What Are the Four Families of Instruments in an Orchestra?

By Mardy Derby ; Updated September 15, 2017
Instruments in an orchestra are divided into four sections.

The four families of instruments in an orchestra are string, woodwind, brass and percussion. Each family shares similarities in the way the instruments are made and played. The string section is located directly in front of the conductor, followed by the woodwinds and brass. Percussion instruments are found at the back wings of the semicircle layout.

The String Family

The violin is a stringed instrument.

Stringed instruments comprise the largest section of the orchestra. With the exception of the harp they have curved bodies and long necks. They all contain a series of vertical strings. The instruments are played by plucking, tapping or sliding a bow across the strings. The viola, violin, cello, double bass and harp are members of the string family.

The Woodwind Family

An oboe is a member of the woodwind family.

Woodwind instruments are long, narrow cylinders with holes. The holes are covered by keys in most woodwinds. Musicians create sound by blowing into the end or side of the instrument and pressing the keys or holes with their fingertips. With the exception of the flute, woodwinds contain reeds which vibrate. Woodwinds used in an orchestra include clarinet, bassoon, oboe, piccolo and flute.

The Brass Family

The tuba is part of the brass section.

Brass instruments create the most volume in the orchestra. They are long curled tubes with flared ends. Sound is created by buzzing into a mouthpiece. Many brass instruments have valves which are opened and closed to change the sound. The brass section includes french horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas.

The Percussion Family

The bass drum is a member of the percussion family.

There are a wide range of instruments in the percussion family and from the boom of the bass drum to the tinkle of chimes their sound is equally diverse. Musicians play percussion instruments by hitting, shaking and scraping them. The snare drum, bass drum, kettle drum, cymbals, chimes and triangle are percussion instruments commonly found in an orchestra.