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Guide to the Orchestra

From the Kennedy Centre

The Four Families


These instruments are all made of wood and have strings. The family includes, from smallest to largest, the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Musicians play them by using a bow (a stick of wood with a tight ribbon of horsehair) in their right hand and pressing the string with the fingers of their left hand. That makes the string vibrate and create sound. The bodies of the instruments have a hollow centre called a resonating chamber and it makes the sound of the strings loud and strong. To get ready to play, musicians rub blocks of resin on their bows to help the bows better grip the strings. String players change the sound of their instruments by:

❖ changing where they press the strings
❖ changing where they pull the bow across the strings
❖ using their fingers to pluck the strings, called pizzicato


The brass instruments stand out because they’re big and shiny. They make loud, full, and sometimes very deep sounds. These instruments—the trumpet, trombone, French horn, and tuba—are made of twisted metal tubing that opens into a bell shape. To make sound, players “buzz” their lips on the instrument’s mouthpiece. Before a concert, you might hear them buzzing their lips to warm up. Players change the sound of the instrument by:

❖ changing the shape of their lips against the mouthpiece
❖ changing how strongly they blow air through the mouthpiece
❖ moving parts of the instruments called slides (on the trombone) or valves (on the other brass instruments)


Musicians play woodwind instruments by blowing into them. Flute and piccolo players blow across an opening. Clarinet and saxophone players blow air across a single reed (a thin strip of woody grass) and the oboe and bassoon players blow air across a double reed. To get ready to play, the clarinet, bassoon, oboe, and saxophone players moisten their reeds in water or in their mouths (which helps make the instruments sound clearer). Players change the sounds of their instruments by:

❖ changing the strength and angle of the air flow
❖ changing the embouchure which is the way the players hold their lips, tongue, and teeth as they blow into the instrument
❖ pressing down on different keys


Percussion instruments like drums and tambourines make sounds when you cause them to vibrate by hitting, rubbing, shaking, or scraping them. At an orchestra concert, the most common percussion instruments are the snare drum, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, tambourines, and triangles, but some others include maracas, gongs, and chimes. Sometimes orchestras also feature a piano and other related keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord and organ; these instruments are often considered part of the percussion family because they are played by striking the keys. Players generally change the sound of percussion instruments by:

❖ changing what they use to hit them, such as changing from a mallet (small hammer) to their hands
❖ changing where or how hard they hit or shake them
❖ tightening or loosening the head of drums

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