General Review: Lesson 2

General Review: Lesson 2 – Brass, Percussion, and Other Instruments

In Lesson 2, we will provide a brief overview of the Brass Instruments and Instruments of Little Sustaining Power. These include the harp, pizzicato strings, piano and percussion instruments. Remember this is only a brief overview of the instruments and there are many resources available if you want to learn more about the various instruments. After this overview we will advance to the next chapter dealing with melody and explore interactive scores highlighting Rimsky-Korsakov’s melodies.

Brass Instruments Review


The formation of the group of brass instruments, like that of the wood-wind is not absolutely uniform, and varies in different scores. The brass group may be divided into three general classes corresponding to those of the wood-wind (in pair’s, in three’s, and in four’s).

The directions are the same as in the preceding table for wood-wind. It is evident that in all three classes the formation may vary as the composer wishes. In music for the theatre or concert room page after page may be written without the use of trumpets, trombones and tuba, or some instrument may be introduced, temporarily as an extra. In the above table I have given the most typical formations, and those which are the most common at the present day.


 Note1: Besides the instruments given above, Richard Wagner used some others in The Ring, notably the quartet of tenor and bass tubas, and a contra-bass trombone. Sometimes these additions weigh too heavily on the other groups, and at other times they render the rest of the brass ineffective. For this reason composers have doubtless refrained from employing such instruments, and Wagner himself did not include them in the score of Parsifal. Some present-day composers (Richard Strauss, Scriabine) write for as many as five trumpets.

Professor Belkin Comments: Wagner Tubas
 – The real significance of the Wagner tubas is pointed out by Tovey: Wagner treats the brass as consisting of 3 subgroups, each one of perfectly homogeneous tone: horns, trumpets plus trombones, and tubas. It is also worth mentioning (as RK does later) that horns are sometimes used as intermediaries between woodwinds and the heavier brass; they blend well with either, if registers are well chose.

Note 2: 
From the middle of the 19th century onward the natural brass disappeared from the orchestra, giving place to valve instruments. In my second opera, The May Night I used natural horns and trumpets, changing the keys, and writing the best notes “stopped”; this was purposely done for practice.
Editors Note: (1) Of late years sometimes two tubas are employed, by Glazounov for instance in his Finnish Fantasia.
Thought far less flexible than the wood-wind, brass instruments heighten the effect of other orchestral groups by their powerful resonance. Trumpets, trombones, and tubas are about equal in strength; cornets have not quite the same force; horns, in forte passages, are about one half as strong, but piano,they have the same weight as other brass instruments played softly. To obtain an equal balance, therefore, the marks of expression in the horns should be one degree stronger than in the rest of the brass; if the trumpets and trombones play pp, the horns should be marked p. On the other hand, to obtain a proper balance in forte passages, two horns are needed to one trumpet or one trombone.

Suggested Position of Brass in an Orchestra

(positions may vary depending on the work,the venue, the orchestra and other factors)

Professor Belkin Comments: Position of Brass in Orchestra
 – The main principle involved in the physical position of the brass is simply to place them father back than strings and woodwind, because they are so much louder.

Video of the Brass Playing in an Orchestra
[need video]
Brass instruments are so similar in range and timbre that the discussion of register is unnecessary. As a general rule quality becomes more brilliant as the higher register is approached, and vice versa,with a decrease in tone. Played pp the resonance is sweet; played ff the tone is hard and “crackling”. Brass instruments possess a remarkable capacity for swelling from pianissimo to fortissimo, and reducing the tone inversely, the sf > p effect being excellent.
Professor Dwyer Comments: Not only is the sf > p very effective in brass, as Rimsky says, but even more effective is fp < f , or even more powerful: ffpp < ff
The following remarks as to character and tone quality may be added:
a) Trumpets:
     1. Trumpet (Bb-A). Clear and fairly penetrating in tone, stirring and rousing in fortepassages; in piano phrases the high notes are full and silvery, the low notes troubled, as though threatening danger.
     2. Alto trumpet (in F). An instrument of my own invention, first used by me in the opera-ballet Mlada. In the deep register (notes 2 to 3 in the trumpet scale) it possesses a fuller, clearer, and finer tone. Two ordinary trumpets with an alto trumpet produce greater smoothness and equality in resonance than three ordinary trumpets. Satisfied with the beauty and usefulness of the alto trumpet, I have consistently written for it in my later works, combined with wood-wind in three’s.



Note: To obviate the difficulty of using the alto trumpet in ordinary theatres and some concert rooms, I have not brought into play the last four notes of its lowest register or their neighboring chromatics; by this means the alto trumpet part may be played by an ordinary trumpet in Bb or A.

