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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 15: The Instruments of the Orchestra


Instruments for Grade 5 Music Theory

You need to know about all the standard orchestral instruments, and about the voice.

You need to know which family each instrument belongs to, the relative pitch of each instrument and which clef they use.

You also need to know which instruments can play each other’s music without a change in pitch occurring.

Families of Instruments

There are four families of instrument. Each family is defined by the way the instruments produce sound. 

  • Instruments which use strings are called string instruments (funnily enough!)
  • Instruments which produce sound when they are hit or shaken are called percussion.
  • Instruments which use air are divided into two groups- those that are always made of metal and which are played with a funnel-shaped mouthpiece are brass instruments, and those which can be made of wood are called woodwind.


 Family Members of Instruments

Here’s a table to summarise the standard orchestral instruments.

In each family the instruments are listed in order from the smallest (=highest) to the biggest (=lowest).

You can see which clef the instruments normally use, and if they are transposing.

Click on the Audio icon to hear what the instrument sounds like. (All audio was recorded by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Visit their site for thousands more free sounds!)

Information about the ranges of each instrument is here.


Family Instrument Picture Clef Transposing?  Sound
 String Violin violin treble clef No audio
Viola Viola alto clef No audio
Cello cello

bass clef

alto clef

treble clef

No audio
Double bass double bass bass clef 8ve down audio
 Woodwind Flute flute treble clef No audio
Oboe oboe treble clef No audio
Clarinet clarinet treble clef Yes (Bb/A) audio
Bassoon bassoon

bass clef

alto clef

treble clef

No audio
 Brass Trumpet trumpet treble clef Yes (Bb) audio
French horn french horn

treble clef

bass clef

Yes (F) audio
Trombone trombone

bass clef

alto clef

treble clef

No audio
Tuba tuba bass clef No audio

The percussion family is very big. Click this link to learn more about some of the more common instruments:

Reed Instruments 

In the woodwind family, the clarinet, oboe and bassoon all produce sound using a reed. The clarinet is a single-reed instrument, and the oboe and bassoon are double-reed instruments. A double reed is simply two reeds bound together at one end You may be asked about which are single- or double-reed instruments, so learn this!

Unpitched Instruments

The instruments in the strings, woodwind and brass families are all pitched instruments. This means they play notes which have a specific pitch, which you can write on a stave. In the percussion family, some instruments are pitched, and others are unpitched. Unpitched instruments make a "sound" but not a "note". Here are some examples.

Pitched Percussion

Xylophone (made of wood), glockenspiel (made of metal), timpani (or "kettle drums").

A kettle drum can only be tuned to play one note at a time, so usually you find two or three in an orchestra, each tuned to play different notes (e.g. the tonic and dominant).

Unpitched Percussion

Gong, triangle, cymbals, castanets, bass drum, snare drum.


 Non-Standard Instruments

SaxophoneThere are plenty more instruments around as you probably know! They are not considered to be "standard" orchestral instruments though, because they are not used in a basic "standard" symphony orchestra. 

Some examples include the guitar, the saxophone (pictured), the harp, the piano and the recorder.

Brass and woodwind instruments come in a variety of different sizes. A small flute is called a piccolo, whereas a big flute is called a bass flute. Clarinets come in many sizes too - you might have seen a small clarinet called an E flat clarinet, or a very big one which is a bass clarinet. A variant of the oboe is the cor anglais.


Flugelhorn These instruments are often used in symphony orchestras, but they are not "standard" because they are used in addition to (and not instead of) the standard instruments. Many brass instruments are used mainly in brass bands, and not so often in symphony orchestras, for example, the cornet or the flugelhorn (pictured).

recorderFor Grade 5 Theory, you need only to know about the "standard" instruments, but you will not be penalised if you want to show off your knowledge! If you are asked "What is the highest member of the woodwind family?", you may answer "flute" (standard instrument), or "piccolo" (non-standard instrument). 

However, you would not be right if you answered "recorder" (pictured), because it is not used in symphony orchestras.

 The Voice

There are four basic ranges of voice. Women’s voices can be soprano (the highest voice) or alto, and men’s voices can be tenor or bass (the lowest voice). 

In between soprano and alto, there is another female voice called mezzo-soprano, and between tenor and bass there is another male voice which is called baritone.


Here is the complete range from highest to lowest:

Soprano - Mezzo Soprano - Alto - Tenor- Baritone - Bass

You can listen to examples of each voice on the Oxford University Press website. 

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