The world of classical music becomes quite a bit less mysterious when you know the names and functions of all the musical instruments, and a basic timeline of the music itself. This Cheat Sheet will help you discuss classical music with confidence.

Meet the classical orchestra

Let’s meet the Classical orchestra. It’s the big night: You show up at the concert hall. But holy smokes, there are almost 100 people up on that stage. Here’s what they’re playing:

  • Violin: The instrument is made of wood; the bow is made of horsehair; the four strings are made of metal; the sound is sweet, singing, and divine. Violin players are divided into two sections, first and second violins, each with different music to play.

  • Viola: Slightly larger than a violin, a viola plays slightly lower notes, with a breathier or throatier sound than a violin.

  • Cello: The cello is played sitting down, with the instrument between the legs. It makes a beautiful, rich, singing sound.

  • Bass (or Double Bass): Enormous, bigger around than the average human being, the bass plays the lowest notes of all the strings, providing the foundation for the orchestra’s sound. It’s played sitting on a tall stool or standing up.

  • Flute: The flute’s mouthpiece is blown across, just like a bottle; it produces a sweet, silvery sound.

  • Oboe: This instrument is played by blowing into two small reeds (double-reed), whittled-down flat pieces of sugar cane. It produces one of the most beautiful sounds on earth: clear, vibrant, sweet, plaintive, and full.

  • Clarinet: This dark, tubular woodwind instrument has one reed, and creates a full, round sound, very pure, without the edge of the oboe’s sound.

  • Bassoon: It looks like a plumbing pipe, but it sounds like a dream. Another double-reed instrument, the high notes sound throaty, even otherworldly. The middle notes sound luscious, full, mellow; low notes can be very powerful.

  • French Horn (or just Horn): The most noble-sounding brass instrument has a full, round, dark tone, which is great for majestic hunting calls.

  • Trumpet: The most powerful orchestral instrument and the highest-pitched brass instrument, the trumpet executes impressive runs and leaps in a single bound.

  • Trombone: A powerful low brass instrument with a movable slide to change notes, the trombone is essential for parades, as well as symphonies.

  • Tuba: The lowest of the brass instruments can produce a wall of low, blasting sound.

  • Percussion: The player is expected to be a master of a vast range of different instruments: timpani (the great big kettledrums), bass drum, snare drum (for marches), cymbals (for crashing together), xylophone (played with mallets), and other oddities.


Timeline of classical music

You may think that nobody writes classical music anymore — but they do! New “classical music” is being written all the time. Here are some of the most famous pieces of orchestral music, along with rough guides to the stylistic periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern) into which they fall.


About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

David Pogue is a musician, author, and journalist for both print and television. He's authored or coauthored more than 120 books, including six Dummies books. He has been a conductor on Broadway, worked as a tech columnist at the New York Times, and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is music director of the Joffrey Ballet, artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former conductor of the San Francisco Ballet.

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