All About The Orchestra
A symphony orchestra in full flight makes a huge amount of sound. But the glorious music can seem daunting to a lot of people who are confused by the way it's put together. The orchestra is, in fact, a very carefully arranged group of highly talented musicians. Even the way they're placed on the stage is deliberately thought out, with strings at the front, the winds and reeds behind, with percussion at the back to one side, and brass to the back on the other side - arranged more by volume than anything else.
The members of the orchestra sit in a semi-circle, facing the conductor, who guides them through the written scores, giving cues with the baton.
The Instruments of the Orchestra
StringsThe strings consist of violins, violas and cellos, as well as the double bass. The violins are the most populous of the orchestral instruments, with up to 30 involved. They're divided into two sections, the first violins playing the melody of a piece. The small of the stringed instruments, it has a high, bright sound that's the mainstay of the orchestra.
Violas are a little larger, with a more melancholy, darker sound. A typical orchestra has between 10 and 14 violas, which complement the violins and add a second treble layer to the string section. Like violins, the viola is held under the chin and played with a bow.
The cello is held upright between the knees. Like the violin and viola it's played with a bow. It has a rich, deeper sound than the other strings, with a warmth that adds a depth to the sound. You'll usually find between eight and 12 cellos in an orchestra.
The six to eight double basses of the orchestra form a deep underpinning to the sound. Either bowed or plucked, their size - some six feet tall - means they have to be played standing up.
Many orchestras also include one or two harps. The strings are the same as a piano, but plucked instead on played on a keyboard. The light, rippling sound can be beautiful.
WoodwindsThe woodwinds are all played by blowing into the instrument and making music by various combinations of fingers on the holes in the instrument. Most wind instruments are reeds. That means you blow through a sharpened reed to make the sound, as with the clarinet.
The flute has a high clear sound. You'll find between two and four of them in the orchestra. They're held transversely, meaning across, rather than down, playing the melodies, and it's not a reed instrument.
The oboes are reeds, with a sad sound that's deeper than some of the other orchestral reeds, like the clarinet. Like the flutes, there are between two and four oboes in the orchestra (this is true for clarinets too). The other big difference between these two reeds is that the oboe has two reeds, the clarinet only one. The bassoon (again, there are between two and four in an orchestra) is also double-reeded, a long instrument that's actually folded. Even doubled over it's almost four feet long, with a deep sound - but not as deep as the contrabassoon. Other wind instruments you might find in the orchestra are the high piccolo and the English horn (which, just to confuse, actually is neither English nor a horn).
BrassThe brass instruments are the loudest in the orchestra. They're blown, and mostly the notes are made by depressing valves:
- The trumpet is the smallest of the brass instruments. Each orchestra has two to four trumpets, often taking the lead brass role. Held horizontally, it's the highest of the brass instruments.
- The French horn originated in France, and is distinguished by its curved shape. With a mellower sound, it provides a lovely underpinning to the brass. There can be up to eight French horns in the orchestra.
- The trombone is the odd man out in brass, as the notes are made by moving a slide. The orchestra usually contains three trombones, which often play together as a trio.
- The tuba is the bass brass instrument, and the biggest, which needs to be played seated. Like the French horn, it's curved, and easily found by the fact that there's only one of them on the stage!
PercussionThere's a multitude of orchestral percussion instruments. They not only provide the rhythm, but if something like the vibraphone is used, also the melody. The main percussion instruments are:
- Snare drum: This is a small drum on a strand which offers a sharp, high beat.
- Cymbals: Always in pairs, and banged together, the metal cymbals provide emphasis and punctuation in the music.
- Timpani: Also known as kettle drums, the timpani (there can be up to four, all played by one person) have a deep, resonant sound. They're tuned to different pitches and played with felt-tipped mallets.