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The sound of music

June 2011 

The sound of musicSummer is a lovely time with outside events and all sorts of musical evenings taking place right across the UK. One highlight of the summer season is the Proms, or more correctly the BBC Proms or the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts; an eight week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts, held predominantly in London’s Royal Albert Hall.

But there are other concerts taking place right across the country and today there are more opportunities than ever before for people to listen to beautiful orchestras. For those who have not been brought up with classical music, a full orchestra can appear quite confusing. In fact, an orchestra doesn’t necessarily just cover classical music. You can have jazz orchestras for instance; the word orchestra actually comes from Greek and refers to the front section of a theatre where the performers used to stand.

A symphony orchestra is one with a full complement of instruments and players. String instruments usually dominate an orchestra, covering violins, with their bright tone and high range; violas which are slightly lower down the musical scale, and going down further, the basses and cellos. The method of music making is similar for all string instruments, simply passing a bow over a string to create the vibration and sound.

The woodwind section, usually seated behind the string section, comprises piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, English horns and bassoons. Woodwinds make their sound when air travels through a hollowtube and comes out from holes on the end and on the sides of the instrument. Clarinets, horns, oboes and bassoons contain a small piece of plant fibre called a reed and the players blow through the reed to create the air flow to make the music.

Going on back in the orchestra, the brass section usually sits behind the woodwinds and this covers all those wonderfully loud instruments such as trumpets, French horns, trombones and tubas which each have their own very distinctive sounds. Unlike woodwind instruments, there are no reeds in brass instruments and the musicians blow into metal mouthpieces instead. Because of the distinctive sound and volume, you don’t need nearly as many brass players as strings; for instance you may only find one tuba player in an orchestra against many violinists.
The final main section of an orchestra is the percussion section and these can include the bass drum, the timpani or kettle drum, bells, cymbals and perhaps a xylophone. The musicians here are often responsible for several of the instruments as it is rare that they would all be needed together at the same time in a single musical score.

On top of that, there ccan be a number of individual instruments depending on the music being played, instruments such as harps, a piano or a saxophones.

Once you appreciate the very different instruments that make up an orchestra, it can really lift your appreciation of music as you listen carefully for the different instruments and the parts they play in creating the overall affect. It also helps to underline the brilliance of some composers as they have woven their magic by such careful utilisation and arrangements of so many different sounds and pitches.

Once you know more about orchestras, the sound of music will never be the same again!


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