We could say that all instruments in an orchestra can be classified into four large groups. Those groups would be brass, percussion, string and woodwind instruments. String instruments would be the most common and definitely the most prominent group of instruments in every orchestra.
Thanks to a tone quality, as well as a wide pitch range, string instruments took the main role in the most of classical music pieces. Four most important string instruments in an orchestra are violin, viola, cello and double bass. Besides these four, a harp is also an integral part of pretty much every symphonic orchestra.
On the other side, popular string instruments like piano and guitar have never been fully integrated into the orchestra, despite relatively frequent use.
When someone mentions orchestra, this is the first instrument that comes to our minds. Although the smallest, the violin is by far the most popular classical instrument. Besides in classical music, you can hear it in jazz, folk, country, and pretty much every other genre in popular music. No one can say when the first violin appeared, but most likely it was about 500 years ago. They probably came from Italy, though the first written document comes from France. It is called “Epitome musical”, by Jambe de Fer, and it gives a pretty much detailed description of the instrument.
We didn’t see many changes since the 16th century. The base design has remained unchanged. Everyone can recognize its beautiful wooden body. The violin typically comes with four strings, which are tuned in perfect fifths, and a high pitch is one of its main characteristics. A pitch range is actually pretty wide and goes from G3 to E7. Even higher notes can be reached by using artificial harmonics and similar techniques.
Violins are pretty small. The length usually goes around 14 inches, though we could find numerous variants of so-called fractional sized violins, like 1/2, 3/4, and 7/8. Theses smaller-size violins are designs for kids, whose fingers hardly can reach all positions on a regular-size instrument.
A common symphonic orchestra is full of string instruments and violins take the biggest share. In some cases, there are more than 30 of them. Usually, there are two groups, with different roles. While some violins play a melody, others take care of a harmony. In literature, this is called first and second violins.
For all these centuries of violins presence, we have seen numerous amazing builders. The most famous violin make is Antonio Stradivari. Born in Cremona, he lived for about 93 years (1644-1737), which is more than enough time to make hundreds of violins. According to some estimates, he made more than 900, but only a half survived. Today, his violins are worth millions.
Most people probably won’t notice the difference, but violas are actually bigger than violins. While the violin primarily plays a melody, violas aren’t such virtuosic instruments, so they usually take care of harmony. It seems pretty hard to find music that is written for viola. Some of the rare pieces are Viola Concerto by Louis-Hector Berlioz and Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Viola. We could also include famous composers George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach with their concerts for this beautiful instrument.
Viola is played in the same way as the violin. The main difference is in range because this one has a lower pitch. The tuning principle is the same, though one perfect fifth below (C3, G3, D4, A4). A common symphonic orchestra usually consists of 10-14 violas, though the number can vary.
Violas probably appeared at the same time as violins, though experts disagree about its origins. In literature, you will usually find that there were two groups of predecessors, da Braccio and da Gamba. Some experts would add Viola d’Amore as well. On the other side, many consider Lira da Braccia as a direct predecessor of a modern viola.
Another instrument that appeared more than 500 years ago. Compared to violin or viola, this one is much bigger. It is usually around 4 feet long, so it’s obvious that you can’t put it under your chin. This instrument is played differently. It rests on the ground, supported by a steel peg. So, you have to play it in a sitting position. The body is positioned between the knees, while the neck rests on your shoulder.
Cellos are a very important part of every orchestra. In most cases, there are between 8 and 12 of them. These are pretty versatile instruments, so can be used both for melody and harmony. Besides in classical music, you can hear its recognizable tone in other kinds of music as well. This is one of the most popular classical instruments, characterized by a beautiful tone, which successfully mimics human voice. Not only that it delivers similar tone color, but the note range goes from C2 to C6. Such range seems perfectly compatible to major vocal categories.
Today, cellos are present in popular music as well. You can find many cello ensembles with players that practically became popular music stars. One of the best-known cello ensembles is called Apocalyptica, with more than 4 million albums sold. Practically, it is a metal band, founded in Finland but popular all around the world, famous for its Metallica covers. Another popular ensemble is Croatian and Slovenian duo called Two Cellos.
This is the largest instrument in an orchestra. It is similar to a cello but much bigger. It is so big that you must stand when playing it. Moreover, the double bass is usually reserved for tall people, for those who have arms long enough to reach all positions on the instrument. It is an integral part of an orchestra. In most cases, there are 6-8 double basses and all of them usually play harmony.
Unlike three instruments from above, this one is tuned in fourths. Such tuning made the bass hugely popular outside the classical music as well. It is an essential part of every jazz orchestra, but also largely used in popular music. In classical music, it is played with a bow, just like a cello, violin, and viola. However, jazz bass players prefer different technique, plucking the strings. In jazz, the double bass plays both harmony and melody, which isn’t the case in classical music.
This is probably one of the very first instruments in human history. You can find a bunch of ancient Egyptian paintings where they play this instrument in ceremonials. Thousands of years have passed, but the harp remained largely unchanged. Of course, there have been numerous shapes in history, but the base working principle is still the same. Plucking the strings with your fingers is the way you play it.
A modern harp probably appeared a few hundred years ago. Since then, it is an integral part of an orchestra, which gives a unique texture, thanks to its elegant, graceful tone color. It usually comes with 47 strings and usually tuned in C Major scale. This makes it great to play all seven modes effortlessly, depending on the key.
Piano and Guitar
A piano is probably the most prominent musical instrument that you can find. Beautiful tone, extremely wide range and easiness of play are some of its strongest points. However, it has never been a regular part of an orchestra. This is primarily a solo instrument. Pieces written for it are usually called piano sonatas. On occasions when the piano plays with an orchestra, it is almost always a lead instrument.
A guitar is another hugely popular classical instrument. However, it has never been integrated into an orchestra. This six-string instrument is mostly used for solo performances.