning of the Elgar Concerto.  Again, like the other stringed instruments, the cello is capable of a number of different sound colors.


The cello was not always an instrument known for soloistic playing; for a long time, the cello was simply the bass voice of the violin family, relegated to playing continuo and Alberti bass parts to the accompaniment of violin melodies.  Vivaldi and Bach were among the first to write solo music for cello, with Bach's Unaccompanied Suites one of the first great works in the cello solo repertoire.  Even then, in the classical period the cello was still mainly an accompaniment instrument (Mozart never wrote a cello concerto).  Like the viola, the cello repertoire really began to gain strength during the Romantic period, and it continues to this day to be a popular instrument for composers to use.  (For example, according to an interview in Strings magazine, minimalist composer John Adams is currently working on a cello concerto.)


Cellos are only slightly more common than violas in non-classical music.  While not particularly used in folk music nor in jazz (although there are some jazz cellists), the cello is a fairly popular instrument in rock music.  There are "cello rock" bands which use primarily cellos in their music, such as Rasputina and Apocalyptica.


The most famous cellist alive today is Yo Yo Ma.  Janos Starker is another very famous and influential cellist.  The 20th Century saw a number of great cello virtuosos, including Jacqueline duPre, Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, and of course, Mstislav Rostropovich (who died earlier this year).


In our class, Rose and Stephanie both play cello.


Some of the great works in the cello repertoire.  (Of course, they're all great, but here are some particularly good ones):




  • Vivaldi: Cello Concertos (including the Double Cello Concerto)


  • Boccherini: Cello Concerto no. 9 in B-flat
  • Haydn: Cello Concerto no. 1 in C and no. 2 in D
  • Beethoven: Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano (the Cello part is the most virtuosic)


  • Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor (if you must listen to only one, make it this!)
  • Faure: Elegie pour violoncelle et orchestre (also adapted for cello and piano)
  • Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor
  • Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor and no. 2 in D minor
  • Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra

20th Century:

  • Elgar: Cello Concerto
  • Shostakovich: Cello Concerto no. 1 in E-flat and no. 2 in G (both written for Rostropovich!) 

Solo Works

  • J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (Baroque)
  • Chopin: Sonata for Cello and Piano (Early Romantic)
  • Brahms: Cello Sonatas no. 1 in E minor and no. 2 in F (Late Romantic)
  • Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano (20th Century)

Notable Orchestral Works

that feature cello or contain great cello passages

  • Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 "Eroica": Mvt. I (Classical)
  • Beethoven: Symphony no. 5: Mvt. III (Classical)
  • Haydn: Symphony no. 95: Mvts. II and III (Classical)
  • Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Rossini: William Tell Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Johann Strauss Jr.: Blue Danube Waltz (Romantic)
  • Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals: XIII. The Swan (Late Romantic)
  • Tchiakovsky: Swan Lake: Pas de deux (Late Romantic)
  • Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude (Late Romantic)
  • Debussy: La Mer: I. De l'aube à midi sur la mer (20th Century)
  • Richard Strauss: Don Quixote (20th Century)


Double Bass


The enormous double bass.


The double bass is also widely known as the string bass, contrabass, or most often, just the bass.  It is the lowest of the string instruments, and the bass voice of this choir.  The bass is one of the lowest instruments in the orchestra, along with the tuba and contrabassoon (and of course, the bottom notes of the harp and piano).  It goes far below the range of even the lowest human voices.  Basses are not members of the violin family and are in some ways more similar to viols, including the the shape of their body as well as the tuning of their strings.  Unlike the violin, viola, and cello, which are tuned in fifths, the strings of the bass are tuned in fourths.  The strings, from highest to lowest, are G, D, A, and E (the reverse of the violin).  Bass music is written an octave higher than it is played, almost always in the bass clef (though it occasionally goes to tenor clef in the very high reaches of the instrument's range).


The bass is the least versatile of the string choir, in that it has the most characteristic sound.  Basses almost always have a rough, grumbling sound.  Most basses use the German bow (as opposed to the French bow favored by violinists, violists, and cellists), and the German bow, while it has more bite than the French, makes it more difficult to play legato passages.  While expert bassists (such as Gary Karr, in his interpretation of The Swan) can play in a smooth, legato style, it is difficult, and composers generally exploit the more gruff sound the bass is known for, especially since the more legato sound (especially in the upper ranges) can come very close to sounding like that of a cello.


