Chinese Musical Instruments
Copyright Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
Sound clips sponsored by NAXOS International (Far East).

Introduction to Musical Instruments - Western Musical Instruments

STRINGS | WOODWINDS | BRASS | PERCUSSION


STRINGS
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VIOLIN

The prominence of the violin in Western music rests on its singular qualities, among them an expressiveness ranging from soft lyricism to extreme dramatic excitement, a soulful and sensitive timbre, crescendos and diminuendos unequaled by other instruments.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there were 2 main types of bowed string instruments: "viola da gamba" (leg viols) and "viole da braccio" (arm viols). The latter, held against the shoulder when played, is the immediate forerunner of the violin.
From 1600-1750, Cremona was the centre of violin making, where notable violinmakers included Niccolo Amati (1596-1684), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri (1666-c. 1740).

Besides playing with the bow, the violin can also be played by plucking the strings with the first finger of the right hand - a technique known as "pizzicato".


Play - Mendelssohn : Violin Concert in E minorOp.64 1st movement - Allegro molto appassionato

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VIOLA

The viola was developed from the "tenor-viol" a popular string instrument widely played in Europe, towards the end of the 15th century. Its range lies in between the violin and the cello, and its timbre is rich and mellow.

Play - Bartok : Concerto for Viola & Orchestra 2nd movement - Lento

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CELLO

The cello is a low pitch bowed string instrument, which serves a similar function as the bass in a choir. Developed from the 15th century "viola da gamba", the instrument originally had 6 strings and was placed upon the knees to play. A leg was later added, and it marked the beginning of the cello.

The cello was first charged with playing the accompaniment in small orchestras. It was only at the end of the 16th century, when an Italian cellist, Domenico Gabrielli (1659-90) first used the cello as a solo instrument. The cello has since developed into an expressive solo instrument.


Play - Saint-Saens : The Swan(Adagio)from Carnival of the Animals

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DOUBLE BASS

The largest and lowest pitch bowed string instrument, was directly developed from the "double-bass viol", It frequently doubles the cello part at an octave below in classical music, but is also capable of playing the bass part alone. Often played in pizzicato style, the double-bass is also an important member of jazz bands.

Play Sound - Saint-Saens : Carnival of Animals - The Elephant

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WOODWINDS

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FLUTE

The flute is generally made of silver, though older instrument is made of wood, and gold is occasionally used. The timbre of the flute varies considerably at different ranges, the lowest tones being thick and breathy, the higher ones becoming brighter and more penetrating. The modern flute embodies the revolutionary constructive principles introduced by Theobald Böhm (1794-1881) in the middle of the 19th century.

Play - Saint-Saens : Carnival of the Animals - Aviary

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PICCOLO

The piccolo is half the size of the flute, and the notes sound an 8ve higher. It is one of the highest and most penetrating instruments of the orchestra, and is effective in highlighting orchestral tutti and strengthening the upper partials of the harmony.

Play - Vivaldi : Concerto for Piccolo & Strings in a minor RV445 2nd movement - Larghetto

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CLARINET

The forerunner of the clarinet is the "chalumeau", a small, usually keyless cylindrical pipe introduced into Europe from Persia-Greece in the Middle Ages. The modern clarinet is made of wood or ebonite, of cylindrical bore, with a bell-shaped opening at one end and a plastic ebonite mouthpiece at the other. The single cane reed is bound to the open side of the mouthpiece by means of a metal ligature with thumbscrews. The clarinets are made in a variety of keys, like Bb, A and Eb. The most common is the clarinet in Bb. The tone quality of the clarinet is widely varied. Its lowest notes are dark and 'reedy', while its middle notes are soft and empty, and its upper notes are rich and expressive.

Play - Weber : Clarinet Concerto No.1 in F minor Op 73 (J-114) 2nd movement

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OBOE

The oboe is a double reed instrument which could trace its ancestor to the ancient "aulos" of 480-470 B.C., and is a direct descendent of the "shawm" of the 17th century.

The oboe consists of a conical pipe with a double reed fixed to the blowing end, and has a unique tone which is slightly nasal, but highly expressive.

The English horn is similar to the oboe in mechanism, but different from the oboe in size (it is 6 inches longer), in its pear-shaped bell and the bent metal tube extending from the top end of the instrument to hold the reed tube. The reeds are also larger than those of the oboes. The English horn produces a 'pastoral', slightly quaint and nasal quality.

Play - Prokofiev : Peter & the Wolf - The Duck

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SAXOPHONE

Invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax of Brussels, the saxophone is classified as a woodwind instrument despite the fact that it is made entirely of brass. This is because its tones are produced with a mouthpiece and reed, almost exactly like those of a clarinet.

The saxophones are made in a large variety of sizes and keys, such as Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor and Eb baritone.

The tone quality of the saxophone is thicker and more pungent than that of the clarinet and its ease of playing and marked character have made it one of the chief instruments in modern jazz bands.


Play - Mussorgsky : Picture At an Exhibition : The Old Castle

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BASSOON

The bassoon is the bass of the double-reed woodwind family, and its double reed is fitted onto a curved metal mouthpiece. It serves most often as the bass in the orchestra, but is also capable of producing witty and comical effects.

It has a wide range that spans over 3 octaves and tone colors that are widely varied and expressive. Its lower notes are dark and solemn, while its middle notes are sweet and humorous, and its upper notes are tender and expressive.

Play - Prokofiev : Peter & the Wolf : Grandfather

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BRASS

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TRUMPET

The trumpet, used by the Greeks and Romans and later by royal families in Europe, was regarded as a symbol of triumph, heroism and solemnity. The straight trumpet was widely employed in the princely and ducal courts of Europe in the early 13th century, but the instrument was soon improved and the S-shaped trumpet was later introduced. As late as the end of the 18th century, there were still crooks for different keys, but when the valves were invented in the 19th century, the valve trumpet became an important brass instrument of the symphony orchestra. The modern trumpet has 3 valves and its timbre is bright, brilliant, and penetrating. It can also produce a special humorous effect upon the addition of a mute.

Play - Vivaldi : Trumpet Concerto (trans. Jean Thilde) in g minor 1st movement - Vivace

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FRENCH HORN

Horns are symbols of power and strength as were the horned beasts of elephants, bulls and boars - from which they were first made. The horn was originally used as a signaling instrument for hunting purpose. By the end of the 18th century, crooks were used to extend the compass of harmonics. The rotary_valve horn was invented in the early 19th century, and soon solved the problem of frequent changes of crooks in performance. The French horn is capable of a variety of tone colors that range from the warm & expressive to the rich & powerful.

Play - Prokofiev : Peter & the Wolf - The Wolf

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TROMBONE

The trombone, which traces its origin to the medieval "sackbut" - a popular instrument frequently played in the bands of kings and princes, at rituals, ceremonials and feasts, is one of the oldest instruments of the orchestra. It differs little from the "sackbut" in appearance, and the playing technique has remained basically unchanged, except for the development of quicker slide technique. The trombone consists of 2 separate pieces. One of them is made up of the mouthpiece, the cylindrical bore and the bell. Another one is a U-shaped slide that can be moved toward and away from the player. The slide, which performs a comparable function as the valves used in other brass instruments, is capable of producing a smooth "glissando" by a sliding movement.

Play - Wagenseil : Trombone Concerto in E flat-major 2nd movement - Allegro assai

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BARITONE & EUPHONIUM

The appearances of the Baritone and Euphonium resemble the tuba so much that they can be looked upon as small size tubas. The Baritone is built in one of two shapes: - either in the oblong shape of the trumpet, with the bell pointing directly upward, or oval, with the bell at an angle. The Baritone is similar to the Euphonium in terms of shape, pitch and range, except that the larger bore of the Euphonium gives its lower notes a broader and mellower timbre.

