Discovering Orchestral Music: Common Musical Instruments Played By an Orchestra

Discovering Orchestral Music: Common Musical Instruments Played By an Orchestra

Jan 2, 2019, 8:23:38 PM Life and Styles

If you love music, you must have heard of the word “orchestra.” The term is used to describe an ensemble with 50 to 100 members that play classical music using a broad range of musical instruments, such as percussion, brass, wind, and stringed instruments.

These instruments produce different timbres or tone colors to create the quality of sound that needed to play a musical composition. If you want to understand orchestra better, it’s wise to know first the different instruments used by an orchestral ensemble. Here’s an article that will help you for that purpose.

Brass Instruments

The brass family in an orchestra includes instruments such as trumpet, French horn, tuba, and trombone.


As one of the instruments in the brass family, the trumpet has a typical high sound which is ideal in powerful and rhythmic tutti passages in an orchestral piece.

You can find various types of this orchestral instrument, the most popular of which is the B flat trumpet. Trumpet-related instruments include bugles, flugelhorn, and cornet. If you’re looking for this instrument, you can check these Best Professional Trumpet Reviews before you go to a musical instrument shop near you.

French Horn

A French horn is a brass musical instrument that creates a wide range of sounds from soft to loud, and from smooth to harsh. It’s a transposing instrument that can play harmony, melody, and rhythm. It also complements beautifully with woodwind instruments, especially in a woodwind quintet.


As the largest instrument of the brass family, the tuba pulls together the harmony of the entire orchestra with its deep rich sound. It has a long, oblong-shaped metal tube with a large bell at the end. It also comes with a mouthpiece and valves for sound control.


Instead of valves, a trombone has slides that enable a player to change pitch and key. In an orchestra, there are typically three of this type of brass instrument that plays harmonies together.

Stringed Instruments

The stringed instruments that you typically see in an orchestral ensemble are the cello, violin, viola, harp, and double bass.


The cello has the same face as the violin but is much bigger. Its strings are also thicker than the viola or violin. The cello can create a wide range of tones and almost sounds like a human voice. In an orchestra, there are 8 to 12 of this type of instrument that plays both melody and harmony.


This type of string instrument creates the highest sound among the string family. In an orchestra, there are more or less 30 violins divided into two groups. The first group plays the melody, while the latter group plays alternately between harmony and melody.


Larger and has thicker strings than the violin, the viola is a string instrument that produces a warm and rich sound. You can see 10 to 14 violas in an orchestral ensemble, and this instrument does the harmony part of the orchestra.


About six feet in height and has 47 strings, the harp is quite a bit unlike the other instruments in the string family. This instrument is tuned to the notes of a piano’s white keys, and it plays both harmony and melody. It also comes with pedals that change the pitch of the strings.

Double Bass

The double bass is the biggest member among the stringed instruments in an orchestra. It produces low notes and plays the orchestral harmony. Due to its size, you have to play this instrument while standing up or sitting on a tall stool.

Woodwind Instruments

The woodwind instruments that are usually played by an orchestra are the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon.


A standard flute has a length of about 2 feet, and it produces rhythmic and pitched sounds that accompany the melody of the entire orchestra. It has holes that you can close or open to control the key and pitch. Typically, an orchestra has 2 to 4 flutes.


The clarinet plays both harmony and melody in an orchestra. It produces a deep rich sound when you play a lower note, and a resonant sound when you play a high note. Generally, there are 4 to 6 clarinets in an orchestra.


The oboe is a woodwind instrument that has holes and a double-reed mouthpiece. This instrument creates warm and smooth sounds through a vibration from the mouthpiece.


A straightforward description of the bassoon is that it’s a long wooden pipe that has a lot of keys. It comes with a double reed metal mouthpiece and produces a sound for both melody and harmony. In an orchestra, you can see 2 to 4 of this instrument.

Percussion Instruments

There are a lot of percussion instruments in an orchestra, depending on the type of musical composition being played. But the common ones are the bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, chimes, and timpani.

Bass Drum

As its name implies, the bass drum creates the lowest sounds in an orchestra. It has huge, soft drum heads covered with felt or sheepskin that a player hits with sticks.

Snare Drum

A snare drum is made of brass or wood with stretched plastic or calfskin drum heads. It produces a rattling sound when hit with a drumstick. The snare drum helps in keeping the rhythm and creating the classic drum rolls.


Cymbals are metal discs made of bronze that produces dramatic sound effects in an orchestra. It comes in a variety of sizes from small to large and is hit with a mallet, stick, or brush to generate sounds.


Chimes produce sounds similar to ringing church bells. It has metal tubes with varying lengths, each of them generates a sound in a different pitch.


Timpani is a percussion instrument that looks like a huge bowl with stretched calfskin drum heads. It can play a variety of notes, and you can change its pitch by tightening or loosening the drum heads. Timpani is ideal in adding to the rhythm, harmony, and melody of orchestral music.


Orchestral music is a beautiful musical genre that has a long and rich history. It’s been played to grace ceremonial occasions and formal concerts around the world. That’s why it’s essential that we study and familiarize ourselves with it.

For beginners, it’s crucial that we know the different types of musical instruments played by an orchestra. Reading the list of instruments above is a good start to learn about orchestral music.


Published by Zachary McGavin

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