Classical Music: The Instruments Used

Learn about the different instruments used in classical music, from the strings to the brass to the percussion. Discover the unique sounds each instrument makes and how they come together to create beautiful classical pieces.

The Orchestra

The orchestra is a group of musicians who play together on various instruments. The orchestra is divided into sections, each of which specializes in playing a certain type of instrument. The most common sections are the strings, the brass, the woodwinds, and the percussion.


The term “string instruments” covers a huge range of different instrument types, from the huge bass to the tiny viola. All string instruments share one basic feature: they produce sound by means of vibrating strings. The strings are set in motion by plucking, bowing, or strumming, and the resulting vibrations are amplified by the resonant body of the instrument.

The string family is divided into two main groups: bowed strings and plucked strings. The bowed strings – which include the violin, viola, cello and double bass – are played with a bow. The plucked strings – which include the harp, lute, mandolin and guitar – are plucked with the fingers or a plectrum.

The main bowed string instruments are:
-the violin (which has four strings)
-the viola (which has four strings)
-the cello (which has four strings)
-the double bass (which has four strings).

The main plucked string instruments are:
-the harp (which has 47 or morestrings)
-the lute (which has six to 18 strings)
-the mandolin (which has eightstrings)
-the guitar (which has sixstrings).


While the strings are undoubtedly the most populous section of the orchestra, they are not alone. The woodwind section sometimes swells to nearly the same numbers, particularly in romantic-era works. As the name suggests, woodwind instruments are generally made of wood, although some (like the clarinet) have a mouthpiece made of molded plastic or hard rubber.

The instruments in this section usually get their sound from a vibrating piece of reed inserted into the mouthpiece, which sets the column of air inside the instrument vibrating. (The exceptions to this are the flute and piccolo, which use a jet of air directed across a hole in order to create vibration.) There are two main types of reeds: single reeds, like those used on clarinets and saxophones, and double reeds, like those used on oboes and bassoons.

The following is a list of common woodwind instruments you’re likely to find in an orchestra:

Flute- The flute is a thin sheet of metal with holes cut into it. The player blows across the edge of the hole to create sound.
Piccolo- The piccolo is a small flute with a high-pitched sound. It is played just like a regular flute, except that it is held horizontally instead of vertically.
Oboe- The oboe is a double reed instrument with a mellow tone. It is one of the main melody instruments in an orchestra.
English Horn- The English horn is similar to an oboe but with a lower, more mellow sound. It is not actually made of horn, but got its name because it was originally used to play hunting calls.
Bassoon- The bassoon is another double reed instrument with a deep sound. It can play both very high and very low notes.
Contrabassoon- Also known as the double bassoon, this instrument looks like two bassoons glued together. It has an even deeper sound than a regular bassoon and usually plays only very low notes


The Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Tuba, and Bugle are all brass instruments. The distinctive bright sound of a brass instrument comes from the player’s lips buzzing against a metal cup-shaped mouthpiece. The pitch of the sound produced can be changed by the player’s lip tension and air speed.

Brass instruments are some of the oldest musical instruments. The first trumpets were probably signaling devices used in war or hunting. Some trumpet-like signaling devices date back more than 3,500 years.

The word “trombone” comes from the Italian word “tromba” and the -one ending which means “big trumpets”. Trombones have been around since the 1400’s and were first used in sacred music because of their loud volume which helped them to be heard over choirs.

The French horn is a newer brass instrument having only been around for about 300 years. It was originally called the “hunting horn” because it was used to signal the beginning and end of a hunt as well as to communicate between hunters.

Tubas are also relatively new instrument having been developed in 1835 by Wilhelm Wieprecht and Johann Gottfried Moritz . They come in different sizes with tubas being the largest and requiring 4 or 5 players to carry it.

The bugle is a brass instrument that has no valves or slides to change pitch but instead relies on the player’s embouchure (lip formation) to change pitch. Bugles have been used since ancient times for communication purposes but have also gained popularity in recent years as a solo concert instrument.


Percussion instruments are the most diverse in the entire orchestra. Inclusive in percussion are instruments such as the timpani, marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel – which all produce pitches that can be tuned. However, percussion also encompasses a great deal of unpitched instruments such as the cymbals, gong, triangle, and snare drum – which create different colors or effects in music.

The timpani is perhaps the most commonly known percussion instrument – it is a large kettle drum that is played with two timpani sticks (or mallets). The player strikes the head of the timpani with the stick, and then manipulating the tension on the drum’s head with a foot pedal. This changes the pitch that is produced when struck. The range of a single timpani is usually around two to three octaves.

The xylophone is also a pitched percussion instrument that consists of wooden bars that are struck with mallets to produce sound. These bars are arranged from shortest to longest from left to right, similar to a piano. The glockenspiel is very similar to a xylophone; however, instead of bars made of wood – it has metal plates. The marimba looks like a keyboard placed vertically (the players sit or stand while playing) and uses mallets as well.

The Piano

The piano is a widely used instrument in classical music. It has a beautiful melodic sound that can be used to play a variety of pieces. The piano can be played solo or in a group. It is a very versatile instrument.

The Harpsichord

The harpsichord is a stringed musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed. The harpsichord was widely used in Renaissance and Baroque music. During the late 18th century, it fell out of fashion and was replaced by the piano. Nevertheless, it continued to be used in certain styles of music (e.g., Johann Sebastian Bach’s) until the early 19th century. Today, the harpsichord is making a comeback in some music circles.