Outline of the German bow, including close-ups of frog and tip.


One huge advantage bassists have over other string musicians is pizzicato.  Because the bass strings are so thick, they can produce a very powerful pizzicato.  This is why the bass has become an essential member of the jazz ensemble, where it plays fast, quarter-note pizzicato lines to keep the rhythm and outline the key for solos (known as "walking bass" lines).  Pizzicato double bass is also common in bluegrass and country music, where the bass is often known as the bass fiddle.  As a result of its loud, resonating pizzicato, the bass is more commonly used in non-classical music than any other member of the string choir.


Notable classical bassists include Gary Karr and Edgar Meyer.  As for jazz bassists, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter are among the best.


Bass music:  Basses, serving most often as the tonic and rhythmic foundation in the orchestra, don't have a huge solo repertoire.  Most bass solo music has been either a) written by bassists or b) transcribed from works for cello or other bass-clef instruments.



  • Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf: Bass Concerto in E (Classical)
  • Domenico Dragonetti/Edouard Nanny: Bass Concerto in G (Classical)
  • Serge Koussevitzky: Bass Concerto in F-sharp minor (20th Century)

Solo Music

  • Henri Eccles: Sonata in A minor
  • Lots of great cello works including Vivaldi's Cello Sonatas, transcribed for double bass

Notable Orchestral Works

that contain great double bass passages

  • Beethoven: Symphony no. 9 "Choral": Mvt. IV (the "Ode to Joy" movement) (Classical)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 1: III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Late Romantic)
  • Verdi: Falstaff: Act III, Beginning (Late Romantic)
  • Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals: V. The Elephant (Late Romantic)
  • Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite (20th Century)


If you want to hear the bass in jazz, two jazz works with bass solos in them are Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser" and Miles Davis's "So What."





The marvelous harp!


The harp is one of the most spectacular instruments in the orchestra.  These huge instruments (the largest in the orchestra) contain 47 different strings, which are color-coded so the harpist can tell them apart.  They are played by plucking the strings, using any of the harpist's fingers except for the pinkie.  A harpist can play up to 8 notes at a time.


The harp has one of the largest ranges in the orchestra; like the piano, it can go from as high as a piccolo to as low as a double bass.  To accomodate their huge range, harps play on both a treble and a bass staff.  The lowest strings (the longest) are furthest from the harpist and the highest strings (the shortest) are the closest.  Typically, harpists place their left hand on the lower strings and their right hand on the higher ones (yet another way in which the harp is similar to a piano).


However, harps are significantly different from pianos in that it is much more difficult for them to play chromatic passages.  The reason for this is the pedal system:


A standard Western harp has seven pedals.  Each pedal stands for a different note: D, C, B, E, F, G, and A (from left to right).  They work by making all the similar notes on the instrument (i.e. all the D's, if you are using the D pedal) either flat, sharp, or natural, by moving the pedal to its upper position (flat), middle position (natural), or downward position (sharp).  For example, if the harpist were playing in the key of G minor, they would move their B and E pedals into the upward position, enabling them to play B-flat and E-flat.  Every time the harpist changes keys, they are required to move all their pedals; therefore, very sudden key shifts from keys that are mostly flat to keys that are mostly sharp are not recommended, as it is difficult for a harpist to move more than three or four pedals at once.  This is what makes chromatic scales difficult - the harpist will be required to move all their pedals down and up at once.  If you want a chromatic scale in your orchestral piece, it is a better idea to give it to some other instrument in the orchestra.


However, you should give the harpist a glissando or two to play. The glissando, where the harpist runs their fingers across several notes at a time, is the harp's most characteristic technique.  Even though it is not a "true" glissando, it is probably the best known glissando in the orchestra (along with the one made by a trombone).  Any time a composer wants to feature a harp, they will probably feature glissandi, along with some arpreggios.  If you are writing for harp, it is also advisable not to have a lot else going on the orchestra, as the harp is difficult to hear over other instruments.  Yet, even if the harp is hard to hear, it adds a special effect to almost any passage in music, especially when in combination with percussion or strings (playing pizzicato).  (Listen to the beginning of the second movement of Franck's Symphony in D Minor and you will see what I mean.)


