What Instruments are in an Orchestra? (With Chart)

Instruments in an orchestra

What instruments does an orchestra consist of? And how many instruments are there in total? And what are their respective roles in the orchestra?

If you have ever asked yourself these questions you have definitely come to the right place. Because, in this post, you will get the answer to all of them.

A full orchestra consists of around 100 total musicians divided into four different sections. The 4 sections of an orchestra are:

  1. Strings
  2. Woodwinds
  3. Brass
  4. Percussion

Let’s have a closer look at the instruments featured in each section.

And, oh! Can you guess in which section the piano is? (Hint: it is not where you probably think it is)

The Strings

As you probably guessed, this section consists of the typical wooden-bodied instruments you think of when picturing an orchestra:

  • Violin
  • Cello
  • Viola
  • Double basses

But those are not the only string instruments in an orchestra.

Another string instrument that is also in this group is the harp. You might wonder what is the definition of a string instrument? It is an instrument where the instrumentalist has to make strings vibrate in order to produce sound. The player plucks the strings, or most commonly, uses a bow to play the strings.

But what about the guitar? Why is the guitar not included in the string section of the orchestra?

Because orchestras go waaaay back. To the days where musical instruments did not have amplifiers.

Since the guitar had a pretty weak sound projection compared to the other string instruments, it is likely that this is the reason for not becoming a part of the string section.

However, you have probably noticed that I have left out another very specific instrument as well.

The piano.

You might think that the piano is defined as a string instrument in the orchestra because of the strings inside of it?

But actually, it is defined as a percussion instrument due to hammers that hit the strings, rather than someone plucking them or using a bow. If you have ever heard an old, out-of-tune piano, you can clearly hear the percussive sound it produces.

What are the String Instruments’ Respective Roles in the orchestra?

This really depends on which string instrument we’re talking about. Each instrument in the string section has a role to play:

Violin (1st and second): The violins are split into first and seconds, and both are often the lead melody. The second violin underlines and harmonizes with the first violin (the 2nd violin is often playing the same melody in a lower pitch.

The Viola is a little bigger than the violin and has a deeper tone and pitch. Therefore, it is adept at providing depth and rhythmical accompaniments to the violins.

The Cello: This one is harder to get to rest on your shoulder! The cello is quite a bit bigger than the viola and has an even deeper, warmer tone. The cello is very typically playing either counterpoint melodies and/or harmonizing melodies to the violin.

Double Bass (or contrabass): The biggest of them all, the double bass is naturally the deepest sounding one. The most common role the double bass has is to double the melody line of the cello, only an octave lower. It is always a strong foundation for the song.

The Harp: Besides having a crazy beautiful and dreamy sound, the harp is most often accompanying the lead instrument or a human voice. It provides a perfect segway between different sections in a musical piece, and it has a ‘filling in’ quality that is just perfect. It combines well with most instruments.

By the way, if you work with MIDI and want to learn how to get a highly realistic sounding orchestra, you should really read this helpful article.

The Woodwinds

Typical woodwind instruments you will find in this section of the orchestra are:

  • Flute
  • Piccolo
  • Oboe
  • Basson
  • Clarinet
  • Bass Clarinet
  • English Horn
  • Contrabassoon
  • Saxophone (yup!)

Even though you might logically assume that these instruments are all made from wooden material, that is not necessarily the case.

Take the saxophone for instance. You were probably a little surprised that this is not a brass instrument, even though it is obviously made from brass material?

It has a mouthpiece very similar to the clarinet and was actually made in the 1800s as kind of an ‘in-betweener’ between woodwinds and brass instruments. It has to ability to produce both a powerful and distinct sound as well as a warm and soothing sound.

What are the woodwinds’ respective roles in the orchestra?

Generally speaking, they are described as providing ‘color’ and ‘accent’ to the melody.

What do I mean by this?

It means that the woodwinds are having many of the same qualities as the human voice. With a broad range of timbre (cool, bright sounding flutes, the soft-toned clarinet, and the “human-ish” Oboe) the woodwinds definitely add soul and character to a musical piece.

The woodwinds could all go together, forming a choir type of effect, they can create atmos or play a wonderful melody individually. They can basically do it all.

The Brass

Braaaaaaaaaam!

Hans Zimmer

Your hero runs towards the chopper in which the bad guy is trying to escape. The chopper takes off and our hero jumps after it! Hanging from the chopper, he must now climb into the chopper to defeat the bad guy.

This is a typical moment you will hear a brass instrument in a movie.

Brass instruments are loud, distinct and ‘in-your-face’.

Brass is perfect for making a statement and building a climax in a musical piece.

I think that thanks to film scoring, the sound of the french horn is pretty easy to recognise for most people – even though they might not know the name of the instrument.

These are the brass instruments you will find in an orchestra:

  • Trumpet
  • Trombone
  • French Horn
  • Tuba
  • Bass Trombone

“Braaaaaaaam!” indeed.

What are the brass instruments’ respective roles in the orchestra?

They are the third section – and the third ‘color’. The different instruments in this section play different roles. for example, the trumpet was traditionally mostly involved with the rhythmical part, repeated notes and so on.

But as the years progressed, brass developed to really hold their own. Just like strings and woodwinds, brass could easily take on primary material themselves.

They are all capable of being solo instruments – even the tuba, which is in fact, quite lyrical.

The Percussion

And lastly, I present the fourth section, in which you now know you’ll find the piano – the percussion group.

These are the percussion instruments you will typically find in an orchestra:

  • Snare Drum
  • Timpani
  • Triangle
  • Bass Drum
  • Cymbals
  • Gong
  • Vibraphone
  • Piano

What are the percussion instruments’ respective roles in the orchestra?

They are of course there to provide and accentuate rhythm. They add excitement and drama. In other words, this section adds ‘punch’ to a musical piece.

The Different Sections’ Roles Should not be Restricted

As you you have probably noticed by now, every section is (more or less) capable of doing backing, lead, rhythmical work and so on.

And that is why I think the conclusion should be that it is up to the composer what role the different sections should take on.

They are not – and should not be – strictly limited to anything, and I don’t think a composer should restrict the potential of the different sections.

Positioning in the Orchestra

Now you should know what the instruments are in an orchestra. In addition, I have put together a handy little chart of where the instruments are positioned on the stage (Don’t look at the number of instruments, those are just for reference).

If you are making music, a great tip is to pan the different instruments according to where they are on this chart.

Recommended Further Reading

Thomas Leypoldt

Hey there! My name is Thomas and I have been a film composer for over 10 years, delivering music to feature films, documentaries, video games, and commercials. I share everything I have learned on this website, to hopefully be of help to your own development as a musician.

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