How to Enjoy an Orchestra Concert
Newcomers to the classical music scene might find the idea of attending an orchestra concert intimidating and confusing. However, by understanding a little about the physical makeup of an orchestra and the instruments played in an orchestra, a classical music amateur can truly enjoy an orchestra performance.
The Makeup of an Orchestra
A full orchestra typically consists of 40 to 70 musicians. These musicians are seated in a semicircular fashion, with the conductor at the front and center. Each general group of instruments is collected in a certain section of this arrangement for less confusion and a unified sound. There are four main "families" of musical instruments:
These four groups are arranged so that the strings are closest to the audience, with the violin players situated on the audience's left and the other string players situated on the right. There are two violin sections; the violins in the row closest to the audience-the first violins-usually play higher (and more difficult) notes than the second violins, which are in the row directly behind them.
The wind group sits in the two rows facing the conductor. The quieter wind instruments are in the first row, while the louder wind instruments are in the second row. Behind these is the row of brass instruments. These instruments are generally very loud, so their sound carries quite well. The percussion group is usually behind the violins and winds, on the back left side of the stage. The conductor, who leads the orchestra, stands at the front and center, with his back to the audience.
The Instruments of an Orchestra
There are many different instruments within each of the four main groups; however, all instruments within each group have similarities in sound or design.
The string group is composed of violins, violas, cellos, and basses. A violin is a small instrument played on the shoulder and can produce very high notes. In contrast, the bass is an instrument the height of an adult which can produce very low notes.
The wind group is composed of piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. These instruments are all played by blowing into a mouthpiece. The piccolo is capable of playing the highest, most piercing notes, while the bassoon plays very low notes.
The brass group is composed of trumpets, trombones, french horns, and tubas. These instruments are also played by blowing into a mouthpiece; however, they are more metallic-sounding and much louder. The trumpets typically play the highest, fastest notes, while the tubas play deep, slow notes.
The percussion group is composed of many types of drums, timpani, cymbals, tambourines, and other exotic instruments. The number and variety of percussion instruments used depend on what the composer has included in a particular piece of music.
The Interaction of the Instruments
The instruments of an orchestra create a sound unlike any other in all of music. Usually, the melody is introduced by the highest-pitched instruments in a group. The melody is then adorned and developed by the rest of the instruments. However, this arrangement is highly variable. Sometimes one instrument will play a theme, and another will repeat the theme with variations. Some music is very elaborate, with intricate orchestration; other music is simple, with most instruments playing in unison and with little accompaniment.
The techniques that an orchestra uses to make music vary greatly, depending on the style of piece being played. However, all of these techniques combine to produce an overall sound that is breathtaking-one that can elicit countless emotions and be enjoyed by audiences of all backgrounds and interests.