Harps and harplike instruments, such as lyres and zithers, can be found in virtually every culture on Earth, and have been present in Western music since antiquity.


Here are some works for harp by well-known composers (this list will probably be condensed later):



  • Handel: Harp Concerto no. 6 in B-flat (Baroque)
  • Mozart: Flute and Harp Concerto in C (Classical)
  • Hindemith: Concerto for Woodwinds, Harp, and Orchestra (20th Century)
  • Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for Harp and Strings (20th Century)

Solo Works

  • C.P.E. Bach: Sonata for Harp in G (Classical/Rococo)
  • Faure: Impromptu and Une chatelaine en sa tour (Late Romantic)
  • Saint-Saens: Fantaisie (Late Romantic)
  • Britten: Suite for Harp (20th Century)
  • Hindemith: Harp Sonata (20th Century)
  • Pierne: Impromptu-caprice (20th Century)

Notable Orchestral Works

The harp was a favorite instrument for composers to use during the late Romantic and Modern periods:

  • Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Mvt. I (Late Romantic)
  • Mahler: Symphony no. 5: Mvt. II (Late Romantic)
  • Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker: Waltz of the Flowers (Late Romantic)
  • Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake: Pas de deux (Late Romantic)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade Suite (Late Romantic)
  • Debussy: Pretty much everything he ever wrote for orchestra (20th Century)
  • Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe: Nocturne (20th Century)


Other Stringed Instruments


Works that use other stringed instruments besides the ones mentioned above (one piece that features all of the plucked instruments below, except banjo, is Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra):


Viola da gamba:

  • Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots: Act I (Early Romantic)


  • Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Guitar (originally for lute) (Baroque)
  • Joaquin Rodgrio: Concierto de Aranjuez (20th Century)
  • Rossini: The Barber of Seville Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Grainger: Willow Willow (20th Century)
  • Stravinsky: Tango (20th Century)


  • Mozart: Don Giovanni: Act II (Classical)
  • Respighi: Roman Festival: Mvt. III (20th Century)
  • Stravinsky: The Nightingale (20th Century)


  • Delius: Koanga: La Calinda (20th Century)
  • Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (20th Century)
  • Gershwin: Porgy and Bess Suite (20th Century)


  • Johann Strauss Jr.: Tales from the Vienna Woods (Romantic)


The Woodwind Choir


The woodwind choir consists of aerophones which get their sound from a player blowing across or into a mouthpiece, whether merely with the vibration of their air column or by vibrating one or more reeds.  Despite their name, woodwinds are not all made of wood; while clarinets and the double-reeded woodwinds are generally made of wood today, flutes (which used to be made of wood) are now more often made of metals like silver and gold, and saxophones have always been made of brass.  (What makes saxophones woodwinds and not brass instruments are the facts that the player vibrates a reed to play them, and the fingering system is very similar to that of the other woodwinds.  However, there are those who do classify saxes as brass because they blend better with brass instruments than they do with other woodwinds.)  Of the four standard orchestral choirs, the woodwinds are second only to the percussion choir in variety of sound.  Unlike the fairly homogenous string and brass choirs, the woodwind choir is made up of a series of different families, which each have their own distinctive sound: the soft, sweet flutes; the nasal, poignant oboes; the flexible, smooth clarinets; the intense, dark bassoons; and the loud, reedy saxophone. 

Generally, the orchestral woodwind choir consists of four instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.  However, beginning in the late Classical period, other instruments in each of the four woodwind families began to make appearances alongside them, most notably the piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon.  While generally more a fixture of bands and other wind ensembles, the saxes began to make their own appearances in the orchestra beginning in the late Romantic period, and today there are a number of orchestral works that include saxophones.

Woodwinds are usually classified by the number of reeds that they use.  There are three groups: reedless, single-reed, and double-reed.  Reedless woodwinds include the flute family; single reeds, the clarinet and saxophone families; and double reeds, the oboe and bassoon families.






The most common type of flute today.


