The Black Sheep of the Orchestra?

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Music/Audio, Opinions, Personal, Teaching Leave a Comment

My son came home with a question the other day:

[quote]Into which orchestral instrument family does the piano fit?[/quote]

Traditionally, we’re taught that there are four instrument families in the orchestra:

  1. Strings
  2. Woodwinds
  3. Brass and
  4. Percussion

Of the four, where does the piano fit? (What about the Harp, Celeste, Harpsichord and Pipe Organ for that matter?)

We had our own little debate (I was playing devils’ advocate) about it and there was definite see-sawing between it belonging in the Strings and Percussion sections. Traditionally, it’s placed in the percussion section – on the score, usually below or above the timp/perc groupings. It’s also viewed as such because it’s a defined tone instrument which relies on the strings being struck by a mallet to produce sound.

The main reasoning that it’s not considered a “stringed instrument” (besides it being struck by a mallet) is the fact that the tones that it emits are fixed like a percussion instrument – there is no easy way for the performer to alter the frequency of a specific note being struck. I believe the main reasoning is the striking action required to produce a tone and fixed tonality.

Am I a Family Wrecker?

Piano and a lot of other instruments became standard parts of the orchestra in the late romantic period. People tend to think that the piano, when played with an orchestra, is just a solo instrument in a concerto setting. This has changed over the last couple of centuries and the piano has become a more integrated part of the orchestral soundscape. Wikipedia has a good entry on the changes that have happened over the years: Orchestra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Now, I’ve kind of moved to a more “deviant” position since my days at music school and believe that there should be a fifth family (at least more than a rigid four) introduced into the orchestra: namely “Keyboards” or just plain “Other”. Especially in more modern scores, synths are being called for more often. On film scores, they may not be on the scoring stage with the rest of the orchestra, but synthesizers and samplers are there in the sonic soundscape and they definitely don’t fit within the definitions of the “traditional” orchestral families.

Food for thought…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.