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The Instruments of an Orchestra

October 2021 post “Orchestra Types”

September 2021 post “Soloists”

July 2021 post “Programming”

June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”


Orchestra diagram

You probably had a music appreciation class which described the traditional four families of orchestral instruments. They are Strings, Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion.

The string family includes violins, violas (larger violins), cellos (ponticello is the complete name), and double basses. The harp is also included in this family. 

The woodwind family includes all types of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons.

The brass family includes French horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas.

The percussion family is more complex. The instruments of this family have in common that they are “struck”. (although they may be rubbed, shaken, plucked or scraped). Percussion instruments are classified by their sound production: 1) “idiophone” (instruments where the entire instrument vibrates), and 2)  “membranophone” (instruments with a stretched membrane which vibrates), and by their pitch: exact pitch, relative pitch, no pitch.

Examples of exact pitch include tympani (kettledrums) [membranophone], xylophone [idiophone] and chimes [idiophone]. Examples of relative pitch include “tom toms” [membranophone], wood blocks (hi-middle-low) [idiophone], conga drums (hi/low) [membranophone] and cymbals (hi to low) [idiophone]. Examples of no pitch include snare drum [membranophone], triangle [idiophone] and tambourine [membranophone – if with membrane, idiophone – if without membrane]. There are other small categories like “aerophones” which include whistles.

And what of a guitar? Well, there is no consensus on this. For good reasons, it can be placed either in strings or percussion. (Piano… is “percussion”(!) because of manner of sound production – striking)

Thanks to the Arapahoe Philharmonic of Colorado, you may explore their website, introducing you to these families of instruments to both see AND hear!!!

Go to :


Composers over many centuries have “toyed” (literally) with adding unusual instruments in combination with conventional instruments. The list of the many bells and whistles (again, literally) that have found their way into the orchestra is long. Here is a very good start on such a list, replete with actual videos and audio recordings for you to enjoy! “What will they think of next?!?!?”

Person playing instrument

Ethnic instruments (As an example, I use the Chinese instrument “Erhu”. Film composer Michael Giacchino chose it for its “other-worldly” sound in the first Star Trek movie. He states “I wanted to show Spock was caught between two worlds. To do this, I needed something that would represent his Vulcan heritage amidst a traditional western orchestral sound, which represented his place within Starfleet. I felt that the Erhu was the perfect instrument to demonstrate that – a sound that is less familiar to western orchestras, with a beautiful voice that felt far away and nostalgic”.   the erhu (audio only), used in Star Trek (the movie) [enters at 40 seconds]  video of the instrument played solo

Choir (numerous examples in compositions spanning hundreds of years – including within movie soundtracks)  3’ video  Star Trek Beyond  visual soundtrack – composer Michael Giacchino

Car horns (American in Paris, by George Gershwin) (3’ GREAT video)

Typewriter (“The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson) (2’)

Water Glasses (“Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica in C minor KV617” by W. A. Mozart) (3’ excerpt) (the music)

Cannon (“1812 Overture” P. I. Tchaikovsky)  (see 4:12 and 6:20)

For one performance of the “1812 Overture” which I conducted, I used large rifles with blanks, in place of the “cannon” shots. I arranged for the local police department to “perform” this piece. They shot blanks on cue into large, empty oil bins. I had to prepare the musicians (and audience!) for the sound, as it was really (!!!) loud! [A funny side note: I provide music for many church weddings. On occasion, the bride will list the opening procession as “Cannon in D” (instead of “Canon” (i.e. a “round” – a musical form)). Perhaps the Pachelbel Canon portends some fireworks in the marriage!]

Church Bells (“1812 Overture” P. I. Tchaikovsky) (see link above)

As a child, I attended a band concert which featured the “1812 Overture”. The two bells used on stage were actual large church bells, probably 4-5 tall, and hanging from two very strong beams to support all the weight. When played, the performers had large mallets and, with all their might, banged on these bells on cue. It was DRAMATIC!

Blacksmith’s Anvil (“Anvil Chorus” from Opera: “Il Trovatore” by G. Verdi) (3’)

Various “toys” (“Toy Symphony” by W. A. Mozart) (9’) (toys are to your left-on the screen)

Theremin (“Remembrance for Theremin and Orchestra” composed and performed by Carolina Eyck)  (4’)

The theremin is an electronic device which produces an ethereal sound. The performer learns to produce the sound by positioning their hands in certain ways which the theremin recognizes in three-dimensional space. One hand is for volume, the other is for pitch. The performer may look like they are touching something, but they are doing these motions in thin air. ADDITIONALLY, please know that Milwaukee’s own Discovery World has a Theremin as part of the music display – and yes… HANDS ON! Check it out!

Synthesizers (found in many contemporary film score, especially by John Williams. Mr. Williams will often have three or four different synthesizers along with the full complement of traditional orchestral instruments.)

Various odd percussion instruments… like “flexatone”  (demo 30”)

…and the list… goes on!!!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.