The concert flute is a soprano woodwind instrument whose origins date back to ancient times.  Most cultures in the world have developed some form of a flute (examples include the ocarina, fife, and panpipes).  The flute first began to develop into the instrument we know today during the Baroque period.  Earlier Renaissance flutes had a different bore and less finger holes, so they were played differently.  The sound was much airier and softer.  In the Baroque period, the bore of the flute changed from a cylindrical to a conical bore, which let the finger holes be closer to the embouchure hole.  Also in the Baroque period, jointed flutes were introduced.  The next (and last) notable change in the flute was in the 19th century, when Theodore Boehm introduced another cylindrical bore flute, with differently placed keys that let the flute be much louder and better in tune.  Today's flute is most commonly made of silver, or a nickel/silver alloy, though it is also available in gold and other metals.  Flute music is always written in the treble clef.


The flute is the only one of the standard orchestral woodwinds (with the exception of other members of the flute family, such as the piccolo) that is played on its side (transversely), as well as the only one that does not use any sort of reed.  Instead, flutists make music by blowing across their mouthpiece.


Flutes are distinguished from other woodwinds by their hollow, yet sweet sound.  Flutes are most brilliant in their upper range, where they can be clearly heard over the rest of the orchestra, while in the lowest part of their range they are difficult to hear over other instruments, but have a deep, haunting sound.  They are a popular instrument for solo music, and have a solo and concerto repertoire that extends back to the Baroque period.  One composer who was a flutist himself was Hector Berlioz.



A three-piece baroque flute.


In addition to the orchestra, the flute is also a standard member of the concert band, marching band, and wind ensemble.  It can also be heard in jazz and rock at times.


Flutists in our class include Alyssa and Erin.


Some of the great music that has been written for the flute:



  • Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D "The Bullfinch" (Baroque)
  • Mozart: Flute Concerto no. 1 in G (Classical)
  • Mozart: Flute and Harp Concerto in C (Classical)
  • Faure: Fantasy for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (Late Romantic)

Solo Music

  • J.S. Bach: Sonata no. 1 in B minor (Baroque)
  • Poulenc: Sonata for Flute and Piano (20th Century)

Notable Orchestral Works

that feature the flute or include great flute moments (there are so many!):

  • J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B Minor: Badinerie (Baroque)
  • Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (Early Romantic)
  • Rossini: William Tell Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Brahms: Symphony no. 4: Mvt. IV (Late Romantic)
  • Bizet: Carmen: Prelude to Act III (Late Romantic)
  • Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals: X. The Aviary (Late Romantic)
  • Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker: Dance of the Mirlitons (Late Romantic)
  • Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (20th Century)
  • Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (20th Century)





One example of a piccolo - sometimes they are all silver, just like the flute.


The piccolo is another member of the flute family, the most common auxiliary flute found in the orchestra.  It is pitched an octave higher than the flute, and its music is written an octave lower than it is played (just remember - the reverse of the double bass!) and always in the treble clef.  As the piccolo is not found in every piece, the piccolo player usually doubles on the flute.  The piccolo is one the highest instruments in the orchestra.  The piccolo first came into common use during the transition from the classical to romantic periods; one of the first orchestral works to use the piccolo is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  Because of its shrillness, the piccolo can usually be heard much more clearly than the flute, and is used by composers when they want a very high, piercing sound.  As they sound similar to the fife, piccolos are also commonly used when the composer wants a "military" feel in their music (as in Prokofiev's "Lt. Kije" Suite).


Piccolos are also commonly used in concert and marching bands, as well as wind ensembles, and the piccolo solo in John Philip Sousa's march The Stars and Stripes Forever is one of the best known piccolo solos in the orchestral literature.  Other uses of the piccolo in orchestral music include:


  • Rossini: Thieving Magpie Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No. 2: II. Arabian Dance (Romantic)
  • Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker: Chinese Dance (Late Romantic)
  • Prokofiev: Lt. Kije Suite (20th Century)



Other Flutes



Some members of the flute family. From top: Bass flute in C, alto flute in G, concert flute with B foot, concert flute with C foot (most common), soprano flute in E-flat, piccolo


The Western flute family consists of many different instruments; all are transverse (played horizontally, by blowing across the mouthpiece), and do not use reeds.  Besides the concert flute and the piccolo, two others that deserve mention are the alto flute and the bass flute.  


