A Symphony Orchestra is a large group of musicians (usually approximately 100 people) who play different instruments together. There is often a conductor who stands in front of the musicians and leads the music. The instruments in the orchestra are grouped into families based on what materials they are made of and how they make sound. The four basic instrument families are strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. A Chamber Orchestra is a smaller group of musicians. The Australian Chamber Orchestra consists of 17 musicians that only play string instruments (10 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 1 bass). They play without a conductor.
- String instruments are usually made of wood and have a hollow centre.
- The strings are attached and stretched over the body of the instrument. Sound is produced when the string is made to vibrate.
- The earliest violins used strings made of sheep intestines, but now strings are mostly made of metal.
- The string can be made to vibrate using a bow or by plucking (using one’s fingers to pull the string).
- The bow hair comes from the tail of a horse (even today!).
- Some examples of string instruments are the violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar and even the piano (the strings are inside, hitting a key causes a little hammer to strike the string inside, making the sound).
- The violin is the smallest string instrument and plays at the highest pitch, the viola is a little bigger and a little deeper in tone, the cello is bigger and deeper still, and the double bass is largest and lowest in pitch.
- Woodwind Instruments produce sound when air is blown through an opening. Air might be blown across an edge as with a flute; between a reed and a surface as with a clarinet; or between two reeds as with a bassoon. The sound is created when the air vibrates inside the body of the instrument.
- Some examples of woodwind instruments are flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon.
- Brass instruments are generally made of brass or some other metal and make sound when the musician buzzes their lips into the mouthpiece. Air then vibrates inside the instrument, which produces a sound.
- Some examples of brass instruments are trumpet, French horn, tuba and trombone.
- Most percussion instruments make sounds when they are hit, such as a drum or a tambourine. Others are shaken, such as maracas, and still others may be rubbed, scratched, or whatever else will make the instrument vibrate and thus produce a sound.
- Percussion instruments include drums, cymbals, triangle, chimes, xylophone, marimba, and timpani.
- Every instrument has a distinctive tone, just like every human being has a distinctive voice.
- The distinctive tone of each instrument is called its timbre (it’s a French word!).
Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten
English Composer Benjamin Britten wrote a composition called the Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra to showcase all of the instruments in the orchestra. Watch and listen to this video of The YouTube symphony performing the Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra. Can you identify all of the instruments playing? How would you describe the timbre of each instrument? If each instrument were a person, how would you describe its personality? If each instrument were an animal, which animal would it be? Why?
BONUS (More In Depth!)
- Sergei Prokofiev was a Russian composer who lived from 1891-1953.
- He wrote a musical piece for orchestra called Peter and the Wolf that tells the story of a boy named Peter and his hunt for a dangerous wolf.
- There are seven characters in the story – Peter, Grandfather, Bird, Duck, Cat, Wolf and the Hunters.
- There is no singing – a narrator tells the story and different instruments represent each character.
- Listen for how each instrument represents its character. Does the instrument sound like the character? How? What’s the mood of each character?