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Community Arts Music Association (CAMA)


Information about the Symphony Orchestra and Instruments

Click on any of the players (or conductor) in the picture below to learn about their instruments. Then read on for more information.

Orchestras as we know them today were first established in the 18th century and numbered 30 to 40 players. During the 19th century, instrument-making techniques improved and orchestra sizes increased. Today an average orchestra may contain 40 to 70 players; some have as many as 110. Each of the four sections in an orchestra has a different role.

Not all orchestras are seated exactly as in the picture above. You might want to notice how the orchestra is seated for each concert you attend. Are there any violins on the right side of the conductor? How are the winds seated? Are there any seating changes or changes in the number of players from piece to piece? Are any of the orchestra players seated on risers?

The STRINGS, almost always the largest section of the orchestra, often provide the musical melody. See if you can pick out the different string sounds from lowest to highest as you listen. How many string basses are there? How many cellos? Can you tell the difference between the violas and violins? What about the second violins and first violins?

Each of the string sections usually has a section leader who closely watches the conductor and helps cue the entrances for his or her entire section. The section leader for the first violins is usually the concertmaster. The CONCERTMASTER sits to the conductor's left and helps give cues to the strings and to the rest of the orchestra.

The WOODWINDS sometimes carry the tune, or give color and warmth to the overall sound. Not all pieces of orchestra music call for woodwinds. Some call for just two woodwinds of each type (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons); others call for three or more of each.

Sometimes you will see and hear special instruments in the woodwind section in addition to the standard woodwinds. One of the flute players might “double” on piccolo (a small, high flute); one of the oboe players might switch to English horn (a low oboe); one of the clarinet players might pick up an E-flat clarinet (a small, high clarinet) or bass clarinet (a large, low clarinet); and sometimes one of the bassoon players might be asked to play a contrabassoon (a very large and low bassoon)... And sometimes you might even see saxophones on stage. See if you notice any unusual instruments or sounds in the woodwind section for each piece.

The BRASS instruments may add brightness and emphasis in dramatic passages, or may lend their particular colors to the melody. Some pieces of music call for no brass players at all, while others call for large brass sections. How many brass players do you notice on stage for each piece? Which instruments are they playing?

The PERCUSSION section provides the orchestra's rhythmic backbone. Some pieces of music have no percussion instruments, others have just the timpani (kettle drums), while others have colossal percussion sections with many instruments and players. What do you notice about the percussion section for each piece you hear? If you can't see the players in back from your seat, you might try listening for the individual percussion sounds.

Some pieces of music call for added instruments like a piano and one or two harps. When there is a piano soloist, the piano is placed near the conductor instead of at the back. Do you notice a piano or harp(s) when you look around the orchestra or listen from your seat?

The CONDUCTOR sets the tempo, volume and balance of the piece during rehearsals and performance. You may want to watch the conductor closely during the performance. How does he or she indicate a loud section of music? What about soft music? What is the conductor's style like? Does she or he move around a lot or stay in one place? Does he or she use a baton? What hand does the conductor hold the baton in? What about music: does the conductor read from a score with a podium or conduct with no music?

For more information, we recommend the BBC Guide to the Orchestra for young people.

Learn about classical music concert etiquette

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