Meet the Families

Discover the unique sounds, key characteristics and acoustics of each of the instrument families in the orchestra.

Here’s a challenge! Once you’ve listened to each family on this page, download the activity sheet and find ways to describe the families in your own words.

The Strings

These instruments are made of wood and have strings. Sound is produced when the strings VIBRATE. String players can change the sound of their instruments by:

  • changing where they press the strings.
  • changing where they pull the bow across the strings.
  • using their fingers to pluck the strings, called PIZZICATO (pronounced pitz-uh-KAH-toh).

The bodies of these instruments have a hollow center called a RESONATING CHAMBER, which makes the sound of the strings loud and strong.

Instruments include: violin, viola, cello, and double bass.


The Brass

The brass instruments stand out because they’re big and shiny. They make loud, full, and sometimes very deep sounds. These instruments—the French horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba—are made of twisted metal tubing that opens into a bell shape.

These musicians change the sound of their instruments by:

  • changing the shape of their lips against the mouthpiece.
  • changing how strongly they blow air through the mouthpiece.
  • moving parts of the instruments called slides (on the trombone) or valves (on the other brass instruments).

To make sound, players “buzz” their lips on the instrument’s mouthpiece creating VIBRATION. Before a concert, you might hear them buzzing their lips to warm up.

Instruments include: French horn, trumpet, tuba and trombone.


The Woodwinds

Musicians play woodwind instruments by blowing into them. Flute and piccolo players blow across an opening. Clarinet and saxophone players blow air into a mouthpiece with a single reed (a thin strip of woody grass or cane), and the oboe and bassoon players blow air across a double reed with two pieces of cane wrapped together.

Players change the sounds of their instruments by:

  • changing the strength and angle of the air flow.
  • changing the embouchure (AHM-boo-shoor), which is the way the players hold their lips, tongue, and teeth as they blow into the instrument.
  • pressing down on different keys.

To get ready to play, the clarinet, bassoon, oboe, and saxophone players moisten their reeds in water or in their mouths, so that the reed is more flexible and can vibrate more easily for the instrument to produce their sound. The reed, or pieces of cane, when dry are very hard and cannot vibrate to produce sound unless they are wet.

Instruments include: flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.


The Percussion

Percussion instruments like drums and tambourines make sounds when you cause them to VIBRATE by hitting, rubbing, shaking, or scraping them. At an orchestra concert, the most common percussion instruments are the timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, xylophone, tambourines, and triangles, but some others include maracas, gongs, and chimes. Sometimes orchestras also feature a piano and other related keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord and organ. These instruments are often considered part of the percussion family because they are played by pressing on keys that trigger small hammers inside the instrument striking strings.

Players generally change the sound of percussion instruments by:

  • changing what they use to hit them, such as changing from a mallet (small hammer) to their hands.
  • changing where or how hard they hit or shake them.
  • tightening or loosening the head of drums.

Instruments include: timpani, snare drum, piano.