12. Musical Instruments
For grade four music theory, you need to know something about the standard orchestral instruments used today. You'll need to memorise some information about:
- the instrument families,
- the highest and lowest members of each family,
- the clefs each instrument normally uses, and
- whether or not the instrument is a transposing instrument.
The Orchestral Families
In a modern symphony orchestra, there are four families of instruments. The families are:
In the following lists, the instruments in each family are written in pitch order, with the highest first (except for the percussion section).
In the woodwind family, there are four main instruments:
In the brass family, there are four main instruments:
- French Horn
In fact, the French horn has a very big range which overlaps the trumpet and the trombone.
In the strings family, there are four main instruments:
- Violoncello ('cello)
- Double bass
In the percussion family there are no "main" instruments, and many of them are not "pitched", which means they "sounds" rather than "notes". Some instruments which are often used, however, are (in no particular order):
- Snare drum
Of these, the only one which normally appears in the grade 4 exam is the timpani. Timpani are also called "kettle drums". A kettle drum is tuned to play a single note. It's difficult to play a melody on timps because you need a separate drum for each note.
The following instruments use the treble clef:
- Flute, oboe, clarinet
- Trumpet, French horn
These instruments use the bass clef:
- Cello, double bass
- Trombone, tuba
The viola uses the alto clef.
Some instruments produce a different note to the one which is read. On the trumpet, for example, if you read/play the note C, the note which is produced is actually a Bb.
In practice, this means that a flute and trumpet could NOT read/play the same line of music together because all the trumpet's notes would be one tone lower than the flute's.
We say that a trumpet is "in Bb", because that's the note we hear when a trumpeter plays a C. The trumpet is a "transposing instrument".
The following are NOT transposing instruments:
- Flute, oboe, bassoon
- Trombone, tuba
- Violin, viola, cello
The following are transposing instruments:
- Clarinet, trumpet (Bb)
- French horn (F)
- Double bass (8ve down)
Reading and Playing at the Same Pitch
The following groups of instruments are able to play each other's music without any change of pitch. This is a very common question in the grade 4 (and 5) music theory exam papers, so it's worth learning!
- Flute, oboe, violin (treble clef, non-transposing)
- Bassoon, cello, trombone, tuba (bass clef, non-transposing)
- Trumpet, clarinet (treble clef, transposing Bb)
The following instruments cannot play from any other instrument's music part:
- Timpani (can only play single notes)
- Viola (the only instrument which uses the alto clef)
- French horn (the only instrument pitched in F)
- Double bass (the only instrument which sounds an octave lower than written)
There are lots of other instruments of course, but these are the only ones you need to know about in your grade 4 exam!