3. Small trumpet (in Eb -D ). Invented by me and used for the first time in Mladato realize the very high tumpet notes without difficulty. In tonality and range the instrument is similar to the soprano cornet in a military band.Note: The small trumpet, (Bb-A) sounding an octave higher than the ordinary trumpet has not yet appeared in musical literature.
b) Cornets (in B – A). Possessing a quality of tone similar to the trumpet, but softer and weaker. It is a beautiful instrument though rarely employed today in theatre or concert room. Expert players can imitate the cornet tone on the trumpet, and vice versa.
c) Horn (in F). The tone of this instrument is soft, poetical, and full of beauty. In the lower register it is dark and brilliant; round and full in the upper. The middle notes resemble those of the bassoon and the two instruments blend well together. The horn, therefore, serves as a link between the brass and wood-wind. In spite of valves the horn has but little mobility and would seem to produce its tone in a languid and lazy manner.
Professor Belkin Comments: the Horn – The most common mistake of beginning orchestrators using the horn is to treat it is a bass instrument, which it is NOT. If should be thought of as a tenor/alto voice. The horn is only appropriate for the bass as a slow moving or static pedal. (In this role it has the advantage of being softer than the bassoon in its lowest register.)
d) Trombone. Dark and threatening in the deepest register, brilliant and triumphant in the high compass. The piano is full but somewhat heavy, the forte powerful and sonorous. Valve trombones are more mobile than slide trombones, but the latter are certainly to be preferred as regards nobility and equality of sound, the more so from the fact that these instruments are rarely required to perform quick passages, owing to the special character of their tone.


e) Tuba. Thick and rough in quality, less characteristic than the trombone, but valuable for the strength and beauty of its low notes. Like the double bass and double bassoon, the tuba is eminently useful for doubling, an octave lower, the bass of the group to which it belongs. Thanks to its valves, the tuba is fairly flexible.



The group of brass instruments, though uniform in resonance throughout its constituent parts, is not so well adapted to expressive playing (in the exact sense of the word) as the wood-wind group. Nevertheless, a scope of greatest expression may be distinguished in the middle registers. In company with the piccolo and double bassoon it is not given to the small trumpet (Eb-D) and tuba to play with any great amount of expression. The rapid and rhythmical repetition of a note by single tonguing is possible to all members of the brass, but double tonguing can only be done on instruments with a small mouthpiece, trumpets and cornets. These two instruments can execute rapid tremolando without difficulty. The remarks on breathing, in the section devoted to the wood-wind, apply with equal force to the brass.


The use of stopped notes and mutes alters the character of brass tone. Stopped notes can only be employed on trumpets, cornets and horns; the shape of trombones and tubas prevents the hand from being inserted into the bell. Though mutes are applied indiscriminately to all brass instruments in the orchestra, tubas rarely posses them. Stopped and muted notes are similar in quality. On the trumpet, muting a note produces a better tone than stopping it.


In the horn both methods are employed; single notes are stopped in short phrases, muted in longer ones. I do not propose to describe the difference between the two operations in detail, and will leave the reader to acquire the knowledge for himself, and to form an opinion as to its importance from his own personal observation. Sufficient to say that the tone is deadened by both methods, assuming a wild “crackling” character in forte passages, tender and dull in piano. Resonance is greatly reduced, the silvery tone of the instrument to lost and a timbre resembling that of the oboe and English. horn is approached. Stopped notes (con sordino) are marked + underneath the note, sometimes followed byo, denoting the resumption of open sounds, senza sordini. Brass instruments, when muted, produce an effect of distance.


Professor Belkin Comments: Brass Mutes – Brass instruments with mutes are best treated as a supplementary family, since their sound is so different from open brass.

Note: Natural sounds are given in white notes. The upper lines indicate the scope of greatest expression.The 7th natural harmonic is everywhere omitted as useless; the same in the horns, the notes 11, 13, 14 and 15. The b natural of the octave-1 does not exist on the trombones.


Percussion Instruments
Percussion instruments producing determinate sounds, keyed instruments
Kettle-drums (Timpani)

Kettle-drums, indispensable to every theatre and concert orchestra occupy the most important place in the group of percussion instruments. A pair of kettle-drums (Timpani), in the tonic and dominant keys, was the necessary attribute of an orchestra up to, and including Beethoven’s- time, but, from, the middle of the 19th’ century onward, in western Europe and in Russia, an ever-increasing need was felt for the presence of three or even four kettle-drums, during the whole course or part of a work. If the expensive chromatic drum, permitting instant tuning is rarely met with, still, in the majority of good orchestras, three screw drums are generally to be found. The composer can therefore take it for granted that a good timpanist, having three kettle-drums at his command, will be able to tune at least one of them during a pause of some length.

Professor Belkin Comments: Timpani – Today all professional orchestras use fully tuneable timpani.


