CHAPTER 2: THE ORCHESTRA
Dr. N. Boumpani
THE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Before we continue to discuss music, students should begin to understand how an orchestra is used to perform much of the music we will hear in this class. This will be a brief overview of the families of the orchestra. In APPENDIX A, a more detailed description of each orchestral instrument is explained with links to online videos. Your instructor my assign each of you one instrument to review, or you may decide to know more about any specific instrument yourself.
We hear symphony orchestras more often than one might realize. Most of the movies and many television shows you watch use symphony orchestras. The music that is written for a film is called a film score. Modern movies may add electronic instruments and digital orchestrations to the film score, but at the heart of most big-budget movies is the orchestra. This same orchestra that records a movie score one day might be playing a concert of Beethoven Symphonies the next evening.
Before we examine the orchestra, go to YouTube and watch the video of John Williams
conducting the main theme from the movie Star Wars. This link should take you there; however, if it does not, simply search “John Williams conducts Star Wars” in the YouTube search window. Watch the instruments as you listen and before we discuss the orchestra further. After you read the learn of the four families of instruments, we will view this video again, but with a listening guide.
EXAMPLE: Star Wars main themes, John Williams
In the video you saw many of the instruments of the orchestra. With the symphony orchestra through the past few centuries, composers have created music that has touched people for generations, lifted the spirits of people, and even “told” stories. The composers we will present in this text are among the greatest in history because people have listened to their music generation after generation. How were these concertgoers different from you? It is not because they played musical instruments, or knew all of the important musical terms. It is because, at some point in their lives, someone exposed them to the music of these masters. Your education would not be complete without at least being exposed to these masters.
THE ROLE OF THE CONDUCTOR
As you watched the video, you saw the great film composer John Williams conducting the orchestra. Composers are not always conductors, although there have been quite a few. Most people do understand how important a conductor is to a symphony orchestra. The conductor does much more than conduct performances. A conductor spends years studying the music of the great master composers in an attempt to understand exactly how the composer wanted his or her works performed. Most professional conductors have different approaches to various works. It had been stated that the great Italian conductor Toscanini was a master at interpreting Beethoven’s works.
The composers spend endless time studying the music they will conduct because the conductor also has to rehearse the orchestra to play just as the conductor desires. Most professional symphony orchestra conductors do not read music as they conduct. (The music conductors use is called a “score” and has all of the parts for each and every instrument written out on each page). The professional conductors know their scores so well that, when they rehearse an orchestra, they can tell any performer where that person made a mistake and what the mistake was. There are many stories about Toscanini’s knowledge of music. One time, it has been said, a bassoonist came up to Toscanini before a performance and told Toscanini that the low F-sharp of his instrument was broken. Toscanini thought for about 2 minutes, turned back to the performer and said “that’s alright, you don’t have any low f-sharps in this symphony.” Many conductors know their music that well; however, it is not just the conductor who makes a performance great. Many orchestras have guest conductors and the performers must adapt to many ways of playing the same work for different conductors. This is why the performers in most good symphony orchestras are some of the best in the world.
Discussion: Write a short post about what you have learned about conductors here and what may have surprised you.
THE FOUR FAMILIES OF INSTRUMENTS IN THE ORCHESTRA
Musical instruments are basically mechanical devices that people learn to manipulate in order to create certain sounds. Some are made of metals, some from various woods, and some even use the skins of animals. Some are used to produce low sounds, and some to produce sounds that are very high, and other are used to produce sounds in between. Each and every instrument is unique in its construction and its sound. The most important component in creating music with these devices are the human beings who need to play them. The composer uses his or her knowledge of these instruments to create music that, when played correctly by the performers, communicates something to other human beings in ways that words are not always able to do. It is possible to create ways for these machines, or their sounds, to be controlled by a computer, but the result is never the same. In order to convey the emotion that composers instill in the music, human beings must be involved in the process of performing music. Let’s take a look at some of these “machines” that we call instruments. We are going to look at them in “families” in order to move the course along.
