Anatomy of an Orchestra

So you have tickets to the orchestra. In order to prepare for the event, you should understand the different instruments that make up an orchestra. Here’s the breakdown.

First, is there a difference between an orchestra and a symphony? Sort of. A symphony is an orchestra on a larger scale. So, all symphonies are orchestras, but only large orchestras are symphonies.

Now that this is cleared up, let’s dissect the sections in an orchestra. All instruments can be classified in the strings, percussion, woodwinds, brass or keyboards family.

The strings section is typically the largest of the orchestra. The four primary string instruments you will see include the violin, viola, cello and bass violin, which are in order from highest to lowest pitch.

The percussion family includes drums, gongs, xylophones and other similar instruments that typically keep the tempo of the orchestra. Percussion instruments will make sound when struck or shaken.

Woodwind instruments are wood or metal horns that musicians will blow into and often have a single or double wooden reed as part of the mouthpiece—the flute is the exception, having only a small hole. With the flute, the clarinet, oboe and bassoon round out the woodwind section. Occasionally orchestras will include saxophones.

The brass family is comprised of metal instruments that create sound when the musician presses his lips to the mouthpiece of the instrument. The air goes through the tubes of the instrument and sound comes out of the horn. The trumpet, trombone, tube and French horn make up this section.

Every once in a while you will see keyboard instruments in an orchestra. The keyboard family consists of pianos and harpsichords. Both are played similarly, but when pressed, the keys on the piano operate a hammer that strikes the string, while the harpsichord plucks it.

With this brief class on classical instruments you’re ready for the orchestra. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the performance.