The Different Types of Musical Instruments in an Orchestra

Orchestras are made up of musicians playing various instruments. Though each looks and sounds distinct, they can be divided into 4 main families: Strings, Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion.

String instruments in the family include violin, viola, cello and double bass. Each instrument possesses four strings of varying thicknesses – thinner strings have higher pitches.


The string section is the largest group of instruments in an orchestra. It consists of violins (usually divided into first and second violin parts), violas, cellos, double basses and the harp.

They all produce distinct sounds, making them the ideal choice to carry a melody in an orchestra. Additionally, they can blend well with almost anything else on stage; from romantic love themes and atonal horror cues to powerful heroic melodies and emotional ballads.

Hornbostel-Sachs’ classification of musical instruments places chordophones. These instruments feature strings or cords spanning over a hollow body and are played using a bow to vibrate the string in order to produce sound.

Most are constructed from wood, with their heads shaped like circles and bodies curved inward. All have four strings arranged in ascending order of pitch that can be played by stretching, plucking or bowing them.

The violin, viola and cello are the smaller instruments in the string family, producing higher pitched sounds. On the other hand, the double bass (sometimes referred to as contrabass) is the largest instrument and produces deep and rich tones.

Cellos can be played either with a bow or plunked (pizzicato). They are typically held between the shoulder and chin, with larger cellos slightly behind the knees. Alternatively, double basses may be played standing up or seated on a high stool.

These musicians don’t need to breathe as frequently as brass and woodwind players, making it easier for them to play continuously for extended periods of time. Furthermore, their higher pitched notes make them stand out in an orchestra, allowing them to carry longer melodies without taking breaks between phrases – an invaluable advantage when conducting!


Woodwind instruments are essential elements in orchestras, providing us with a range of sound colors. Their musical history dates back centuries, and they continue to be utilized around the globe in various capacities.

Many woodwind instruments are still made from wood, while others are constructed out of metal or plastic. No matter their composition, all produce sound when air is blown across them or pressed against a key on the mouthpiece.

Some instruments, such as the clarinet, oboe and bassoon, use reeds–thin pieces of wood that vibrate when you blow on them. Some are double reed, meaning they have two pieces joined together.

Other instruments in the woodwind family, such as flute and recorder, do not use reeds. These instruments are widely popular and can be played by anyone interested in making music.

Woodwind instruments come in a variety of sizes and pitches, from small to large. Popular instruments include the oboe, English horn, clarinet, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, cor anglais and bassoon.

Woodwinds may not be the most well-known of orchestral instruments, but they offer a distinctive sound color that can enhance a song or composition. Not only do they help create rhythm in songs, but also add an emotional aspect to melodies.

The woodwind section of a traditional orchestra consists of pairs of flutes, oboes and clarinets as well as other auxiliary instruments like piccolo and cor anglais. Furthermore, some ensembles like wind quintets, marching bands or drum corps may feature woodwinds too.


Brass instruments are often included in orchestras due to their loudness and power of sound. But brass instruments also possess the capacity to add a warm, mellow tone to music when used correctly.

Brass is a metal composed of copper and zinc that can also be alloyed with other elements. It has many applications due to its low melting point, excellent workability (both manual labor and modern turning/milling machines), durability and electrical/thermal conductivity. Brass plays an integral role in many industrial processes due to its advantages.

Brass instruments in an orchestra typically include horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas. Each of these types of instruments can be distinguished from one another by its range and articulations.

When playing a brass instrument, players use their lips to “buzz” against the mouthpiece in a similar manner as blowing into a reed. Different techniques can be employed for creating different notes, such as circular breathing and altering how quickly they vibrate their lips.

Most brass instruments feature valves attached to their long pipes, which open and close when the player presses down on them. You can then adjust the length of the pipe in order to alter its sound production.

Brass instruments produce their sound by playing different pitches as airflow passes through a long pipe. These notes, known as harmonics, arise when the tube vibrates at its natural rate. Since playing pedal tone on brass instruments is not always possible, players often rely on playing various harmonics instead – this presents challenges but also results in more intricate and complex soundscapes.


Percussion is the beating heart of music, composed of an expansive range of instruments that produce sound when struck or scraped with an object. It’s often considered to be the most essential part of an orchestra as it keeps time and can produce various tones, pitches and melodic tones.

Since Haydn and Mozart wrote classical pieces for full orchestra, the emphasis has been placed on strings, woodwinds and brass; timpani is rarely used. However, since the 18th century other percussion instruments (like triangles or cymbals) have been included in full orchestral scores – usually only when necessary.

In the early 20th century, percussion became increasingly important in Western music as composers explored more colors, textures and rhythms. Renowned composers such as Varese, Debussy and Strauss took their percussion repertoires to new heights of sophistication.

Percussion instruments have been practiced for millennia in Indian music, with the tabla being one of the oldest known instruments with carvings found in temples dating back to 500 BCE.

Percussion instruments are ubiquitous in music, from jazz and other popular genres to classical orchestral works.

There are various types of percussion instruments, some tuned and others with no defined pitch. Whether or not an instrument has a set pitch determines its playability.

The most commonly used percussion instruments in an orchestra are timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangles and tambourine. However, non-percussive elements like whistles or sirens may also be included.


Harps are stringed musical instruments that produce sound when plucked strings are plucked. Generally triangular in shape, each string produces one note with the length of the strings varying from short to long according to pitch from high to low.

A resonator, or belly, extends perpendicular to the plane of strings and is typically made from wood or skin. Harp bodies can be arched or bow-shaped, angular or even curled at its neck end. Generally attached to a frame – an extended and narrow structure made out of wood or metal connecting all parts – this resonator sits perpendicularly to everything else onboard the instrument.

The harp is an intricate musical instrument, requiring great physical and mental agility to master. A harpist must pay close attention to every nuance in their conductor’s movements as well as pick up on infinitesimal audio cues from other musicians.

Harps come in a variety of sizes, from the small lever harp to the larger concert harp. Lever harps typically feature 22 to 38 strings with each string having its own lever at the top that increases pitch by half a step.

Pedal Positions

On a harp, there are seven pedals set to three positions: flat, natural and sharp. When not in use, all seven pedals default back to their “natural” state, so it is essential that you always use the correct pedal for maximum sound clarity.

Two pedals on a harp can be moved simultaneously, provided they are located on opposite sides. For instance, the C and F pedals should be moved with the left foot while G and A pedals require use of the right foot.