The alto flute is pitched in the key of G, and its music is written a perfect 4th higher than it is played.  It was not commonly used in orchestral music until the 20th Century, but now many full orchestras include an alto flute player (usually doubling on the concert flute).  It is frequently used in film music.  The low, haunting sound of the concert flute in its lowest octave is expanded in the sound of the alto flute, which makes it an ideal instrument for when the composer wants a piece to have an otherworldly or ethereal sound.  Its hollow sound is also reminiscient of folk flutes, making it ideal for primitivist music.  Thus, two of the most well-known pieces where the alto flute is used are Stravinsky's very primitivist Rite of Spring (Part I: IV. Spring Rounds) and Holst's very otherworldly Planets Suite (V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age and VII. Neptune, the Mystic - both very haunting and ethereal).


The bass flute is pitched in C, sounding an octave lower than written.  Because it is so long, the mouthpiece always curves around (as shown in the picture).  This is also an option on alto flutes.  Bass flutes are very expensive, and so, rare, and very little orchestral music is written for them. They are also very hard to hear over the other instruments in the orchestra.  Thus, they are not common members of the orchestra - if one wants to experience the sound of a bass flute, they are best off attending a flute recital.   However, a few composers today are beginning to write works that include the bass flute. The term "bass flute" is not especially accurate; the bass flute is more of an alto instrument, with the instruments of most comparable range being the viola and the B-flat clarinet. 





An oboe.


The oboe is a soprano woodwind instrument, with a range similar to that of the flute.  Like the flute, it is pitched in C, so it does not transpose.  Unlike the flute, the oboe does use a reed - actually, two reeds.  Oboists produce a sound by placing between their reeds, and they usually must make reeds themselves.  Oboists must keep their reed constantly moist in order to achieve a good sound when they play.  Oboes are also end-blown, meaning the player positions them vertically rather than horizontally, unlike the flute.


The oboe is one of the most difficult instruments to play well, and when played by a bad oboist it can have a highly unpleasant sound, similar to that of a duck.  When it is played well, however, it can have a very sweet sound.  Oboes are loud and can be clearly heard over the rest of the orchestra when playing solos (which is why composers write a lot of them!).  Their sound is very nasal but also warm and poignant.


The oboe sounds best in the middle part of its range.  The lowest part sounds very thick and reedy, and while the oboe's sound is powerful in this register, it also has a tendency to honk and cannot play below a piano dynamic marking.  There, it would be more advisable to write for English horn if the "oboe" sound is what you want.  In its highest register, the oboe is difficult to hear, and can sound pinched.


The instrument's solo and concerto repertoire extends back to the Baroque period, and it has been a standard member of the orchestra since the Classical period.  In the rare instance that a Classical-era composer wanted to give a woodwind the melody, they would usually pick the oboe.  Today it is no longer the "principal" woodwind in the orchestra (as the composer is just as likely to use any of the others for melodic material, depending on the tone desired for a passage), but the oboe is still inspirational to many composers.  Unlike the flute, the oboe's prominence is not as great outside the orchestra; it is a member of the symphonic band and wind ensemble, but it is less important than other woodwind instruments.  It is not a member of the marching band, and is hardly ever heard outside of classical music.


Great works for oboe include:



  • J.S. Bach: Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor (Baroque)
  • Mozart: Oboe Concerto in C (Classical)
  • Richard Strauss: Oboe Concerto in D (20th Century)
  • Vaughan Williams: Oboe Concerto (20th Century)

Solo/Chamber Works:

  • Beethoven: Trio in C major for two oboes and English horn (Classical)
    Schumann: Three Romances for Oboe and Piano (Romantic) 

Notable Orchestral Works:

Orchestral works that feature oboe or contain great oboe passages

  • Beethoven: Symphony no. 5: Mvt. I (Classical)
  • Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique: III. Scene aux champs (Early Romantic)
  • Rossini: The Silken Ladder Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Brahms: Violin Concerto: Mvt. II (Late Romantic)
  • Brahms: Symphony no. 1: Mvt. II (Late Romantic)
  • Saint-Saens: Samson et Delilah: Danse bacchanale (Late Romantic)
  • Enescu: Romanian Rhapsodies no. 1 in A and no. 2 in D (20th Century)
  • Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin (20th Century)  


English Horn



The English horn, or cor anglais, pitched in F.


