The four Families of the Orchestra

Although the variety of musical instruments around the world is huge, there are four specific categories of musical instruments found in the orchestra. These are referred to as instrument families. They are referred to as families because the instruments within each group create sound in a similar way. These four families are brass, woodwind, strings, and percussion. Continue reading to find out what makes each of these families unique.

Brass Family

Instruments in this family include the trumpet, trombone, tuba, french horn,  euphonium and baritone. All of these instruments change pitch by pressing valves except for the trombone which has a slide.  All of these instruments are made of metal.

 

Woodwind Family

Instruments in the woodwind family include the clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, Piccolo, saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone), oboe, bassoon and english horn. All of these instruments require a reed except for the flute and piccolo. The clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone require a single reed, while the oboe, bassoon and english horn require a double reed. All of these instruments have many keys that are pressed to change the pitch. They are made of a combination of materials including plastic, metal, wood and cork.

String Family

The string family is a large family if you include instruments not found in the orchestra. The instruments of the orchestra include the violin, viola, cello, and bass. However, there are many more stringed instruments including the guitar, ukulele, and mandolin. These instruments are played by plucking, strumming or bowing. When the strings vibrate sound is created.

Percussion Family

The Percussion family is the largest family of the four. It is almost impossible to list all the instruments of this family. They include the bass drum, timpani, snare drum, bells, piano, drum set, hand drums, chimes, and cymbals. This is just a small selection of instruments. These instruments are played in a variety of ways including hitting and shaking. Some of these instruments such as the chimes and bells are capable of creating many pitches (known as pitched instruments) while others such as the snare drum and bass drum are only capable of one pitch (unpitched).

For the majority of the instruments in all families there size will determine how high or low there pitches are. For example, in the woodwind family the piccolo is capable of playing really high notes while the baritone saxophone plays pitches that are much lower. In the brass family the pitches sounded on the tuba are much lower then those sounded on the french horn and trumpet.

Watch the following video to hear and see the instruments of each family.

Click here to learn more about musical instruments not found in the orchestra.

12 thoughts on “The four Families of the Orchestra

  1. Wonderful article,

    I never knew there where just four specific classes of instruments, interesting.

    I do have a question, where did the woodwind category get the name woodwind?

    The name woodwind would suggest to me the instruments in this category would be made from wood.

    I have always wanted to learn how to play the ukulele how would you suggest someone who has never played an instrument before to learn how to play?

    1. Thank you!! Actually you are very right. the woodwind family did get its name because the instruments are made of wood and the player is required to blow air (wind) through the instrument to make sound. Of course, today a variety of materials are used to make woodwind instruments. You will notice that most flutes and saxophones are made of metal and clarinets, oboes, english horns, and bassoons have a lot of plastic for the body and metal for the keys.

      If you get a chance to see an orchestra or concert band you may notice that the families are often group together with the percussion at the very back.

      As for learning the ukulele, I would suggest getting one and just dive in. They are very fun instruments and there are a lot resources for learning. You could find someone who teaches private lessons or you could teach yourself through method books or programs. Stay tuned as I will be posting different method books for different instruments in the near future.

    2. Aren’t they made from wood?

      And btw what about the Piano? It’s not included in non of these families.

      Anyway, great article. I didn’t know there were only 4 types as well!

      1. hello thank you for the comment and questions. If you are referring to the woodwind family in your first question, the answer is they used to be made of wood but today we use a variety of materials such as plastic and metal.

        The piano is a member of the percussion family. I was actually surprised when I first learned this and I still find it hard to wrap my head around it. One would think that it is a stringed instrument due to the strings inside. However, because these strings are hit by hammers it has been placed in the percussion family. I did not mention the piano on this particular article because they are not always present in the orchestra. With that being said the saxophone is also not a regular instrument of the orchestra although I did include here with the woodwind family.

        There are actually a lot of instruments that don’t fit into these 4 families. These are just the families of the orchestra. You will notice I also omitted the guitar and bass guitar.

        Thank you again for your comment. Please let me know if you have any more questions.

  2. Thanks for the excellent intro to the music world! As a young child I played three instruments: piano, guitar, and the violin…

    Many many years later (I do not even want to think how many years!) I am once again surrounded by musicians, instruments, and live music…

    This article took we way back, and at some point in the near future I likely will revert to my roots, since in retrospect, I really enjoyed playing….

    Thanks for posting this and I will be back for more! Cheers!!

    Dave

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article! Playing music is a wonderful thing. I strongly encourage you to get back at it. Such a great stress reliever and a great way to share with others.

  3. Hi Melody,

    This is an awesome article! I did not know that there are four families of orchestra. All families are interesting. I love listening to orchestra. The blend of each instrument’s sounds are very natural and calming to the soul. I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing!

    marcy

  4. Thanks for posting this article. I have always been so impressed by people that can play violin. I have played piano as a kid and learned a few chords on the guitar. I am interested of music of all kids and go to as many shows as I can. I live right down the street from a really awesome music school (Old Town School of Folk Music – Chicago) – I am strongly considering taking a class there, but they offer so many that it’s overwhelming. Is there a particular instrument you would recommend based on my piano and guitar history?

    1. Thanks for the fabulous feedback. I will assume that since you learned the piano you can also read notes. I would say pick the instrument that you like the most. The guitar is great because you can jam and take it places with you. Another one that you might like is the Ukulele. They are really fun and inexpensive. I just taught the ukulele to my grade 6 music students. We had a blast. It’s like the guitar but only has 4 strings and is much smaller. However, there’s no one instrument that is the best. I would listen to lots of music and see which one appeals to you.

  5. Hey there!

    Very informative post. Thanks for sharing. My favourite family is the string family, no doubt. I love the sounds and the atmoesphere you can get from the instruments assosciated with it.

    It can really strike a mood and it’s definitely the instruments I enjoy experimenting with the most, haha. All the best!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! The string family certainly does create a beautiful sound. They can create a number of different moods whether in an ensemble or played alone. Thanks for sharing!

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