Meet the Classical Orchestra - dummies

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

Part of Classical Music For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Let’s meet the Classical orchestra. It’s the big night: You show up at the concert hall. But holy smokes, there are almost 100 people up on that stage. Here’s what they’re playing:

  • Violin: The instrument is made of wood; the bow is made of horsehair; the four strings are made of metal; the sound is sweet, singing, and divine. Violin players are divided into two sections, first and second violins, each with different music to play.

  • Viola: Slightly larger than a violin, a viola plays slightly lower notes, with a breathier or throatier sound than a violin.

  • Cello: The cello is played sitting down, with the instrument between the legs. It makes a beautiful, rich, singing sound.

  • Bass (or Double Bass): Enormous, bigger around than the average human being, the bass plays the lowest notes of all the strings, providing the foundation for the orchestra’s sound. It’s played sitting on a tall stool or standing up.

  • Flute: The flute’s mouthpiece is blown across, just like a bottle; it produces a sweet, silvery sound.

  • Oboe: This instrument is played by blowing into a reed, a whittled-down flat piece of sugar cane. It produces one of the most beautiful sounds on earth: clear, vibrant, sweet, plaintive, and full.

  • Clarinet: This dark, tubular woodwind instrument creates a full, round sound, very pure, without the edge of the oboe’s sound.

  • Bassoon: It looks like a plumbing pipe, but it sounds like a dream. The high notes sound throaty, even otherworldly. The middle notes sound luscious, full, mellow; low notes can be very powerful.

  • French Horn (or just Horn): The most noble-sounding brass instrument has a full, round, dark tone, which is great for majestic hunting calls.

  • Trumpet: The most powerful orchestral instrument and the highest-pitched brass instrument, the trumpet executes impressive runs and leaps in a single bound.

  • Trombone: A powerful low brass instrument with a movable slide to change notes, the trombone is essential for parades, as well as symphonies.

  • Tuba: The lowest of the brass instruments can produce a wall of low, blasting sound.

  • Percussion: The player is expected to be a master of a vast range of different instruments: timpani (the great big kettledrums), bass drum, snare drum (for marches), cymbals (for crashing together), xylophone (played with mallets), and other oddities.