In the orchestra we have four major groupings of instruments called “families.” Instruments are grouped into these families based mainly on how they relate to each other both in construction as well as in sound. Each instrument has a unique sound quality that distinguishes it from other instruments. We call this quality tone color, or timbre (pronounced tahm-burr). The Instruments of each family, for the most part share similar timbres.
Although there are many more instruments in these families, we are only going to examine a few of the main instruments that are commonly used in the symphony orchestra. The four families of the orchestra are as follows:
Strings. This family includes the violin, viola, cello and double bass as well as the harp.
Woodwinds. This family includes the flute, clarinets, oboe, bassoon, and English horn.
Brass. This family includes trumpets, trombones, French horns, and the tuba
Percussion. The percussion family includes both definite pitch instruments, like the timpani, the xylophone, and bells, as well as indefinitely-pitches instruments like the snare drum, bass drum and cymbals
Below is a diagram of how these instruments are placed in the American symphony orchestra (In Europe the placement is different)
Many music appreciation texts go into detail when discussing instruments, including how they produce sound, and how they create and change pitches, etc. For this course we will examine each family in general. Should you wish to know more about any of these instruments, see APPENDIX A. In this explanation we will mainly discuss the timbre and the range of specific instruments in the family. By range we mean from the lowest sound of the instrument to the highest sound of the instrument.
To begin our examination of the orchestra, we will hear the first two minutes of a work written by Benjamin Britten entitled Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This work will present a theme that will be performed by the entire orchestra. After the entire orchestra plays, each orchestral family will, in turn, be featured playing that theme. The order of families after the entire orchestra are, 1) the woodwind family, 2) the brass family, 3) the string family, and 4) the percussion family. After the percussion family the entire orchestra returns, but does not complete the theme for this clip. The recording selected for this includes a narrator who will announce each family. This work, in its entirety, is almost 19 minutes long; however, the file selected for this text only plays the first 2 minutes and 20 seconds of this work, which will give you an introduction to the families of instruments. You may want to listen to this more than once in order to get a better idea of the sound of each family.
EXAMPLE: Benjamin Britten Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra B. Britten (with narration)
If your instructor wishes, he or she can ask each person in the class to review one of more instruments in Appendix A.
THE BASIC PRINCIPALS OF MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Before we discuss the families of instruments, we will examine two basic principles of all instruments. First, all sound comes from vibrating objects. Unless something is vibrating, there can’t be sound. When we sing, our vocal cords are vibrating. As we examine the instruments, please remember that each and every one of them begins the production of sound by first setting something in vibration. The other principal is this: the shorter or smaller the size of the instrument, the higher the pitch. This includes the size in ways other than length. The width of something also affects the pitch. A string that is 5 inches long but very thin and a string that is 5 inches long, but very thick will produce different pitches. The thicker string will produce lower pitches.
Most of the music presented in this course has been recorded using professional musicians who are among the best musicians in the world. When a musician reaches a level of performing above that of other professionals, they are called virtuosi (singular version is virtuoso). In order for a person to become a professional performer on an instrument he or she must spend a lot of time practicing. Research suggests that in order to be an expert in anything, whether basketball, playing chess, or playing a musical instrument, a person will spend around 10,000 hours practicing. Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone perform. Even if you don’t like the music, if the person is an excellent performer, there were many, many hours of practice behind the results.
THE FOUR FAMILIES OF THE ORCHESTRA
THE STRING FAMILY
We will begin our examination of the four “families” of instruments with the string family.
The main members of the string family are the violin, viola, cello and double bass. All of these instruments are usually played with a bow made of wood and horse hair. If you look at the four instruments mentioned above, you will notice that they basically all look the same, with only one main difference, they are of different sizes! The viola looks just like the violin, but a little bigger, the cello is bigger than the viola and must be played sitting down. The Double bass is the largest and the player usually stands while playing. There is one other instrument common to this family, and that is the harp.
