Have you ever heard an orchestra play? If you haven’t, now is a great time to do so! Many orchestras around the country are streaming their music online for families to hear. Don’t know what an orchestra is? Read on in this lesson on learning about musical instruments families.
Learning About Musical Instruments Families
Orchestras are large groups of musicians who come together to play big pieces of music. They usually have a lot of stringed instruments, such as violins, violas, and cellos. And they are often led by a conductor.
There are two different types of orchestras. A chamber orchestra is smaller, usually less than 50 musicians. Sometimes they all play stringed instruments. They also play music that you’d be more likely to hear in a smaller room, like a palace chamber (get it?). Mozart, Chopin, and Vivaldi are some of the more famous chamber music composers.
A symphony orchestra is made up of a full orchestra with 100 musicians or more playing a lot of different instruments. Typically, they play larger pieces (symphonies!) by master composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Grieg. And they perform inside a huge concert hall.
Music that comes from an orchestra may be a little different from what you’re used to hearing on the radio. Many people think that orchestras only play “classical” music. But that can be confusing because not everyone knows what the term classical music means. It has a very broad definition. Classical music may be used to describe a very specific time period when composers created music during the Classical Period (in the 18th and 19th centuries). But more often it describes music that is composed to be listened to without any singing. It is art that is meant to be listened to over and over again.
Sometimes people are singing; this is called an opera. It is like a play, but everyone sings their parts. They can be in English, but they usually sing in a different language so it might be hard to understand. The singers don’t use a microphone. Instead, they are trained to be able to use their voices to sing so loud that everyone in the concert hall can hear them.
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Most of the time, though, no one is singing and the focus is on the incredible music produced by a lot of different instruments being played at the same time. These instruments are from four families: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
The first group of instruments is the strings. This includes any instrument that produces sound through the vibration of strings. The principal stringed instruments found in an orchestra are violins, violas, and cellos. But the harp, classical guitar, and double bass may also be included in an orchestra for certain pieces.
Woodwinds are instruments that produce sounds when the musician blows through a reed into a hollow tube. A reed is a type of mouthpiece made of a thin piece of shaved wood which vibrates and produces sound. The sound then travels into the tube, which can be made of wood or metal. The sound is then amplified before it leaves the instrument. Musicians can change the sound by opening or closing holes in the side of the tube. The holes in the side can affect the notes. The longer the tube, the lower the note sound. Shorter tubes create higher notes. So if you open the hole closest to the mouthpiece, you create a high pitched sound. And if you keep only open the hole farthest away from the mouthpiece, you have a very low note. Some instruments, such as the clarinet, only use one reed. But others – the oboe and the bassoon – use two.
Flutes and piccolos are a little different. They don’t use reeds. Instead, they have a special mouthpiece that the musician blows air over. As the air crosses the edge of the mouthpiece, it splits; some of the air blows away and some of it blows into the tube and begins swirling down the tube creating sound.
Orchestras typically have a large section of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. They may also have one of each of the following: picollo, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon.
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The next family is also a “wind” instrument, but with some big differences. All of them are made of metal – usually brass! (hence the name) – tubes of different sizes that end in a bell shape. And they use a cup-shaped mouthpiece. Over time, the tubes have been twisted around to make it easier for the musician to hold and play the instrument.
Instruments in this family are the saxophone, trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba.
The final family is the percussion group. These are instruments that make sound by being struck or shaken. Most people think of drums when they think of percussion instruments, but other instruments include the xylophone, timpani, cymbals, triangles, snare drums, bass drums, tambourines, maracas, gongs, chimes, and castanets.
But what about the piano?
There is a lot of debate about which family the piano belongs to. It does have 88 strings – more than any other instrument! However, it is played by pounding keys, which in turn lift and drop small hammers inside the body that strike the strings to produce sound. It also has pedals that affect the notes. Overall, it has the largest range of any orchestral instrument and is frequently used for solo pieces.
Activities for learning about instrument families
Here are some of our printable resources for challenging your young students to learn about musical instruments.
Using a description map helps students learn what questions to ask and answer while learning about a specific topic.
Activity: Download our printable instrument map and have your students fill out the sections. Have them draw or paste an image of the instrument in the center space.
Time for research! Have your student choose a specific instrument OR family of instruments and have them write a short essay. Use books, online articles, videos and more to learn where it originated, how it is made, where it is used, and give an example of one orchestral piece in which it is highlighted.
Activity: Download our writing pages and have your students write an essay using our writing pages describing what they learned about their instrument.
After learning about the instrument families, put that knowledge to the test. Orchestras don’t just play in concert halls. They can play anywhere!
Activity: Print our instrument family posters to reference as you listen to classical music. Challenge your students to identify the instruments that they hear and see being played in this video that features Ravel’s Bolero.
Extend the learning with these interactive online sites about the orchestra: