Music Theory Terms for instruments

Bytes & Pieces
2 min readSep 1, 2023

By Amanda L.

The String Family

Situated at the front section of a symphony orchestra, the string family — violins, violas, cello and double bass are played with a bow or plucking the strings. Some common playing techniques include pizzicato (pizz.), plucking the string; arco, playing with the bow after a pizz passage; Col legno, playing with the wooden part of the bow; and sautillé, bouncing the bow off the string to create short and sharp notes. Violins may also have directions to be muted, con sordino (con sord.) meaning with mute and senza sordino (senza sord.) meaning without mute. There may also be instructions for string instruments area of playing, from sul ponticello, playing near the bridge to sul tasto, playing her the fingerboard.

The harp, also classified as a string instrument, usually sits at the left side of the orchestra near the percussion area. Some playing techniques for the harp include bisbigliando, playing repeated notes(tremolo) lightly with both hands, and the direction of pres de la table, directing the player to pluck the string near the soundboard.

The Woodwind Family

The woodwind family has both transposing and non-transposing instruments, where the flute, oboe and bassoon are non-transposing and the piccolo, cor anglais (english horn), clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet and double bassoon are transposing. Clarinets are often in the key of B flat, A, or E flat. The baritone and alto saxophone are E Flat instruments while the soprano and tenor saxophone are B Flat instruments. A technique in woodwinds is flutter tonguing (flatterzunge), where musicians interrupt the flow of air by rolling ‘r’ when playing. Single-tongue, double-tongue and triple-tongue are also skills used by woodwind players. Apart from the piccolo and the flute, most other woodwinds used reeds to create sound. The oboe, cor anglais, and bassoon are double reeded instruments, while the clarinet and saxophone are single reeded.

The Brass Family

The brass family consists of the trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, tuba and horn, situated at the back of symphony orchestras. The trumpet and horn are transposing instruments while the trombone and tuba are not. Brass instruments may be directed to mute their instruments to produce a different sound, where con sordini [italian]/mit dampfer [german]/ avec sourd [french] meaning with mute and senza sordini/ohne dampfer/otez les sourds meaning without mute. A unique technique for horn players are stopped notes, gestopft [german]/ sons bouches [french], where players push their hand inside the bell of the horn.

The Percussion Family

The percussion family is categorized into those with definite pitch (able to control the pitch) and indefinite pitch (unable to control the pitch). Definite pitch percussion instruments include the timpani, celesta, xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone and tubular bells. Indefinite pitch instruments include the bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, gong, triangle and tambourine.




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