Break It Down

Here's a helpful guide to the basics of orchestras and classical music.

Where do members of the orchestra sit? Hover over the diagram for information.



The orchestra is made up of four sections, or families of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. 

Taken from:

What instruments make up the orchestra?

● The string instruments are made of wood and have gut strings that are sounded by being bowed or plucked.  The violins are the smallest instrument of the sting section and most often carry the melody line.  The violins are split into two sections, the first violins and the second violins.  The other standard instruments in the orchestra are the viola, the cello, and the double bass.  The Harp is also included in the string section and sound is made when the strings are plucked.  A part for harp is not written in every orchestral piece. 

●  The woodwind section is made up of the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, and the bassoon.  Woodwind instruments are played by blowing into them and creating different notes by pressing keys that cover holes.  Most instruments in the section are made of wood and require a reed in the mouthpiece.  The flute is made of metal and does not require a mouthpiece. It has been categorized in the woodwind family because of its’ timbre and color, rather than its sound production.    

● The Brass section of the orchestra is comprised of all instruments that are made of metal.  Instruments in this family are: trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba.  The brass instruments produce sound by the player “buzzing” their lips into a mouthpiece and then the sound is amplified though out the rest of the instrument.

● The Percussion section is made up of the largest variety of instruments.  Some common percussion instruments include: timpani, marimba, bass drum, and cymbals, and triangle.  The piano is also categorized as a percussion instrument because when you are hitting the keys, the sound is produced by a mallet striking the stings inside the piano. 

In the program book, the musicians are not listed alphabetically. Why?

The musicians of the orchestra are not listed in the program book alphabetically because they are listed based on where they are seated on stage.  All Musicians are listed by their instrumental section, and then within their section are listed by where they sit in the section.  In most orchestras, the principal and assistant principal musician will stay consistent, and the rest of the musicians in a section will rotate where they sit. 

What does the conductor do?

The conductor is the leader of the orchestra.  He or she forms an artistic vision for the piece based off of the score and what the composer has written in the music.  The conductor’s job is to make the ideas and shape of the piece come to life.  Lots of the conductor’s job is seen in the rehearsal process where the conductor will act as a mediator for different ways the musicians might interpret playing a section. 

How long do the musicians rehearse for each concert?

Each orchestra is different in the number of rehearsals they have before a concert; however, the standard number of rehearsals in the industry is four. 

What does it mean to be a Principal Musician?

To be a principal musician means that you are the leader of your section.  If there is a solo in the piece, then typically the principal musician will play the solo.  In some orchestras there are additional rehearsals called sectionals, which are run by the principal musician of each section.  

What does the Concertmistress or Concertmaster do?

The Concertmistress or Concertmaster is the last musician to enter the stage.  This person’s primary job is to act as the leader for the orchestra as a whole, and to cue the principal oboist to tune the orchestra. 

Glossary of Terms:

Adagio- A tempo marking that directs the performer to play slow and relaxed. 

Allegro- A tempo marking that directs the performer to play fast and lively. 

Concerto-This is a piece of music written for a solo instrument.  The orchestra accompanies, while the solo instrument plays a melody line. 

Movement- The separate sections within a larger work.  There is a pause between each movement, but it is customary not to clap between the movements. 

Staccato- A Staccato is marked with a dot over the note and tells the musician to play the note short and sharply. 

Symphony- A long piece of music written for orchestra that is is usually in three or four sections called movements. 

Tempo-A tempo is written in the music and tells the composer and the musicians the speed of the music. 

Trill- When the performer alternates vary quickly between two different notes that are a whole or half note apart.

Tuning- When the orchestra tunes, they raise the pitch up and down so that the instrument is playing the center of the correct pitch. 

Tutti-A section of a musical piece where the whole orchestra is playing together.

Rubato- This is often times seen in music of the romantic period that lasted from the early 1800s to around 1900, it is a style where the tempo is not as strict, but uses a borrowed time feeling of give and take.  The style of rubato is also popular in jazz and flamenco.

Vivace-This is a direction written in the music that tells the performer to play the music in a briskly and lively. 


What to listen for in the music.....

Consonance- This is a group of notes that sound pleasing to our ears when they are played together. 

Dissonance- This is a musical sound that lacks melody or completeness.  It can sound harsh to our ears and unpleasant.  Dissonance is very important in western music, however, because it creates the tense moments in music that leave us on the edge of our seat waiting for a beautiful resolution. 

Dynamics- This refers to the volume of a selection of music.  A crescendo in music means that a phrase gradually grows in loudness.  When a decrescendo is marked in the music, this means that a phrase gradually gets softer.  

Timbre- Timbre is the color of the music that is created by an instrument or combination of instruments.  Some words that are used to describe timbre are: harsh, mellow, dark, light, brassy, and warm. 

Texture- Texture describes the thickness of the orchestration.  Identify the texture of a piece by listening for what sections of the orchestra are playing at a given time and if the sound seems thick or thin.