What Are the Instruments of an Orchestra?

By Philip Sim
The conductor is the only person in the orchestra without an instrument.

Orchestras are divided into four sections, or families, which are based on the kind of instruments used in them. The string section covers all of the stringed instruments like the violins; the woodwind section covers instruments which are blown through and use reeds, like the clarinet; the brass section contains metal wind instruments like trumpets; and the percussion section includes all of the drums and rhythm instruments.

String Section

The violins play the lead melody in most pieces.

The string section is the largest in the orchestra. It is mainly made up of violins, arranged into first, second and third violins who all play different arrangements. The viola is a larger instrument, slightly deeper in pitch. Cellos are much larger and sit on the ground between the player’s legs, playing a much lower melody. The largest instrument in the section is the double-bass, which provides the bass part to the strings.

Woodwind Section

The woodwind section sits right in the center of the orchestra.

Flutes are the oldest instruments in the woodwind section and often provide the melody. The orchestra also features piccolos, which are smaller, higher pitched flutes. Clarinets come in a variety of sizes and tunings, and are capable of a wide range of tones. Oboes are like clarinets but use two reeds rather than one, and can play at higher pitches. Bassoons are the largest and lowest-pitched instruments in the woodwind section, although the larger and deeper contrabassoon is also sometimes used.

Brass Section

Less brass instruments are needed because of the amount of noise each can make.

This section is so-named because all of the instruments are made from brass. They are the loudest instruments in the orchestra and support the rhythm or melody. Trumpets are the smallest and highest-pitched, while French horns are circular and slightly lower-pitched. Trombones are long instruments with sliders for adjusting the notes, playing at a similar pitch to the cellos. Tubas are the largest and heaviest brass instruments, providing the bass tone.

Percussion Section

Percussion sections are carefully arranged so the musicians can move between instruments.

The percussion section uses a great range of instruments. Most of the musicians in the section move from instrument to instrument and can play several during any one piece. These instruments include cymbals, gongs, xylophones, tubular bells and a variety of drums. Timpani drums are the most common percussion instruments in the orchestra and the only ones which require a specialist player.

Other Instruments

There are a number of other instruments which can join the orchestra, each being attached to a different section. Saxophones are occasionally included as part of the woodwind section. Pianos and church organs can also be featured, generally being seen as part of the percussion section. If a harp is used, it joins the string section.

About the Author

Philip Sim has been writing professionally since 2008. He has been published in "The Guardian," as well as regional newspapers in Aberdeen, Scotland. Sim is working toward a Master of Science in journalism from Robert Gordon University, and holds a Master of Arts in politics and international relations from the University of Dundee.