Play - Holst : Second Suite in F

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TUBA

The tuba, the lowest of the brass instruments, was invented in 1835 by the German trombonist Wilhelm Wieprecht. The deeper-cupped mouthpiece and the larger conical and greater width of the bore give the tuba a smoother, rounder and less trenchant tone than that of the trumpet and trombone. Besides a characteristic deep and solemn tone, the tuba is also used occasionally to create humorous or other special effects.

Play - Jacob : Tuba Suite No.6 "Scottish

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PERCUSSION

TRIANGLES

The most common classification of percussion instruments divides them into 2 categories, of definite pitch and of indefinite pitch. The latter includes most of the smaller percussion instruments, like triangle, tambourine, castanets, cymbal, gong and sleigh bells.

The triangle, made up of a bar of round steel bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle with one corner open, is struck with a short metal rod.

Play - The Sound of Triangle

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TAMBOURINES

The most common classification of percussion instruments divides them into 2 categories, of definite pitch and of indefinite pitch. The latter includes most of the smaller percussion instruments, like triangle, tambourine, castanets, cymbal, gong and sleigh bells.

The tambourine is a small drum with a single calfskin head. In the narrow shell are openings where pairs of thin brass discs, called "jingles", are set on wires.

Play - The Sound of Tambourine

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CASTANET

The most common classification of percussion instruments divides them into 2 categories, of definite pitch and of indefinite pitch. The latter includes most of the smaller percussion instruments, like triangle, tambourine, castanets, cymbal, gong and sleigh bells.

Tracing its origin to the Spanish word for chestnut - "castane", the castanet is made up of 2 pieces of shell-like hard wood tied together with a piece of string. The modern orchestral castanets are, however, hinged on the end of a handle, by means of which they are shaken like a rattle. The castanets are used most often to highlight the rhythm of Spanish music, especially that of Spanish dance music.

Play - The Sound of Castanet

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JAZZ DRUM SET

The Jazz Drum Set consists of a variety of percussion instruments, the combination of which varies according to different musical requirements. A basic set would usually include a side or snare drum, a bass drum, one or two tom-toms (that had evolved from African native drums), a floor tom, Hi-Hat cymbals and 2 suspended cymbals.

Play - The Sound of Jazz Drum

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BASS DRUM

The bass drum is a large, two-headed cylindrical drum which stands vertically with the rim of the shallow wooden shell facing the audience. Originally used in military music, the bass drum is played by a pair of drumsticks with a wooden handle and a fairly soft and large knob, mostly made of felt. The bass drum is capable of producing a low and heavy tone without any definite pitch.

Play - The Sound of Bass Drum

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GLOCKENSPIEL & XYLOPHONE

The word "glockenspiel", which means bell-play in German, is noted for its small, but bright and silvery bell-like tone. The glockenspiel used in marching bands is made up of a set of steel bars set in a lyre-shaped frame, while the modern orchestral glockenspiel is made up of two rows of steel bars, arranged roughly like piano keys. It is played with beaters or mallets with hard or soft heads.

The xylophone is similar to the glockenspiel in construction, except that the bars of xylophone are made of rosewood instead of steel. The modern xylophone is also equipped with perpendicular resonators underneath the bars. The playing technique is similar to that of the glockenspiel, with roundhead mallets made in various degrees of hardness and resilience. The tone color of the xylophone is relatively dry and "wooden", with little resonance.

Play - The Sound of Glockenspiel

Play - The Sound of Xylophone

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TIMPANI

The word "timpani" derives from a Greek word that means to strike. The timpani are pitched instruments, which consist of hemispherical-shaped shells of copper or brass, over which are stretched the heads of calfskin. Pitches may be varied by changing the tension at the head by means of the 6 surrounding screws or the foot pedal. The drumsticks of the timpani are usually wrapped with felt or sponge in order to achieve different sound effects. A modern orchestra usually employs 4 timpani of different sizes and pitches. Besides enhancing the rhythm of an orchestral work, the timpani are also effective as a ground bass.

Play - Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra