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Instruments part 3

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    Building on your knowledge of instruments, we'll now look at instrument-specific techniques and common instrumental doublings.


    Some instruments are very similar to play to other instruments in the same family. Often, one player can easily play another instrument from the same family, and often a player can be required to change between instruments in the same piece of music.

    Changing instruments in this way is called doubling, and the table below shows some common doublings - note that all are woodwind instruments:

    Main instrumentDoubling(s)
    Alto flute
    OboeOboe d'amore
    Cor anglais
    Clarinet in B flatClarinet in E flat
    Clarinet in A
    Bass clarinet

    Some other instruments can easily be played by the same player, but are not usually considered doublings because one would not normally expect to play these pairs of instruments within the same piece of music, or even within the same concert.

    It is common, however, for the same player to play these instruments:

    A player of...Might also play...
    Tenor tromboneAlto trombone
    Bass trombone
    French hornWagner tuba

    Note that a Wagner tuba is usually played by a French horn and not a tuba player!

    Strings and doubling

    Although many of the principles of string technique are shared between all the bowed string instruments, it is very uncommon for one string player to actively play more than one string instrument. One slight exception is that occasionally a violinist might also play the viola.

    String techniques

    The family of string instruments has a set of techniques which are not shared by any other family. These techniques are very commonly seen and you should know what the various terms and symbols mean, even if you are not a string player!

    Term / symbolMeaning
    con sordini
    con sord.
    With mute, i.e. attach a mute to the strings (a string mute is a comb-shaped attachment which is placed over the strings and has the effect of softening the sound)
    senza sordini
    senza sord.
    without mute, i.e. remove the mute which was previously attached (this term always comes after ther direction con sordini).
    Pluck the strings with fingers instead of bowing
    arcoBow the strings as normal (this term comes after the direction to play pizzicato)
    Up bow notationUp bow - play the marked note(s) with an "up" bow, i.e. by moving the bow in an upward direction over the string.
    Down bow notationDown bow - play the marked note(s) with a "down" bow, i.e. by moving the bow in a downward direction over the string.
    A "down" bow produces a firmer attack than an "up" bow, and is therefore usually used on the downbeat (and an "up" bow is usually used on the upbeat). These symbols are marked in the part by the performer or the composer for clarity in ambigious situations or to produce a particular effect. In an orchestra, all the players in a section have to move their bows together, so the leader will normally instruct the rest of the section where to use an "up" or "down" bow.
    (sul G, sul D, etc.)
    An instruction to play "on" a specific string, for example sul G - play the music on the G string. When used for higher notes that could otherwise be played on higher strings, this technique will produce a darker, mellower sound.
    sul ponticello
    sul pont.
    Play near the bridge - i.e., the point at which the bow touches the strings should be nearer the bridge than normal. This produces a distinctively thin and "glassy" sound with prominent upper harmonics.
    sul tastoPlay on the fingerboard - i.e., the point at which the bow touches the strings should be over the fingerboard. This produces a softer, more distant sound.


    Strings are not the only instruments to use mutes (referred to with the marking con sord.). All brass instruments also use mutes, although often only the marking mute is seen instead of con sord..

    In addition, French horns also often "stop" the instrument, by inserting the hand fully into instrument to muffle the sound. This is called hand-stopping.

    The French horn and tuba only use one type of mute, whereas the trumpet and trombone can use several types, such as:

    • Straight mute
    • Cup mute
    • Harmon mute
    • Wa-wa mute

    These are often found in jazz music, but sometimes also in modern orchestral music. These mutes all change the sound of the trumpet or trombone in different ways.

    Trumpet and trombone players can also be called upon to use the hand as a mute, but this just involves placing the palm of the hand over the bell of the instrument, to slightly muffle the sound. This is simply referred to as "hand mute", rather than "hand-stopping" as in French horn music.

    Piano techniques

    As with string-specific techniques, there are some frequently-used techniques on the piano which you should learn - even if you do not play the piano! These are shown in the table below:

    Term / symbolMeaningDescription
    una cordaUse the left (or "soft") pedal"Una corda" is Italian for "one string": the left pedal works by moving the piano's hammers across so that they only hit one string instead of the usual two or three strings per note, resulting in a softer tone. However, on some upright pianos the pedal works instead by moving the hammers closer to the strings.
    tre cordeStop using the left pedal"Tre corde" is Italian for "three strings".
    Pedal markings
    Use the right (or "sustain" pedal) in the marked sectionUsing the right pedal on a piano causes all notes played while the pedal is pressed to sustain. It works by lifting all the dampers from the strings, preventing them from returning to strings after they have been struck by the hammer, resulting in a sustaining sound. Because none of the strings are damped, strings will vibrate in sympathetic resonance with the one that has actually been struck. If you listen carefully, you'll be able to hear other notes ringing faintly!
    mano sinistra
    Use the left hand"Mano" is Italian for "hand", "sinistra" means "left" and "destra" means "right". You will most often see these markings where the composer intends for the pianist to cross one hand over the other, or where notes in the upper (or lower) stave are to be played with the left (or right) hand - in other words, the opposite from the pianist's normal expectation.
    mano destro
    Use the right hand
    Spread the notes quickly, one after anotherIt is normal to start from the bottom note when performing an arpeggiato.

    Glissando and portamento

    There is one term most often (but not exclusively) seen in harp music that you should know: glissando (or plural, glissandi). This term is also seen in music for the piano, trombone, and strings.

    Technically, glissando means a sweep of distinct pitches, as in, for example running your hand across all the keys of the piano, or strumming across all the strings of a harp.

    The term portamento, on the other hand, technically means that there is no gap between pitches. Therefore, what is normally called a "glissando" on string instruments and the trombone should really be called portamento, and the term glissando should be reserved for the harp and piano.

    In practice, however, "glissando" has come to be used in both situations, and "portamento" is hardly ever used.


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