The standard Western-style orchestra was first assembled in Italy around four centuries ago, but today, orchestras are found all around the world. Listed below are six components of orchestras that allow these large groups of musicians to produce the beautiful, harmonious sound they’re known for.
The average professional orchestra employs 40 to 80 musicians, and each section of instruments in the orchestra has its own hierarchy among the players. Violins are divided into two sections—first violin and second violin. The leader of a section is called the principal and is responsible for demonstrating technique for the rest of the musicians in the section. The principal also plays any solos for his or her specific instrument. Principals act as a motivator, mediator, and teacher, and are the point of communication between the conductor and the section.
At the head of all section principals is the orchestra’s concertmaster, a position that is always held by the principal of the first violin section. The concertmaster not only plays all violin solos within a piece, but also makes sure that all instruments are tuned prior to a performance. He or she also ensures that all members of the strings section observe the correct bowings within a piece. This creates the strings sections’ characteristic cohesiveness, and allows all players to play in unison.
The only person in the orchestra higher than the concertmaster is the conductor. Conductors did not have a role in early orchestras, but today all of the United States’ most accomplished philharmonic and symphonic orchestras rely on them to lead. The conductor uses his or her arms and hands to express directions to the players, allowing musicians to know how loudly and quickly to play, as well as when to cease playing. He or she is responsible for selecting and interpreting music for the orchestra, and balances the sound as the piece progresses. The guidance of the conductor allows musicians to work together as a unit in order to create a flawless, unified sound.
The percussion instruments are typically situated at the very back of the orchestra, furthest from the conductor’s podium. The percussion has the widest variety of instruments of the five sections, and consists of any instrument that can be struck by a stick, beater, or the hand. It also includes instruments that must be shaken or rubbed to produce a sound. Standard instruments in this family include the drums, xylophone, timpani, gongs, and cymbals, among others. The role of the percussion in an orchestra is crucial, as this group sets the rhythm for the rest of the musicians to follow.
While the piano, organ, and harpsichord are often considered members of the percussion section in the orchestra due to their ability to provide rhythm to the music, they are more accurately identified as keyboard instruments. While this section is not present in all orchestras, it has become more common to see them onstage with the more traditional instruments in recent years. They are also positioned toward the back, near the percussion section.
Musicians who play brass instruments are usually seated in front of the percussion section. The brass section contains the loudest instruments in the orchestra, including trumpets, horns, tubas, trombones, and bass trombones. The instruments in the brass section may vary depending on the style of music and the interpretation of the conductor. As the name suggests, these instruments are fashioned from brass pipes formed into shapes that produce different sounds when the musician blows into them through a mouthpiece. Because of their capacity for volume and the bright quality of their sound, brass instruments often make ideal solo instruments in upbeat, exultant moments within a composition. It is important that a conductor takes care to correctly lead the brass section within a piece so that its commanding sound does not overpower the others.
The woodwinds section is a diverse body of instruments played by musicians sitting in the middle of the orchestra, in front of the brass section. Flutes, piccolos, oboes, clarinets, bass clarinets, and bassoons are all common woodwind instruments. All produce a pleasant, consistent sound when played together, though each instrument differs in range and pitch. The musicians’ use of breath to play these instruments allows them to create diverse sound effects, including vibrato, staccato, and legato phrasing. Woodwind instruments with a higher pitch, like the flute, most often follow the melody of a piece while the lower-toned woodwinds, like the bassoon, more often play supportive parts that contribute to the harmonies in a song.
The strings section makes up the largest portion of the orchestra, with two or three times more musicians than the other four. However, the strings section generally features just four types of instruments. The strings section sits at the front of the orchestra, with the violins to the conductor’s left, the violas in front, and the cellos and double basses to the right. The violin and the viola produce higher musical tones, while the cello and double bass produce low ones. The members of this section are often responsible for taking on the bulk of the melody within a song. The violin group within the strings section is arguably the most prominent and renowned of all the orchestral instruments, and is featured prominently in orchestral compositions. Apart from the standard four instruments, the strings section on occasion may also feature a harp or guitar.