The Fortepiano

The fortepiano is a predecessor to the modern piano. It was used extensively during the Classical period (1750-1820), when it helped to establish the basic repertoire of Keyboard music. The fortepiano was developed in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an inventor working for the Medici family in Florence, Italy. It quickly became popular with composers and performers of the day, particularly Mozart and Beethoven.

The fortepiano has a much lighter construction than the modern piano, with a thinner soundboard and smaller hammers. This makes it more responsive to the player’s touch and allows for a wider range of dynamics (loudness and softness). The instrument also has a shorter decay time, meaning that each note dies away more quickly than on a modern piano. This gives the music a lighter, more delicate sound.

The main disadvantages of the fortepiano are its lack of power and its limited range (five octaves as opposed to seven on a modern piano). However, many composers wrote beautiful music specifically for this instrument, taking advantage of its special qualities. If you enjoy classical music, try listening to some works specifically written for the fortepiano – you may be surprised at how different they sound from performances on a modern piano!

The Guitar

The guitar is a musical instrument of the strings family that is usually played with the fingers or a pick. It originated in Spain and has a long history dating back to the 16th century. The guitar is a versatile instrument that can be used in a wide variety of musical styles.

The Acoustic Guitar

The acoustic guitar is a solo instrument par excellence. It lends itself to all genres of music, from the most simple strummings to complex classical finger-work and bass runs.

The typical acoustic guitar has six steel strings which are plucked by the player’s right hand, while the left hand presses down on the strings at various points to alter the pitch. The strings are made of phosphor bronze, an alloy which gives them a bright, ringing sound. The scale length of an acoustic guitar is typically around 650 mm (25.6 inches).

The body of the instrument is usually crafted from spruce or cedar, with a rosewood fingerboard. The top of the guitar is termed the “soundboard” and it is here that much of the guitars power lies – in particular, the soundboard must be engineered to be as light as possible, so as not to stifle the vibrations which create the sound.

Acoustic guitars are further divided into two main types: flat-top and archtop. Flat-top guitars are by far the most common type; they have a flat surface on top of the soundboard (as opposed to an arched one) and they are generally considered to generate a “purer” sound than archtop guitars.

The Electric Guitar

The electric guitar is a popular instrument used in many styles of music including rock, blues, and jazz. Guitars are traditionally played with the hands, using a variety of finger and pick techniques to produce different sounds. Electric guitars can also be played with a variety of electronic effects to create different sounds.

The electric guitar is a versatile instrument that can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be used as a solo instrument or it can be used as part of a band or orchestra. Electric guitars are available in a variety of sizes and shapes, and they come in a variety of colors and finishes.

The Violin

The following paragraphs will talk about the history of the violin and how it is used in classical music. The violin is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The violin is used as a solo instrument, as well as in chamber music and orchestras.

The Baroque Violin

The Baroque violin is a violin set up in the manner of violins used during the baroque period. It differs from a modern violin in several respects. Most notable are a higher bridge, which allows the playing of Baroque music with less bow pressure than on a modern violin, and gut rather than steel strings.

The Baroque violin is tuned in fourths with a major third between the first and second strings: this is also known as scordatura tuning, and was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. The scordatura enhances some important harmonic possibilities available to the composer, but it also poses some technical challenges for the performer.

Players of the Baroque violin typically use a lower bridge than those who play on modern instruments. This facilitates bowing techniques which were common in the 17th century, such as spiccato and ricochet (sautillé).

The Baroque violin has gut strings, rather than steel strings as on a modern instrument. This choice reflects historical performance practice: steel-stringed instruments were not invented until the early 19th century, so all music composed before that time would have originally been played on gut-strung violins.

There are several different ways to set up a Baroque violin; these include original instruments (i.e., actual baroque violins which have been preserved), copies of original instruments (made by luthiers using historical methods), and modern instruments which have been modified to more closely resemble their historical counterparts.

The Modern Violin

The modern violin evolved in the 16th century from earlier, bowed instruments called violas da braccia. These were large instruments, played held upright in theplayer’s lap, and were used primarily in orchestras and as solo instruments in chamber music. By the early 1500s, a smaller version of the viola da braccio, called the violino piccolo or “little violin” had become popular. As its name suggests, the violino piccolo was a smaller instrument that was easier to play than its larger predecessor. It was also tuned a fourth higher than the standard viola da braccio, making it brighter in sound.

The first known illustration of a violin-like instrument dates from 1511, but it is not clear whether this instrument was actually played or whether it was merely a theoretical construct. The first unambiguous reference to the violin dates from 1533, when Italian painter and writer Girolamo Savonarola mentioned “the German fiddle with four strings.”

By the early 1600s, the modern violin had emerged in its basic form. It continued to evolve throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as makers experimented with different sizes and shapes of instruments and with different methods of construction. Many of these changes were aimed at improving the instrument’s tone or making it easier to play.

One important development during this period was the introduction of metal strings. Metal strings produce a brighter sound than gut strings and are less likely to break than gut strings (although they are also more likely to cause injuries to players because they are under greater tension). Another significant development during this period was the increasing use of artisans other than instrument makers to construct parts of violins. For example, bow makers began to specialize in making bows for violins (and other stringed instruments), and strings were increasingly made by people who were not instrument makers.

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