The English horn is not English nor a horn, but actually the alto or tenor member of the oboe family.  It also called the cor anglais (the French translation of "English horn").  Like the standard oboe (and the rest of the oboe family), they are also played with a double reed.  They are pitched in F, and are played a fifth lower than written.  The English horn's shape differs from that of the oboe in that the mouthpiece is longer and more bent, and the bell is more bulb-shaped.  Typically, the English horn player in an orchestra doubles on the oboe (for pieces that do not require an English horn).


A version of the English horn (called the oboe da caccia) was used in the Baroque period, but the instrument wasn't really used in the Classical period.  It began to reappear in the Early Romantic period thanks to composers like Beethoven, Berlioz, and Meyerbeer, and became a standard member of the full orchestra in the late Romantic period.  Even today, a lot of pieces still do not use the English horn, but most do, especially in film orchestras.  (One of the themes from the Star Wars scores features a prominent English horn solo.)


The English horn's sound is even more nasal than that of the oboe.  In addition, because it is lower, its sound is much thicker, giving it a very exotic feel. 


One of the most famous English horn solos ever is in Dvorak's Symphony no. 9: II. Largo.  Others include:


  • Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique: III. Scene aux champs (Early Romantic)
  • Rossini: William Tell Overture (Early Romantic)
  • Franck: Symphony in D minor: Mvt. II (Late Romantic)
  • Tchiakovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (Late Romantic)
  • Falla: El sombrero de tres picos: Danza del molinero (20th Century)
  • Sibelius: Legends: The Swan of Tuonela (20th Century)


Other Oboes

From left: piccolo oboe, oboe, oboe d'amore, English horn, bass oboe.  Trying to find a better picture that includes the heckelphone.






The two soprano clarinets: B-flat (with mouthpiece) and A (without).




Bass Clarinet



Bass clarinet in B-flat



E-Flat Clarinet



"Piccolo" clarinet in E-flat.


Other Clarinets


A huge picture of the clarinet family.  From left: E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, basset horn, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet.




The bassoon, the "clown of the orchestra."  This bassoon is black, but they can also be brown.






The contrabassoon, pitched an octave below the concert bassoon, is one of the lowest instruments in the orchestra.






The four most common members of the saxophone family. From left: soprano sax in B-flat, alto sax in E-flat, tenor sax in B-flat, and baritone sax in E-flat.


While a common member of symphonic bands, wind ensembles, and any jazz band, the saxophone, largely because it wasn't invented until the middle of the Romantic period, is mostly absent from the symphony orchestra.  Like the clarinets, saxophones are played using a single reed.  Most saxophones are pitched in either B-flat or E-flat.  They range from the very high sopranino sax in F to the very low bass sax in B-flat (and possibly even lower).  However, the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone ("bari") sax are the most commonly played (as shown above).


Two pieces which utilize saxophones are Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (II. Il vecchio castello), and another piece by Maurice Ravel, Bolero (which includes solos on tenor, soprano, and sopranino saxes).  Orchestral pieces with a jazz influence also will often include saxophones; one example is Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from his musical West Side Story.  They are also frequently used in film orchestras, and one example of the saxophone in film music is Bernard Herrmann's Night Piece for Saxophone and Orchestra from his score for the movie Taxi Driver.


One could go on forever about the saxophone's importance to jazz.  In most forms of jazz, it is the primary woodwind instrument (in some forms of jazz, especially earlier forms such as New Orleans jazz or swing, it is replaced by the clarinet).  Most jazz bands use the alto, tenor, and bari saxes, though the soprano sax is also common.


Two of the most famous jazz saxophonists are Charlie Parker (alto) and John Coltrane (primarily tenor, though he played a variety of saxophones).   Sidney Bechet was a great soprano saxophonist.  There are not very many famous bari saxophonists, as the bari sax is primarily used to support the rhythm, often doubling the string bass.


In our class, Matt plays alto sax.




For the rest of the orchestra, go to Instruments of the Orchestra: Part II.


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