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All about musical instruments

All the string instruments consist of vibrating strings stretched over a resonating wooden box. They use a horse-hair bow to start the strings vibrating, and the string may be stopped at various points to change the pitch of the note produced. They are the family capable of most expression and are grouped into large sections, with many players performing the same line of music.

Violin: the highest pitched instrument in the string family often plays the melody line. Violinists also tend to have the most notes to play and have a reputation for being highly strung.

Viola: plays a range of notes below the violin, often filling in important middle harmonies. Viola players are unfortunately the butt of many jokes. Some of them are very good (the jokes that is)!

Cello: held between the knees, the cello has a deep rich sound, and is often used to play the bass line. The cello can also be very expressive when playing melodies.

Double Bass: the deepest and biggest of string instruments, the double bass plays notes at the very bottom of the orchestra. Players have to stand or sit on a high stool to reach the top of the instrument!

Woodwind: A large family of different instruments, not all made of wood, that create sound by causing a column of air to vibrate. By pressing keys, the column of air is shortened and produces a different note. Each instrument has a separate solo line, though there may be two or more of players of each. The main instruments of this family are:

Flute: now made of metal, the flute is held horizontally and plays some of the highest notes the orchestra. In the hands of a skilful player, the flute can be highly expressive.

Oboe: a melody instrument that plays notes of a lower range than the flute. Because the oboist has to contort their face to play, they are sometimes perceived as slightly warped characters!

Clarinet: comes in several different sizes depending on the notes required. The clarinet uses a single reed to vibrate the column of air, rather than the double-reed of the oboe and bassoon.

Bassoon: the deepest of the woodwind family, the bassoon tends to play the bass line, though it is often used as an alternative melody instrument.

Brass: the loudest section of the orchestra, with a reputation for loud behaviour as well(!) brass instruments work on a similar principle to the woodwinds. They create a vibrating column of air using a cup-shaped mouthpiece, and can change the fundamental note produced using valves or a slide. Like the woodwind, each instrument plays its own solo line.

Principal members of the family include:

Horn: originally used in hunting, the orchestral horn can be soft and expressive, or loud and strident. A typical orchestra has between two and eight horns depending on the music being played.

Trumpet: produces a bright clear sound particularly suited to fanfares.

Like the clarinet, the trumpet can come in different sizes, each with a slightly different sound.

Percussion: Sometimes affectionately known as the 'Kitchen department', the percussion section mainly consists of a myriad of instruments that are struck with sticks or beaters.

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