Making the decision to play a musical instrument is a big step in a person's life. Your choice of musical instrument will affect your place in the musical world for years to come. Will you be a member of the woodwinds, playing high, breathless trills and sweet low tones? Will you jam out as a member of the percussion family? Becoming a member of the orchestra means choosing to belong to one of four families.

The Four Families of the Orchestra

The orchestra can have an overwhelmingly large number of members. Before you step into the world of the orchestra, it is important to know that musical instruments are divided into four families. 

Each group is classified by the sound their instruments produce and the way that sound is originated. From this grouping, we have the string family, the woodwind family, the brass family, and the percussion family. 

As in human families, each member is unique. In each family, there are big instruments and small instruments, instruments that are easy to learn, and instruments that are tricky. And each instrument has many personalities. Soft and quiet, or sharp and loud. Some styles can be used outside of the orchestra, while others are played there exclusively. Each player has his or her instrument, and each instrument has its place.

String Family

The string family is the largest of the classical orchestra. Each instrument has four strings. They produce sound when a bow, usually made of horse hair, is drawn against the strings. The strings may also be plucked manually for a shorter, sharper sound. The placement of the fingers of the left hand determines the pitch while the right hand directs the bow causing the strings to vibrate.

This family requires good dexterity, coordination and pitch recognition (which will develop over time)  and therefore requires a lot of practice and patience in the beginning, as progress can be slow. It comprises the Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass. They look almost the same with just varying sizes.

•    Violin – Its four strings are metal; the sound is sweet and high pitched. There are two groups of violin players; each with a unique music sheet to play.

•    Viola – This is slightly larger and can produce relatively lower notes than a violin.

•    Cello – It’s bulky and mostly not mobile.

•    Double Bass – This is bigger than a Cello; it produces the lowest notes in the family but is still musically versatile. 

All stringed instruments are popular outside of the orchestra.  They are found in solo and chamber music, jazz, blues, rockabilly, and many others.

Woodwind Family

The woodwind family depends on the vibration of air in a tube. In the past, members of this family were all made of wood, which gives them their name. Today, they are wood, metal, plastic, or some combination. The “wind” from its name is so-called because they produce sound by blowing air across a reed ( a small piece of cane) to get the vibration.  The clarinets and saxophones use one reed, while the oboe and bassoon use a double reed made of two pieces joined.

The flute is also a member of this family even though it does not use a reed.   To best remember if an instrument is in the woodwind family you can also notice that each instrument in the family has many small keys where both hands are equally responsible for playing the notes.  

Like the stringed instruments, the smaller woodwinds produce higher pitches. All of the members of the woodwind family are equally important to a balanced orchestra. 

Brass Family

The Brass Family got its name from the material which it was named from: a metal alloy made of copper and zinc. Similar to the woodwinds, sound depends on the vibration of air in a tube.  All instruments in the brass family use a metal mouthpiece and music starts by vibrating the lips. Loosening or tightening the lips will produce different pitches (partials).  Combining this technique with various valves provides some combinations of pitches. The brass family comprises of five major instruments with several other similar variations on them. 

•    Trumpets - These tools are the highest pitched members of the brass family, and are found in classical and jazz ensembles. Standard horns have 3 valves. Each valve individually changes the pitch by ½ step, 1 whole step or the third valve changing the pitch by 1½ steps.   Players will learn to read the music written on the treble clef.  A standard trumpet is transposed to Bb.

•    French horn – It requires a little more pitch recognition to learn because more notes are created by just changing the shape of the lips when compared to other brass instruments. Nonetheless, it is very fulfilling to learn. Players will learn to read the music generally in the treble clef. A standard French horn is transposed to F.  Double French horns are transposed to both Bb and F.

•    Trombone - The trombone has a unique feature.  Members of the brass family use valves or keys that are pushed with the fingertips to change pitch. The trombone uses a slide that when extended produces an infinite number of pitches.  Players learn “positions” for the slide to produce notes that are in tune.  Players will learn to read the music on the tenor trombone in the treble clef.  A standard trombone is transposed to  Bb.

•    Baritone – Very similar to a euphonium, it is larger than a trumpet and smaller than a tuba. Typically held with the bell facing above the players head.  Players will learn to read the music in the bass clef.  A player that formerly played the trumpet and does not wish to learn to read the bass clef can play some parts from the treble clef.  Baritones and Euphoniums are transposed to Bb.

•    Tuba –A very large instrument, they provide the lowest pitches and do come in different scale sizes to accommodate the size of the player.  A standard tuba is transposed to BBb and players learn to read the bass clef.

Percussion Family

Percussion instruments come in all shapes and sizes, are made of various kinds of materials, and produce an incredibly diverse range of sounds. They can be the largest down to the smallest instruments in the orchestra. Percussion instruments are struck or scraped with a stick or mallet or are shaken. 

The Percussion Family is responsible for keeping and setting rhythmic patterns, shaping the music feel, makes unique sounds, and adds excitement and color to the orchestra. Unlike most of the other players in the orchestra, the percussionist sometimes plays several instruments in one musical piece. 

A percussionist is challenged to hit a device with the right amount of strength, in the right place and at the right time. There are others, but the most common percussion instruments in the orchestra are:

•    Timpani – Each timpani can be tuned differently, but it can only produce one pitch at a time. This means that a different timpani produces each note in the orchestra. As a timpani player, one will be required to change the pitches of the drums in between performances.  A standard set consists of 2 to 4 timpani.  Players are responsible for learning to recognize pitch to tune quickly.

•    Xylophone – This and other mallet style instruments produce pitched tone, with keys that look like those of a piano and played with the use of a mallet.  Other common mallet instruments are the glockenspiel, vibraphone, and marimba.  Beginners typically start with a 2 ½ octave bell set.

•    Cymbals – These cut through sound makers are used to instigate drama and excitement to emphasize points.  They can be mounted on a stand, or a pair can be held and crashed together.

•    Triangle - It’s one of the most basic percussion instruments. It produces sound by holding it on a string and striking it with a metal beater. The size and thickness of the triangle and the beater define the sound it produces.

•    Snare drum – This is one of the most easily recognizable instruments in the orchestra. The snare drum works extremely well as an accentuating instrument by defining the rhythm of the piece.

•    Bass drum – This is integral in the overall feel of a piece of music as it produces the lowest pitch. It can also create a broad range of sounds from roaring thunder to the softest whispers.

•    Chimes – They are a series of metal tubes of different lengths that are hung from a metal frame. Each chime resonates at a different pitch. This instrument is mostly associated with angels coming down from heaven.

•    Piano – It is one of the most popular percussion instruments of all time. In the orchestra, the piano has the largest range of all the tools. It has a crucial role in the melody and harmony.

Now we’ve covered the basics. Remember that all members of the orchestra are important for the team.  They can be played in a group or enjoyed individually.  That is what makes playing an instrument one of the most giving experiences. It’s time to choose your instrument, and it’s up to you to decide what role you’re going to play!