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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, rather than with the string family.

Listen to how the bed of rich strings forms a foundation for the other instruments, especially the English Horn (Cor l'Anglais) in Antonin Dvořák's Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95; B 178, 'From the New World' Movement 2: Largo.


Classical Bassoon
Classical Bassoon

The woodwind family is made of instruments that are called aerophones by musicologists. An aerophone is an instrument that produces sound by using air as to produce vibration. The oldest musical instrument that has been found is an aerophone, a flute made from bone dating to more than 40,000 years ago.

The woodwind family is composed of two types of instruments, flutes and reeds. A basic flute is a hollow pipe with finger holes drilled into it to make pitches, like a Revolutionary War fife. A basic reed is simply a reed that a player blows air on in such a way that it vibrates. You may have down this yourself with a large blade of grass you found as a child. There are two subdivisions of reed pipes, single reed (clarinets and saxophones) and double reeds (bassoons and oboes). Both flutes and reeds were traditionally made of wood, but now they may also be constructed of metal, such as the saxophone.

The Classical orchestra may include flutes, piccolos (smaller and higher pitch flutes), clarinets, bass clarinets, oboes, English horns, bassoons, and contrabassoons. Although, the name may imply that the English horn is a horn, it is actually a double reed, similar to the oboe. After the invention of the saxophone by Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s, some composers added saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass varieties) to their orchestral works as well. However, a typical orchestral woodwind section will feature flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs.

Listen and follow along to the lush woodwinds section carries the melody in Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture below.


Classical Trumpeter
Classical Trumpeter

Like the woodwinds, the woodwind family is made of instruments that are called aerophones by musicologists. The earliest ancestors to brass instruments are conch shells and animal horns that people would blow into to create sound.

The original brass instruments did not have valves or slides like modern instruments do, and a player could only play notes in the instrument's naturally occurring harmonic series. In music, the harmonic series (sometimes called the overtone series) is the sequence of frequencies, musical tones, or pure tones in which each frequency is an integer multiple of a fundamental or root pitch. The unique harmonic series of each type of instrument lends to its unique timbre. [Don't worry if this is unclear right now, just know that the early brass was limited in what pitches it could produce.] Eventually, music instrumental builders added finger holes and/or keys to brass instruments, similar to early woodwinds.

Modern brass instruments come in two types, valved and slide. A valved brass instrument is use a set of valves played by the musicians fingers. The valved brass instruments include cornets, trumpets, French horns, and tubas. A slide brass instruments which use a slide change the length of tubing. The only slide instruments used in today are the trombones. A typical brass section in the orchestra will include four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba. Occasionally, a composer will call for more brass for effect.

Although brass was still a recent addition to the orchestra in Baroque composer George Frideric Handel's day, he used them to great effect in Water Music Suite No. 2: Alla Hornpipe.


USAFE Timpanist

The fourth family of the orchestra is percussion. Percussion instruments are the most varied in the orchestra and include those that are played by striking by hand or with a handheld or pedal-operated stick or beater, or by shaking, including drums, cymbals, xylophones, gongs, bells, and rattles. Most percussion instruments are either idiophones or membranophones. However, some chordophone, such as piano, as we already discussed, and aerophones like the siren or slide flute are considered to be part of the percussion family as well.

Idiophones produce sounds through the vibration of their entire body. These include bells, cabasa, cajón, castanets, claves, chimes, cowbell, cymbals, güiro, maracas and shakers, marimba, thumb piano (or kalimba), triangle, vibraphone, wood block, and xylophone.

beaters and sticks
Photo: Phillip T. Day

Membranophones produce sound when the membrane or head is struck with a hand, mallet, stick, beater, or improvised tool. [See examples of percussion beaters, mallets, and drum sticks in the photo to the right.] Membranphones are what we think of as drums. These include: bass drum, bongos, congas, jambes, snare drums, tablas, timpani, and toms.

Percussion instruments can further be divided into those that are tuned and produce a definite pitch and those that are not of a precise pitch, called indefinite pitch percussion. Examples are pitched percussion are bells, orchestral chimes, marimba, thumb piano, vibraphone, and xylophone. Other pitched instruments include the tabla, the glockenspiel, timpani, and even the wind chimes. Indefinite pitch percussion includes the bass drum, the snare drum, castanets, shakers, and toms. Other indefinite pitch instruments include the rain stick and güiro.

The first percussion instrument to be introduced to the orchestra and still one of the most common is the timpani. [Pictured above in the photo from the United States Air Force Europe Band.] In fact, timpani are known to have been player in the ancient world, and there is music from the medieval period written for it. Other popular choices for the orchestra percussion section include tuned mallets, such as the marimba and xylophone, and drums, such as the snare, cymbals, and bass drum.

Percussion is most often used in orchestration for effect and should normally be used sparingly. However, some orchestral composers have chosen to make use of large percussion sections that set their music apart. Listen to the church bells and timpani in the video below of J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio BWV 248.

That is just a brief summary of the four families. We will explore these four families in-depth in upcoming posts in the Orchestration Basics series. Also in future posts, we will look at the oddballs in the family, including the keyboards and electronic instruments, as well as the orchestra as a whole, the roles of the conductor, the hall, and the audience and how we might consider each go them when orchestrating our music.

As always, feel free to contact via email,, with your questions. And, check out the current Back-to-School/Fall 2020 Remote Learning Special and save an addtional 20% off a four-lesson remote learning package running from 5 Sept. 2020 to 20 September 2020. Keep making music, friends!


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.


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