Essential Parts of an Orchestra
The word Orchestra—like many great things—comes from the Greeks, deriving from an identically spelled word for the area which would sit in front of a stage in ancient Greek theatre.
In modern times, of course, you will recognise this term in a different light, representing a large ensemble which creates orchestral music through a vivid and enigmatic combination of multiple instruments, thereby delighting our hearts and minds.
From classical and baroque periods of musical revolution to modern day iterations with heavy use in cinematic scores, orchestras have become a staple of emotional journeys, and even dot the integral parts of the human-activity landscapes, such as events and weddings.
But what makes for great orchestra music, and how do these ensembles manage to have a profound effect on our lives?
To answer these questions, let’s take a deeper dive into understanding what lends to masterpiece orchestral performances that bring music to our ears.
The Four Sections of Musical Creation
As mentioned earlier, an orchestra is an ensemble of various instruments—all working together. Originating from Europe and developing over several centuries, the modern western orchestra lends a lot to its history, in terms of structure, composition and instrument use.
These orchestral instruments are not arranged haphazardly. Based on the construction and method of being played, each instrument is classified into one of four groups—called sections—which further form the rows you see in an orchestral performance.
These sections are: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Sometimes, a fifth section is also added—keyboards.
What’s the role of these sections, you ask? Read along:
Strings: The string family of instruments is the most widely-used in an orchestra. These are wood instruments with hollow chambers and taut strings, which vibrate when played using a bow or when plucked.
This family comprises four instruments: violin, viola, cello and bass.
The smallest in the family is the violin, which has the highest-pitched sound. It also numbers the most, with usually two sections of violins (the first and the second violins). In orchestral music, the first violins play most of the melodies while the second violins alternate between melody and harmony, supporting the first violins.
Next is the viola, slightly bigger than violin and with a slightly deeper tone. Both instruments rest under the chin in order to be played. Unlike violins, violas are mostly used to play the harmony. They can free the second violins (if any) to contribute to the melody.
The cello (also called the violoncello) is much bigger than the above two instruments and produces a rich, deep sound. The same goes for the biggest contender, the bass (or the double bass). Cello and bass need to rest on the floor in order to be played.
While the cellos can be used to play both harmony and melody, basses stick to playing harmonies most of the time. Think of these two instruments as adding richness and depth to a composition. They are the foundation of the string section and incredibly important.
No matter the size, these similarly-shaped instruments form the melodrama of an orchestral piece. They’ll make you cry, cheer up or crawl up eerily on your skin with high notes. Magic!
Woodwinds: This section consists of instruments that look and play like flutes, including the flute itself.
Oboe, clarinet and bassoon are other similar instruments usually found in an orchestral setting. Played by blowing into the mouthpiece and fingering different notes on the instruments’ bodies, woodwinds are famous for playing beautiful solo lines and important supporting roles.
The woodwind family, as a whole, brings a lot of colour to orchestral music.
Other instruments in this family include the high-pitched piccolo, alto flute, bass flute, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and saxophone.
Fun fact: The oboe is considered one of the most difficult instruments to play in the orchestra.
Brass: Now comes the metal of an orchestra. Brass instruments are named so because of the look they give (although mostly made of silvery alloys). Unlike woodwinds, one has to ‘buzz’ their lips against the instrument’s mouthpiece, and the complex tubing amplifies the sound.
Instruments in this section include trumpets, trombones, French horns and tuba. These shiny horn-like instruments also come with sliders or valves which allow the players to control the tones (except for the trombone).
The brass section, along with the percussion section, is the most powerful. The brass section often creates the most drama and volume.
Fun fact: The French horn is considered the most difficult instrument to play in the orchestra. The long, spiralling tubing makes it very difficult to pitch notes, but is the reason why the French horn has such a unique and beautiful sound.
Percussion: When you hear the beats, you know it’s the percussion. But there is more flavour to this section—comprising a host of instruments that make a sound when hit a certain way.
This huge family consists of percussion staples such as cymbals, timpani, xylophones, triangles, various types of drums and much more.
One of the roles of the percussion section is to keep the rhythm. But they are also responsible for creating drama and musical landscapes with various degrees of excitement and emotion. Usually, instruments like cymbals and drums make a grand dramatic flair to a composition.
Riding on Emotional Strings
While each section greatly contributes to an orchestra, it can be said that—without a doubt—strings bring the flavour of life which arouses everyone. The versatility of strings, especially the violin, is so much that this section alone is capable of making you feel springy and in love, or dampen your mood by reflecting sorrowful emotions through sombre notes.
So popular is the string family that—separate from symphony orchestras—it can go solo in forms of string orchestras and string quartets, comprising violins, violas and cellos.
Teeming with adaptability, such string ensembles can easily lead any song, rendering a multitude of emotions and sweeping the listeners off their feet. A string quartet, for example, consists of :
- The first violin – Usually leads the other three instruments, with the greatest responsibility of holding the ensemble together. They guide the quartet to greater heights, while also providing a colourful commentary with texture-rich notes that support the other three instruments.
- The second violin – Similar to the orchestral ensemble, the second violinist supports the first and must be flexible and empathetic to the first violin. Weaving through melodies and harmonies, the second violinist has to be adaptable towards change.
- The viola – Like the meaty part of a sandwich, the viola fills the middle zone between the violins and the cello, giving more flavours on the go as they accompany the two violins, and sometimes taking over the role of the second violin.
- The cello – Rooting the whole quartet, the cellist is responsible for providing the bass through its lower pitch and deep, warm tones. Thanks to this physical difference, a cello provides countermelodies to the violins and accompanies the two in harmonies.
A string quartet or orchestra boasts a versatility that challenges emotions or validates them. These can make for the best accompaniments in your magical moments—such as weddings, various functions, celebrations and more.
So, when you’re out there looking to hire an orchestra, give the string family of instruments a thought.
String Musicians Australia fits right into this bill, with a flexible repertoire and an array of services, performing for over 2,000 wedding and corporate events in Australia since 2011.