The MyMusicTheory Guide to Orchestral Instruments; Part 1 – The Orchestra


Standard Orchestral Instruments

If you’ve ever taken an ABRSM music theory exam, you’ve probably come across the expression “standard orchestral instrument” a few times. Have you ever wondered why some musical instruments fit into this category but others don’t? Who decides which instruments are “standard”?

The term “standard orchestral instruments” is actually only used for convenience, so that we can easily refer to the most common, most widely played and recognised instruments with one phrase. There are thousands of instruments worldwide, but it’s useful to be able to group them together in various ways, to make it easier to talk about them.

orchestraWhen we use the term “standard orchestral instruments”, we are often referring to what is known as the “Classical Orchestra” – the groupings of instruments most often used in a symphony orchestra from the beginning of the 19th century. The classical orchestra was originally composed of:

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons (woodwind instruments)
  • 2 or 4 French horns, 2 trumpets (brass instruments)
  • 2 timpani or “kettle drums” (percussion instruments)
  • 12 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos and 2 double basses (string instruments)

This was quite a small group of musicians. Towards the end of the 19th century, most composers were choosing to use a bigger orchestra:

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons
  • 2 or 4 French horns, 2 trumpets and  up to 3 trombones, sometimes a tuba
  • 3 timpani (kettle drums) and various other drums, triangles, xylophone or tambourines
  • 26 violins, 10 violas, 8 cellos and 6 double basses


Up to ABRSM grade five music theory, these are the only instruments you need to know about. However, if you go on to take grade six, or in fact if you just like listening to music, you’ll be aware that orchestras often have lots of other instruments in them. As a rule of thumb, the later the orchestra, the larger it is!

By the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, it became fashionable for composers to add in smaller or larger versions of some woodwind instruments, in order to increase the sound produced by these sections or for their individual special sound effects. (The string section had already been expanded by increasing the number of players.) Some of these instruments became so commonly used, that they were accepted into the “standard orchestral instruments” club. We can usefully call this group the “extended standard orchestral instruments”.  The instruments which were added are:

  • piccolo (small flute)
  • cor Anglais (modified oboe)
  • bass clarinet (big clarinet)
  • contrabassoon (big bassoon)

Non-Standard Orchestral Instruments

contrabass clarinet

Contrabass clarinet

Other instruments were and are used in orchestras, but have remained as “outsiders” – for various reasons. Some instruments, for example the wood block, have such a unique sound that composers don’t want to use them all the time. Other instruments are very costly to make, which means there are very few players – composers may avoid them for practical reasons.

The contrabass clarinet, for example, is enormous, and would cost you around $32,000 to buy new!

Each of the standard woodwind instruments now has a whole range of brothers and sisters of different sizes. They can be great fun for the specialist, and some bands are organised for the full range of flutes, or clarinets etc. You will not often find them in a symphony orchestra however!

Non-Orchestral Instruments

Some instruments are hardly ever used in symphony orchestras but are common elsewhere. Orchestras, just like musical styles, evolve over time, and the instruments in a  symphony orchestra fit the type of music written for them. The “symphony” orchestra is not the only type of orchestra, and “orchestras” are not the only kind of big musical groupings. Other types of bands contain other instruments, and play a different style of music.

  • Double Bass

    Double Bass

    The Concert Band or Concert Orchestra usually plays more light-hearted, popular music than  a symphony orchestra. Concert bands play film music, TV themes, well-known songs in instrumental arrangements and easy-listening pieces. Concert bands often have no string section, but may use the double bass. They usually include saxophones, more brass than a symphony orchestra and a larger number of clarinets and flutes. There’s also often a drum kit providing a steady beat in the background.

  • The Brass Band has a wide range of brass instruments, including cornets, fluglehorns and euphoniums plus percussion. Brass bands play similar styles of music to concert bands, but they sound different due to the lack of woodwind. One of the oldest brass bands in the world is the UK based Black Dyke Mills Band. Here’s a recording of them playing an arrangement of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture:

  • Bagpipes

    The Military Band is similar to the brass band, but also can also include clarinets, flutes, piccolo or even bagpipes. Military bands tend mainly to play military style marches.

  • The Jazz Band usually includes saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, percussion, double basses or bass guitars, and may also include a keyboard instrument.

Other Instruments

Some other instruments are very common, but are not normal members of large mixed instrumental groups.

  • The piano is a great solo instrument. It sometimes features with a large band, but is not usually a regular member of it. The main reason is probably partly due to the fact that pianos are very difficult to move. Modern bands like jazz bands and pop bands get round this by using digital pianos or keyboards.
  • The recorder (fipple flute) is often the first instrument learnt by children. It was more popular in Medieval and Baroque times for serious music – these days it’s often considered to be a child’s toy. Having said that, there are some professional recorder players around. Listen to this performance of Telleman’s “Fantasie” played on the treble recorder:

  • The Guitar is possibly the most popular instrument in the world. The acoustic (i.e. not electric) guitar is a very quiet instrument and it’s difficult to hear it against a background of many other instruments without special microphones. There is plenty of classical music written for solo acoustic guitar. The electric guitar is suited to pop, rock and jazz music.

Coming Next…

The next post in the series will take a look at the woodwind section of the symphony orchestra in more detail. Subscribe to the blog by RSS or Facebook to make sure you don’t miss it!



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