The chart below shows the pitch range of the string family from the highest to the lowest pitches.
|Pitch Range||String Instrument||Range|
|Highest||Violin||Produces the highest pitches of the string family|
|High||Viola||Can produce pitches lower than the violin, but not as low as the Cello|
|Low||Cello||Produces pitches lower than the viola, but not as low as the double bass.|
|Lowest||Double Bass||Produces the lowest pitches|
The idea of “shorter/smaller = higher pitches and longer/larger = lower pitches” can be observed while watching a person plays any string instrument. Each instrument has 4 strings, each of them are different thicknesses. The thicker the string (or larger), the lower the pitch it creates. As these instruments are played (put into vibration with the bow), the performer slides his or her finger up and down part of the instrument called the fingerboard in order to change the length of the strings. As the performer makes each string shorter by limiting how much of the string can vibrate, the pitches become higher for that string. With the four strings the violin can perform over 40 pitches and most of these pitches can be performed in more than one way on adjoining strings.
In an orchestra there can be 32 or more violins (separated into two groups – 1st and 2nd violins), a dozen or more violas, a dozen or more celli, and 8 or more double basses. The sound they create when playing together is often described as “warm” or “full” because of the slight differences in each player’s pitch. In music software programs designed to create digital recreations of an orchestra, there is a way to add this effect by using a “chorus” setting. This effect is the result of many performers playing the same part, but not playing the exact same pitch. Most listeners would not be able to tell if a performer is not playing the exact same pitch because the difference is unnoticeable to most untrained ears; however, these tiny deviations in pitch create a very warm and full sound. This is what you heard in the example above.
There are many works written for just the string family of the orchestra without any of the other families. When you hear some of these works, what you are hearing is just the timbre of the string family. Here is a famous example of music just for strings:
EXAMPLE: Adagio for Strings Samuel Barber
The other string instrument, the harp is a unique instrument that stands apart from the other string instruments. First, the harp is never played with a bow. The harpist plucks the strings in combination with the instruments’ seven different foot pedals to create various pitches, chords and effects. The timbre of the harp is different from the other string instruments, but it will always stand out as a unique timbre in and of itself. The harp can be performed as a solo instrument, since it can play both melody and harmony at the same time, or it can be used as a melody instrument. One of the unique effects produced by a harp is the “glissando.” To create this effect, the harpist “strums” the strings from low to high. For a demonstration of the harp, go to Addendum A. Please listen to about a minute of the next example of a solo harp. The piece that is being played will be studied later in the book.
EXAMPLE: Le fille aux cheveux de lin (the girl with the flaxen hair) C. Debussy, arr. L. Meijer
THE WOODWIND FAMILY
The woodwind family is so named because, at one time, all of the instruments in this family were made from wood. Today most flutes are generally made from various metals, but they are still considered woodwind instruments. The flute is also the only member of the woodwind family that does not use a wooden reed to create the vibrations that are turned into pitches, as we will see with the other woodwinds. The chart below examines the pitch range of the woodwind family.
|Pitch Range||Woodwind Instrument||Range|
|Highest||Flutes, piccolos, Bb clarinets, oboes||Highest notes of the woodwind family|
|High||English horn, Eb clarinets||Lower than the clarinets, but higher than the bassoons|
|Low||Bassoon||Can play pitches lower than the alto instruments, but not as low as the bass instruments|
|Lowest||Bass Clarinet, Contrabassoon, Contrabass Clarinet||Play the lowest pitches of the woodwind family|
It must be pointed out that some of these instruments have ranges that, at times, allow them to play pitches in the ranges of the instruments listed above and below them. Our charts are very general in this manner. Although these instruments are part of the orchestral woodwind family, some of these instruments have “families” of their own. For example, the flute family consists of piccolo, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. Although composers have written music just for the flute ensembles, or clarinet ensembles, many works for these groups are arrangements of works for other instruments. Please note: the flute piece below is a recording of a middle school flute trio. You will recognize the second piece. It is a unique setting of a famous children’s tune. The entire piece is much longer because it is in the form of a theme and variations; however, we will just hear the theme.
EXAMPLE: FLUTE ENSEMBLE: Trios for 3 Flutes, Op. 83, No. 4 J. Hook, arr. Voxman
EXAMPLE: CLARINET ENS. Peer Gynt Suite #1 “In the Hall of the Mountain King” E. Greig
The woodwinds, when performing together have a unique timbre. When we hear almost any combinations of woodwinds, we can describe the timbre as a woodwind timbre. You heard this timbre when you listened to the woodwind family in the Britten work above. When the clarinets perform by themselves, we hear a kind of “subset” timbre to the woodwind timbre – the clarinet timbre. The same might be said of groups of flutes, or the double reed instruments like the oboe or bassoon. Anytime there is a combination of instruments, it creates its own unique timbre.
The flute is one of the oldest instruments known. Archeologists have discovered flutes made of animal bones that date back thousands of years. The concept of the flute is quite simple. If you have ever blown across the opening of an empty bottle, you have created sound just as a flautist (pronounced fl-auw-tist) would on the flute. The vibrating air creates the sound and by pressing down or releasing different combinations of keys, the player limits the length of the instrument that is affected by the vibrations. Once again, the size, or length, determines the pitch. When only one or two keys are held down, the pitch is higher than when all of the keys are held down.
Clarinets use a single reed that is attached to a mouthpiece. When the clarinetist wants to start a sound, he or she used a combination of the tongue and proper control of breath to get the start and keep the reed vibrating. The double reed instruments of the orchestra include the oboe, bassoon and contrabassoon. The double reed instruments of the orchestra include the oboe, bassoon and contrabassoon. Double reed instruments use a double reed – two small pieces of cane that have been carefully cut and connected to each other, and fit into a small hole on the instrument. Using the same type of technique as the clarinetist, the performer starts the double reed vibrating, and then proper breath control keeps it vibrating. The pitches are determined by the performer opening and closing holes on the instrument. As these holes are closed, the part of the instrument that is vibrating becomes longer, and the pitch gets lower. Performers who play double reed instruments often make their own reeds. This is a painstaking process but many performers get better results this way than they would buying reeds.
THE BRASS FAMILY
Unlike the woodwind family, the members of the brass family all use the same method to create the vibrations that are turned into pitches. They all use metal mouthpieces, but of various sizes. The vibrations needed to create sound are created by the player buzzing his or her lips together. Put your lips together tightly, and then force air through them to create a buzzing sound. You will find out that, in a very short time, your mouth would begin to hurt. This is why brass players spend hours of practice strengthening their mouth muscles. This is called “building their embouchure.” When you hear a trumpet player creating very high pitches, it takes a combination of a strong embouchure and a lot of breath control. The mouthpieces for each brass instrument are different mainly in size. Tuba mouthpieces are larger, trombone mouthpieces a little smaller than that and trumpets smaller than trombones. French horns mouthpieces have a slightly different shape than those of the other instruments, but the process is still the same.
Like the other families, the brass instruments may be listed according to pitch range.
|Pitch Range||Brass Instrument||Range|
|Highest||D Trumpet, Bb Trumpet||Highest pitches of the brass family|
|Mid to High||French Horn||Generally, not as high as the soprano instruments, but higher than the tenor instruments. The French Horn, however, has a wider range than many other instruments.|
|Low||Trombone, French Horn||Can play higher than the tuba, but not as high as the trumpet.|
|Lowest||Tuba||Lowest pitches of the brass family|
Brass sections are known for being the most powerful section of the orchestra. In the early orchestras the brass section was limited by the design of the instruments, and they generally were used to give the music power. As time went on and the instruments developed their use in the orchestra has expanded. As you go through the course, you will notice this change.
Today many film composers use the brass sections not only for the power they create, but in many other ways. If you listen to John William’s Star Wars Theme, or the theme song from Rocky, the power of the brass section is evident; however, brass instruments are not limited to just power, as we will hear as we hear later in this course. The example below is for brass with some percussion. You will notice the percussion at the very beginning of this work and at some key spots after that; however, other than that, this piece is strictly for the brass family.
EXAMPLE: Fanfare for the Common Man A. Copland
THE PERCUSSION FAMILY
A percussion instrument is one that is struck with a stick or mallet, or with a hand, and even struck together to create sound. There are two types of percussion instruments in the orchestra: those of indefinite pitch and those of definite pitch. When you think of percussion instruments of definite pitch, think of those instruments on which a melody or harmony can be played. The Xylophone, or Glockenspiel (bells) are obviously instruments of definite pitch. Most drums are of indefinite pitch, with the exception are the timpani. The timpani, sometimes called kettle drums, are usually drums made from brass and have a foot-pedal mechanism that allows the performer to change the pitch by loosening or tightening the drum head. A tighter drum head vibrates faster than a loose drum head, and, hence, the pitches are higher. This means the timpani are percussion instruments of definite pitch.
