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Instruments part 2

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    We have already looked at the basic families of instruments, and now we'll look at a few more unusual members of the instrument families, and then look in more detail at the relative ranges of instruments and their capabilities.

    Further woodwind instruments

    The woodwind family of instruments that you have already met in Instruments part 1 has two additional members which we did not cover before. These are the very highest and very lowest members of the woodwind family, and also happen to provide the highest and lowest notes of the whole orchestra.

    The Piccolo

    The piccoloThe piccolo

    The highest-pitched instrument of all is the piccolo, which is Italian for "small" - and you can see why, as this is a very small instrument around half the size of a flute. It sounds one octave higher than a flute.

    The Contrabassoon

    The contrabassoonThe contrabassoon

    The lowest-pitched instrument of the woodwind family is the contrabassoon. Do not confuse this with either the bassoon or the contrabass (which is another word for the string family's double bass). The contrabassoon looks and sounds similar to a bassoon, but is physically larger and sounds one octave lower than a bassoon.

    Another percussion instrument

    The Marimba

    The marimbaThe marimba

    It can sometimes be easy to confuse the percussion instruments that have a keyboard-style layout. You have already met the xylophone (with wooden bars) and the glockenspiel (metal bars, and smaller than a xylophone). The marimba looks a little like a xylophone (it also has wooden bars), but it has long resonating tubes beneath each wooden bar. These resonating tubes give the marimba a characteristically different sound to the xylophone, and it sounds much mellower and deeper in pitch.

    Percussion instruments with a keyboard layoutPercussion instruments with a keyboard layout:
    A: glockenspiel
    B: xylophone
    C: marimba

    You might also see resonating tubes on a xylophone, but these will be very small and only under the lowest notes. By contrast, the marimba's resonating tubes are large and obvious, and are present under every note.

    High and low

    Not all of the instruments in a family (see: Instruments part 1) sound at the same pitch. In fact, each family of instruments tends to span the entire range of pitches, with some low instruments, some high instruments, and some in between.

    It is important to know which instruments are high and which are low, so in the tables below you can see the instruments ranked in order of pitch:


    InstrumentApproximate range
    Violinmid-range to very high
    VioloncelloMid-range to lower range
    Double bassLow
    The harp is capable of playing the full range of notes.


    InstrumentApproximate range
    PiccoloVery high
    FluteHigh to very high
    ClarinetMid-range to high
    BassoonMid-range to low


    InstrumentApproximate range
    TrumpetMid-range to high
    French hornLow to upper mid-range
    TromboneLow to mid-range


    The keyboard instruments are typically all capable of playing the full range of notes, with the exception of the celesta, which plays in the mid to very high range.

    Woodwind types

    Within the woodwind family, there are several different types of instrument, which produce sound in a slightly different way.

    Recall that all woodwinds produce sound with a vibrating column of air within the instrument's tubular structure. The air enters the instrument through the mouthpiece, and different kinds of mouthpiece set the air vibrating in a different way.

    We can categorise the woodwinds into the following sub-types, based on mouthpiece:

    • Reedless
    • Single reed
    • Double reed


    Reeds are small pieces of material that vibrate either against eachother (double reeds) or against the mouthpiece of the instrument (single reeds) when blown by the player.

    Single reed instruments have a distinctively different sound from double reed instruments.

    The following table shows each member of the woodwind family and gives the corresponding type. This table also includes other less-common members of the woodwind family which nevertheless are regularly found in the symphony orchestra.

    Reedless Piccolo
    Single reed Clarinet
    Bass clarinet
    Double reed Oboe
    Cor anglais


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