How to Identify Orchestra Instruments

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How to Identify Orchestra Instruments
Identify Orchestra Instruments

Nothing is worse than going to the symphony with someone you are trying to impress and during the intermission observing, "Wow, that was a powerfully moving piece. I was particularly impressed when the, um, violin that is so big it had to be placed on the floor was played in a solo." To which, the person you are trying to impress says, "You mean the cello solo?" Ouch. There are many voices and many instruments in a symphonic orchestra, but identifying them is not difficult.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy


  1. 1

    Realize that an orchestra is arranged in a fixed pattern. That way, a conductor knows when he turns to his left and lifts his hand for more volume, the violins will play louder.

  2. 2

    Study a map detailing how an orchestra sits. In the center first row are the strings. On the right and left sides, the strings extend all the way to the back. In the center second and third rows are the woodwind instruments. In the fourth row are the brass, and behind them are the percussionists and harp.

  3. 3

    Learn that the strings contain four instruments: the violin (divided into first and second violins), violas, cellos, and double bases. A violin is a "fiddle." A viola may be slightly larger than a violin, but it is always tuned a fifth of the scale lower. A cello is a lower-pitched string instrument that must be played while held between the musician's knees. It stands on a spike. A double bass is the lowest of the stringed voices, and it is so large that it must be played standing up.

  4. 4

    Explore the woodwind instruments, which are comprised of flutes, oboes, English horns, clarinets and bassoons. A flute is a long, metal instrument with a number of keys in a straight row. It is held horizontally. A piccolo is a small version of a flute. An oboe has a dark wood body, is larger than a clarinet, and has double reeds through which the musician blows. An English horn is not really a horn, but rather a larger and lower pitched version of the oboe. A clarinet has only one reed and a body of black wood. A bassoon is the largest of the woodwinds. It is made of 2 tubes joined at the bottom by a U tube. It has 2 reeds attached to the instrument's side by a small, curved tube.

  5. 5

    Move on to the brass, made up of horns, trumpets, trombones and the tubas. The French horn is made of 12 feet of curved brass tube, configured in a circle and ending in an enlarging bell. The trumpet is a bugle with valves. The trombone has a sliding tube that is moved in-and-out to change notes. The tuba is the largest brass instrument with its tubes coiled into an oblong shape.

  6. 6

    Read about the most diverse group of all the instruments, the percussion section. Specialty pieces will call for the one-time use of instruments as varied as sleigh bells to cannons. The more commonly used instruments are the tympani, or kettle drum, the snare drum, the bass drum, the tubular bells (or chimes), the xylophone, the glockenspeil and celesta, which are smaller versions of a xylophone, the tambourine, the cymbals, the triangle and the castanets.

  7. 7

    Finish your review with the harp. Now you're ready to conduct.

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