EDUCATION » Families of Instruments

Families of Instruments

The String Family

The string family is the largest in the orchestra, and is composed of violins, violas, cellos and double basses. All the instruments have strings, and the sound is produced by drawing a bow across or plucking the strings. The larger the instrument, the lower the sound.


The violin is the smallest instrument in the string family, and has the highest pitched sound. The violin is held between the musician’s shoulder and chin, with the left hand fingers pressing down on the strings while the right hand moves the bow. There are many more violins than any other instrument in an orchestra. The violins make the core sound of an orchestra and carry the melody most of the time. The violins are divided into two sections; the first and the second violins.





The viola is slightly larger than the violin, and has a lower sound. While the violin is the soprano member of this family, the viola is the alto. Just like all the other members of the string family, the viola is made out of many pieces of wood carefully shaped and glued together. Like the violin, the viola is played by holding it under the musician’s chin.




The cello is much larger than the violin or viola. To play the cello, the musician sits while holding the instrument upright and supports it between his/her knees as it rests on the floor. The cello plays an octave lower than the viola, and is at once the tenor and bass of the string family. It’s function is to accompany the melody line. Yo-Yo Ma is a very famous cello player.






Double Bass

The double bass is the largest member of the string family, and is about six feet tall. The musician must stand or sit on a stool to play the double bass. The double bass plays the lowest notes of the string family, one full octave below the cello. The primary role of the double bass is to double the bass line, hence its name.







The Woodwind Family

In the orchestra, the woodwind family is composed of piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. The instruments are basically hollow tubes with holes. To produce different pitches, the musician blows through the tube while covering the holes in various combinations. Originally all the instruments were made of wood, but now they are sometimes made from other materials such as metal.

Flute and Piccolo

The flute is held sideways while the musician blows across a hole near one end. The piccolo is similar to the flute, but is smaller and plays an octave higher. Modern flutes are generally made of precious metals, while piccolos are often still made of wood.






The oboe is a 2 foot long black cylinder with metal keys covering its holes, and its mouthpiece uses a double reed, which vibrates when you blow through it. The oboes produce a wide range of pitches, from haunting sounds to warm, velvety smooth notes, which make the sound of the oboe very memorable. In addition to playing in the orchestra, the first oboist is also responsible for tuning the orchestra before each concert.






The clarinet has a single reed that is attached to a mouthpiece. It looks very similar to the oboe, but is slightly larger and produces a somewhat lower, mellower sound. The bass clarinet is larger than the clarinet and plays one octave lower. Modern clarinets and oboes are made of African black wood.





The bassoon is the largest and the lowest sounding member of the woodwinds. It uses a double reed similar to that of the oboe. The bassoon is made with a bend in it, so that it doubles back on itself. This allows the instrument to have a lower sound. If it were stretched out it would be over two meters long! They are usually made of curly maple wood. The contrabassoon (also called the double bassoon), the cousin of the bassoon, can produce the lowest sound of any instrument in the orchestra.





The Brass Family

The brass family is so called because all the members are made of brass. They are essentially long metal tubes coiled into unusual shapes. They produce the strongest sounds in the orchestra, so there are usually only a few in each orchestra. The musician’s lips vibrate in the mouthpiece to set a column of air vibrating and the sound created is amplified by the bell at the end of the instrument. As the length of the instrument changes, so does the pitch. The longer the instrument, the lower the pitch.


The trumpet has a bright sound. Throughout recent history, armies often used trumpets for signaling. In the old days, trumpets did not have valves, and any change in pitch was made by changing the tension in the lips.


French Horn

The French horn is coiled many times, and if straightened out it would be more than four meters long. It was originally used in Renaissance Europe as a hunting horn.




Trombone is Italian for "big trumpet", but unlike the trumpet it has no valves. Instead, it is played by sliding the tubing back and forth to change the pitch, using seven positions to produce many different notes. There are three sizes of trombones. The usual one is known as the tenor trombone. The alto trombone is about 2/3 the size of the tenor trombone. The bass trombone is the same length as the tenor trombone but has a larger bell and two trigger valves.




The tuba is the largest member of the brass family, and has the lowest sound. Invented around 1850, the tuba is also the newest member of the brass family. It takes more air to play the tuba than any other wind instrument.




The Percussion Family

Most instruments of the percussion family are played by striking. But some are played by shaking, scraping, bowing, or blowing. The percussion family can be divided into two basic groups—pitched and non-pitched instruments. Pitched instruments include the keyboard percussion instruments such as the xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and chimes. Also included in this group are the timpani or kettle drums—the most common drums used in the orchestra. Altering the tension of the drum head (by means of a pedal) can change the pitch of the timpani. Examples of instruments in the non-pitched group include the snare and bass drums, cymbals, tambourine, gong, and triangle. Percussion instruments are also classified by the kind of material that their vibrating part is made from—wood, skin, or metal. Drums are skin instruments. Triangles, cymbals, cowbells, glockenspiels, and vibraphones are metal instruments. Wood blocks, claves, guiros, xylophones, and marimbas are wooden instruments.

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