How does each instrument sound? What are the instruments made of?
We wanted to create a resource to answer these questions, and more. Below you will find short videos and descriptions about the instruments most commonly found in the orchestra.
These videos are part of a virtual educational program called Meet the Symphony. The program consists of four videos, each approximately 25 minutes long, and corresponding curriculum pieces. Each video introduces a different family of the orchestra. Following a brief introduction from Maestro Dominick, the musicians demonstrate their instruments, explain how their instruments create sound, and discuss their musical backgrounds.
Corresponding lesson plans for the instrument family videos below are available through our Digital Classroom.
Additionally, scroll down for short videos about each instrument of the orchestra.
Antonio Vivaldi: 'Spring' from The Four Seasons
Violin: (soprano of the string family) The vibrations caused by drawing the bow across the string reverberate against the sound post, a small wooden rod underneath the bridge, inside the violin. These vibrations are amplified and transferred within the violin to create its sound. The scroll at the top and the tailpiece are responsible for holding the strings in place. The vibrations of the strings can be adjusted by placing a rubber mute on the strings. This causes the characteristically clear and direct sound of the violin to be softer and less focused.
Max Bruch: Romance
Viola: (alto of the string family)The viola is mechanically similar to the violin in the way its sound is produced. The viola is 1-1 ½ inches longer and overall bigger than the violin, allowing for longer and thicker strings. This creates the lower sound of the viola as there is more length for further vibration. Like the violin, the viola is supported by the musician's shoulder and held under the chin.
Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez: 'Remember Me' from Coco
Cello: (tenor/bass of the string family) The cello is also mechanically similar to the violin, with its main difference being its much larger size. As a result, the cello can not be held on a musician's shoulder. Instead, it rests on the floor, supported by a metal rod called an endpin. Cello strings are tuned to the same pitches as viola strings - A, D, G, C - but at a lower octave.
Camille Saint-Saens: 'The Elephant' from The Carnival of the Animals
Double Bass: (bass/contrabass of the string family) The double bass is a modern, hybrid instrument as it includes mechanical elements from the violin and viola da gamba families to create its sound. From the violin family, the double bass has similar sound holes, scroll, and rounded back. From the da gamba family, the double bass gets its flat back and string tuning. While the double bass tunes its strings to the same pitches as the violin - E, A, D, G - the pitches are reversed, with the E string as the lowest pitch.
Sergei Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf
Flute: The flute is made of three parts: the headjoint, body, and footjoint. Air is blown across and into the lip plate on the head joint. This air travels through the flute. Keys on the body and foot joint can be open and closed in specific patterns to create the sound desired and affect the tone of the notes produced. In addition to the flute, orchestral repertoire often includes the piccolo, which is a smaller version of the flute that plays an octave above the flute’s normal range.
John Williams: theme from Star Wars
Oboe: The oboe is composed of three sections: the top joint, middle joint, and the bell. It is classified as a double reed instrument in reference to how the sound is produced. The double reed of an oboe is made with two thin pieces of cane bound together in a circular shape. When air is blown through the reed, these pieces of cane vibrate against each other to create a sound. The keys found along the entire instrument can be opened and closed to change the pitch of the sound produced. While the oboe functions as a soprano instrument, an alto double reed instrument called the English Horn is also featured in symphonic works.
John Powell: Theme from How to Train Your Dragon
Clarinet: A clarinet is composed of five parts: the mouthpiece, the barrel, the upper joint, the lower joint, and the funnel-shaped bell. Clarinets produce sound by using a single reed made of cane. When the reed is put into the mouthpiece, there is a small gap that the player blows air into between the reed and mouthpiece. This causes the tip of the reed to vibrate and create the sound of the clarinet. There are two types of clarinet that are commonly seen in the SSO: the b flat clarinet, which plays in the soprano/alto range, and the bass clarinet.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Bassoon: The bassoon is composed of five parts: a crook, the wing joint, the boot, the long joint, and the bell. The bassoon utilizes a double reed to create sound, but unlike the oboe, the reed for the bassoon is u-shaped. The reed is connected to the crook, which spans the length of the bassoon. When air is blown into the reed, it travels down the length of the crook to the bottom of the bassoon to the top. The player can change the pitch by opening and closing the keys in specific patterns. The bassoon plays music in the same range as the cello, and the closely-related contrabassoon has a range similar to the double bass.
John Williams: Theme from Star Wars
Trumpet: The trumpet is the smallest brass instrument in the orchestra. Its sound is created by the vibration of the player's lips inside of the cup-like mouthpiece. The body of the instrument is comprised of valves, a bell, and coiled brass tubing which measures 4 feet and 10 inches long. The most common trumpet used in orchestral playing is a C trumpet, and the trumpet functions as the soprano member of the brass family. Trumpets are often found in jazz ensembles as well as in orchestras.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 4
Horn: The french horn consists of a small circular brass body, a mouthpiece, valves, and bell. It produces sound in the same way as the trumpet. If the french horn were to be uncoiled and straightened, the brass tubing would measure over 12 feet long! This instrument has the widest range of the brass family, capable of playing pitches between A1 and F5. In order to create such a wide range of pitches, one hand controls the valves while the other hand rests inside the bell and adjusts its position to change the sound.
Henry Fillmore: Lassus Trombone
Trombone: Like the other brass instruments, the trombone produces sound via the vibration of the player's lips in the mouthpiece. However, unlike its counterparts, the trombone is a long instrument whose pitch is controlled by the movement of a slide. Moving the slide makes the instrument longer or shorter and changes the pitch in accordance with the length of the slide. Fully extended, the trombone is comprised of about 9 feet of tubing. The two most common types of trombones used in symphonic literature are the tenor trombone and the bass trombone.
Original composition by SSO musician Carl Kleinsteuber
Tuba: While its mouthpiece and subsequent sound production function in the same way as the rest of the brass family, everything about the tuba is bigger. The largest of the brass family, the tuba is known for its low notes and loud presence. The tuba is approximately 18 feet in length when uncoiled. While tubas can be played while standing, such as for a marching band, tubas, due to their large size, are often played while seated.
Timpani: Timpani (singular timpano) are large, single-sided drums. Instead of having two skins like snare drums, they instead have a large copper or brass base with material stretched across the top. Timpani are very sensitive instruments and the pitch can easily change in response to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Timpani are low in pitch with a range of approximately one and a half octaves.
Koji Kondo: Theme from Super Mario Bros.
Xylophone: The xylophone is comprised of wooden bars in varying lengths that create different pitches. The wooden bars are arranged side-by-side, giving the instrument an appearance similar to that of a keyboard instrument. When struck with mallets, the wooden bars create a soft, ringing sound. The average range of a xylophone is 3 to 3½ octaves.
John Williams: Hedwig's Theme
Glockenspiel: Similar to the xylophone, the Glockenspiel consists of metal bars arranged in the same way as a piano’s keys. Originally a substitute for bells, the Glockenspiel became very popular and was maintained as a distinctive instrument. This small and high-pitched metal instrument has an average range of 2½ octaves.
Snare Drum: The snare drum is a small drum that is significantly wider than it is tall, with two skins, one on each side, called vellum. The distinct sound of the snare drum comes from the 8-18 strings that are found under the skin of the instrument. When tightened by pressing a pedal, these strings give the instrument a striking staccato sound. The snare drum's characteristic sound can be found in both band and orchestral literature.