The symphony orchestra, with its large ensemble of varied instruments, is the centrepiece of classical music performance. When learning about the members of the symphony orchestra, think about the instruments as members of their families rather than individual voices. The instrument groupings are often the main determinant of how each is used in a piece of music.
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The high strings often carry the melody of the music. They are one of the largest sections in the orchestra. The high strings section is made up of violins and violas.
The low strings add the drama and energy to the music. They often create the texture and harmonies in the piece but can carry the melody as well. The low strings section consists of cellos and stand-up basses.
Brass instruments are metallic and produce pitch by the buzzing of lips through a mouthpiece. They are often the countermelody to the string section and can be used to create a regal, courtly sound as well as a powerful low pulsing beat. The members of the brass section are, from highest to lowest, trumpet, french horn, trombone and tuba.
This is the most varied of the instrument families in the orchestra. Woodwind instruments produce pitch either through air blown across a blowhole or by the vibration of a reed. They can add a lightness to the tone of an orchestra as well as a mischievous or coy sensibility. The air-blown woodwind instruments are the flute and the piccolo. The reed instruments are the clarinet, oboe, English horn, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon.
Percussion instruments are sometimes thought of as the rhythm section of the orchestra. But many percussion instruments can carry melodies as well. The unifying factor of percussion instruments is that they produce pitch through a striking motion. The pitched percussive instruments are the xylophone, timpani and bell. The non-pitched percussive instruments are the cymbal, snare drum, bass drum and gong.
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