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The Instruments

The String Section
The violin is the highest-pitched member of the string choir; the viola, somewhat larger than the violin, is lower in range; the violoncello (popularly known as cello and pronounced "chello"), is lower in range than the viola, notable for its lyrical quality and dark resonance; the double bass, the largest member of the string choir and the lowest in range, furnishes vital support for the entire orchestra. All of these instruments are played with a bow, causing their strings to vibrate, except when the composer indicates "pizzicato" ("plucked") strings. Traditionally, the player bows with their right hand. The left hand is used to press down or "stop" the string, changing its length and subsequently altering the pitch produced. "Double-stopping" technique involves playing two strings simultaneously; when three or four strings are played simultaneously, it is called "triple- or quadruple-stopping" (each level of stops is progressively more difficult). A substance called rosin is applied to the bow hair to allow an easier gripping of the strings. The string section comrprises approximately 70% of a symphony orchestra.

The Woodwind Section
With these instruments, the tone is produced by a column of air vibrating within a pipe that has holes on its side. When one or more of these holes is opened or closed by a player's fingers, the length of the vibrating air column within the pipe is changed, subsequently altering the pitch. Nowadays, woodwind instruments are not necessarily made of wood, but the name has been retained.

The piccolo (from the Italian flauto piccolo, "little flute") emits a piercing tone that produces the highest notes in the orchestra. The flute is the soprano voice of the woodwind choir. The present-day piccolo and flute are made of silver alloy (sometimes gold) rather than wood, and are held horizontally. To produce a sound, the player positions his or her lips (in a position called the "embouchure") across a mouth hole that is cut in the side of the pipe.

The oboe is made of wood. Its mouthpiece is a double reed (two pieces of cane bound together, leaving an extremely small passage for air). Because the pitch of the oboe is more reliable than other woodwind instruments, it is used to sound the note "A" for the other instruments to tune from. The English horn is an alto (lower) oboe. Ironically, it is neither English nor a horn--another one of those idiosyncrasies in music history.

The clarinet has a single reed, fastened against a wooden mouthpiece, which leaves a small space for the passage of air. The bass clarinet is one octave lower in range than the regular clarinet.

The bassoon, a double-reed instrument, emits a weighty tone in its lower register, a sonorous tone in its middle range and a reedy, intense sonority in its upper register. The contrabassoon (or double bassoon) produces the lowest tone in the orchestra. Its tube, over sixteen feet in length, is folded four times around for practical reasons. Like the double bass in the string section, it supplies orchestral support and foundation for the harmony.

The Brass Section
The French horn, generally referred to as horn, is a descendant of the ancient hunting horn. Its golden resonance lends itself to a variety of uses, whatever the dynamic, though it is best utilized in sustained utterances.

The trumpet, which emits the highest pitch in the brass choir, possesses a firm, brilliant timbre.

The trombone (an Italian word that means "large trumpet") combines the brilliance of the trumpet with the majesty of the horn. Unlike the valves used by the horn and trumpet to alter pitch, the trombone has a moveable U-shaped slide that alters the length of the vibrating air column and, consquently, the pitch produced.

The tuba is the bass of the brass choir, furnishing its harominc foundation. It too utilizes a valve system to alter the pitches or notes it produces.

The Percussion Section
This section comprises a variety of instruments that are played by striking or shaking actions, and made of metal or wood; others, such as the drums, attain vibration by striking a stretched skin. Percussion instruments fall into two categories: those that can be tuned to specific pitches and those that can only produce a single sound (unpitched).

Tuned percussion most often includes:

  1. timpani (also known as kettledrums), which are generally used in sets of two or three (each tuned to a different pitch), and are played with two padded sticks;
  2. glockenspiel (German for "set of bells") consists of steel, horizontally tuned plates of various sizes; the player strikes these plates with mallets that produce a bright metallic sound;
  3. Celeste, which in appearance resembles a miniature upright piano, is a type of glockenspiel that is operated by a keyboard. It consists of steel plates that are struck by small hammers, consequently producing a more fragile sound.

Unpitched percussion instruments include the snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, chimes, wood block, castanets, triangle, cymbals, and others. Generally, an orchestra will have three to five percussionists.

A composer orchestrates a work depending on the particular sound he desires. Each instrument, with its unique timbre and capability, contributes a different color and character to a composition.


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