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Orchestration Basics 2 – Families of Sounds

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

An auditory family reunion

Orchestra with Pipe Organ
Photo: Diogo Nunes, Unsplash

In my last post, Orchestration Basics – What is the Orchestra?, we learned a little background on the orchestra and orchestration. In this post, we will define each of the four families (strings, woodwinds, brass, an percussion) in terms of the Western Orchestra. In following posts, we will discuss each of them and some tips for orchestration that show off each of their unique timbres.

The Four Families


T. Shyshkina, Unsplash

The first family in the orchestra is the strings. The string family is made of instruments that are called chordophones by musicologists. These are musical instruments that produces sound by a vibrating string or strings. There are four types of chordophones: zithers, lutes, lyres, and harps.

Zithers include instruments like the musical bow and the dulcimer. The musical bow descends from the hunting bow. Some of the earliest musical instruments dated back to at least 13,000 BCE. The musical bow is still played today by the San or Bushmen people of South Africa.

Lutes include stringed musical instruments that have a body and a neck on which the strings are stretched beyond the body. You may have seen the term "lute" before referring to a type of guitar. But, viols are types of lutes as well. Viols are stringed instruments played with a bow. The viol bow descends from the musical bow, where instead of the player creating sound with the bow itself as the musical bow but uses it to draw across the strings to create sound. Viols in the orchestra include violins, violas, cellos (or violoncellos), and double bass (also called bass viols or string basses).

Lyres include instruments with two arms with a crossbar connecting them and strings between the crossbar and the soundboard. The ancient Greek Kithara is the classic example. Even though we consider them to belong to different types today, we get our modern word "guitar" from Kithara. Lyres are not considered part of the Classical orchestra.

Harps include strings in which the strings are strung vertical to the soundboard. Examples include the concert harp and the Irish lap harp.

Viols arranged in first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses make up a typical string section of the Western orchestra. The concert harp is added in larger orchestrations. The viols carry most of the weight of the orchestral literature. The sweet sound of legato, arco (or bowed) strings and the percussive sound of pizzicato (or finger plucked strings) are some of most recognizable sounds of the orchestra. To learn more about the particulars in orchestrating for strings, see Orchestration Basics: The Great Grandparents of the Orchestra – Strings.

Note: Since musicologists consider string instruments to be chordophones, the piano is sometimes considered a chordophone. In fact, it can be considered a type of zither. However, since it creates sound through a hammer mechanism it is sometimes considered a percussion instrument. Some musicologists consider it to be in its own family, the keyboard family, along with the organ, harpsichords, and other keyboard instruments. We will be considering along with some others in Orchestration Basics: The Cousins – Percussion and the Oddballs