The snare drum, bass drum, and cymbals are instruments of indefinite pitch. They create sounds that may be high or low, but as they vibrate the often create a number of pitches that cannot be heard as a singular pitch. The result is a kind of controlled “noise.” Although there are dozens and dozens of percussion instruments, they are not often used in the orchestra. Please listen to this short work (less than 2 minutes) listed below.
EXAMPLE: Music for mainly mallet instruments The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson
REVISITING STAR WARS
We will view the video on You tube again; however, please use the listening chart below as you watch. If you can’t split your screen, please print out the chart below and watch it along with the video.
EXAMPLE: Star Wars J. Williams
RETURN TO: STAR WARS
FOCUS: The instruments of the orchestra
|0:00 – 0:55||John Williams conducting||Williams|
|0:56||French Horns playing melody||Brass|
|1:12||View of 1st Violins||Strings|
|1:24||Piccolo playing important melodic line||Woodwind|
|2:20||View from back left with the Timpani at the bottom left||Percussion|
|2:51||Return to French Horns||Brass|
|3:41||Celli (plural of cello) playing love theme||Strings|
The three main keyboard instruments we will hear throughout this course are:
Although the piano is a relatively “young” instrument, the instrument was based on instruments that were created centuries ago. This chapter will cover a brief history of keyboard instruments before examining the three main keyboard instruments as presented above.
The earliest forerunner of the piano dates back to 582 BC and was used by Pythagoras to explore the musical relationships of pitches. This was a single-stringed instrument. In the 12th century AD, the dulcimer was invented somewhere in the Middle East. The dulcimer was an instrument made of a number of strings of different sizes and was struck with a type of mallet to produce sound. Over time the mallets were attached to a mechanism that hit the strings by depressing a key on a keyboard.
The harpsichord was invented in the 16th century and became the standard instrument for the music all the way through the Baroque era. The harpsichordist presses a key on that activates a mechanism to pluck a string inside of the body of the instrument. If you look inside a harpsichord, or piano, the framing of the strings looks much like a harp. Actually, this part of the harpsichord and piano is called the “harp” of the instrument. The harpsichord has a kind of metallic sound and, because the strings are plucked, can only play pitches at two volume levels: soft and loud. Let’s watch a video of the harpsichord being played.
The piano was invented around the beginning of the Baroque era but did not replace the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument until the late 1700s. When a performer presses a key on a piano, a hammer strikes one of the strings on the harp. If the key is pressed softly, the hammer strikes the string softly and the result is a softer pitch. The harder the key is played, the louder the pitch becomes. This gave the piano a great advantage over the harpsichord. Over the centuries the piano has been improved many times. Most pianos today have 88 keys, although the Bösendorfer Company manufactures pianos with extra keys at the bass end of the piano.
Let’s hear and see a pianist perform a virtuoso work for the piano. You need only listen to the first 2 minutes of this. You may enjoy watching it be played, so a YouTube link is given as well.
EXAMPLE: La Campanella F. Liszt
As we will see later, the keyboard of the piano is used on many electronic keyboard instruments. These electronic keyboards are known as synthesizers if the produce their own sounds, and controllers if they must be patched into another piece of hardware to create sounds. Keyboards designed only for MIDI input (more on this later) can have anywhere from around 20 keys to a full 88-key keyboard.
Music of the music in this text will be performed by the symphony orchestra. The orchestra is made up of four families, each with their own special timbres, both individually and as a group. Britten’s composition “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” presents each family performing a theme. Along with the instruments of the orchestra, the keyboard instruments that will be heard throughout this text include the harpsichord and the piano. Each have their own unique timbre. The harpsichord can only play 2 volume levels, soft and loud. The piano can play a wide range of dynamic levels.