The limits of possible change in Beethoven’s time were considered to be:




In these days it is difficult to define the precise extent of high compass in the kettle-drums, as this depends entirely on the size and quality of the smallest one, of which there are many kinds, but I advise the composer to select:


Note: A magnificent kettle-drum of very small size was made for my opera-ballet Mlada; this instrument gave the Dbof the fourth octave.



Kettle-drums are capable of every dynamic shade of tone, from thundering fortissimo to a barely perceptible pianissimo. In tremolando they can execute the most gradual crescendo, diminuendo, thesfp and morendo. To deaden the sound, a piece of cloth is generally placed on the skin of the drum, according to the instruction: timpani coperti (muffled drums)


Piano and Celesta

The use of a piano in the orchestra (apart from pianoforte concertos) belongs almost entirely to the Russian school.


Professor Belkin Comment: Celesta – The celesta is normally played by the pianist of the orchestra, and is now used for quite different effects. Whereas the piano is especially useful for accent, the celesta adds gentle, silvery color to many (quiet) combinations.


The object is two-fold: the quality of tone, either alone, or combined with that of the harp, is made to imitate a popular instrument, the guzli, (as in Glinka), or a soft peal of bells. When the piano forms part of an orchestra, not as a solo instrument, an upright is preferable to a grand, but today the piano it is gradually being superseded by the celesta, first used by Tchaikovsky. In the celesta, small steel plates take the place of strings, and the hammers falling on them produce a delightful sound, very similar to the glockenspiel. The celesta is only found in full orchestras; when it is not available it should be replaced by an upright piano, and not the glockenspiel.


Professor Belkin Comment: Glockenspiel – Today the norm is to be played with mallets.





Editors Note: Although Rimsky-Kosakov recommended the upright, the Concert Grand has become the piano of choice in most orchestras.



Glockenspiel, Bells, Xylophone

(Show above also is the Vibes and Marimba added later)



The glockenspiel (campanelli) may be made of steel bars, or played with a keyboard. The first type is the more satisfactory and possesses greater resonance. The use of the glockenspiel is similar to the celesta, but its tone is more brilliant and penetrating. Big bells in the shape of hollow discs or metal tubes (1) , or real church bells of moderate size may be considered more as theatrical properties than orchestral instruments.


Professor Belkin Comment: Celesta – The celesta is normally played by the pianist of the orchestra, and is now used for quite different effects. Whereas the piano is especially useful for accent, the celesta adds gentle, silvery color to many (quiet) combinations.



The xylophone is a species of harmonica composed of strips or cylinders of wood, struck with two little hammers. It produces a clattering sound, both powerful and piercing.



Professor Belkin Comment: Marimba – The marimba has become very common as a lower extension of the same type of sound.



To complete this catalogue of sounds mention should be made of the strings playing col legno, that is with the wood or back of the bow. The sound produced is similar to the xylophone, and gains in quality as the number of players is increased.

A table is appended showing the range of the celesta, glockenspiel and xylophone.


Editor’s Note: Recently, bells have been made of suspended metal plates possessing the rare quality of a fairly pure tone, and which are sufficiently portable to be used on the concert
Percussion instruments producing indefinite sounds
Suggestion Position of Percussion in an Orchestra
(positions may vary depending on the work,the venue, the orchestra and other factors)



Instruments in this group, such as triangle, castanets, little bells, tambourine, switch or rod (Rute.Ger.), side or military drum, cymbals, bass drum, and Chinese gong do not take any harmonic or melodic part in the orchestra, and can only be considered as ornamental instruments pure and simple. They have no intrinsic musical meaning, and are just mentioned by the way. The first three may be considered as high, the four following as medium, and the last two as deep instruments. This may serve as a guide to their use with percussion instruments of determinate sounds, playing in corresponding registers.


Professor Belkin Comment: Combining Percussion Instruments – A basic rule for combining percussion instruments with others in the orchestra: place them in the same register, e.g. basses can combine with bass drum, timpani, tam-tam, etc.., while piccolos would combine with celesta, xylophone, etc.. Breaking this rule will result in the effect of TWO distinct musical planes of tone, which will usually seem unrelated.

Comparison of resonance in orchestral groups and combination of different tone qualities



In comparing the resonance of the respective groups of sound-sustaining instruments we arrive at the following approximate conclusions:


In the most resonant group, the brass, the strongest instruments are the trumpets, trombones and tuba. In loud passages the horns are only one-half as strong, 1 Trumpet = 1 Trombone = 1 Tuba = 2 Horns. Wood-wind instruments, in forte passages, are twice as weak as the horns, 1 Horn = 2 Clarinets = 2 Oboes = 2 Flutes = 2 Bassoons; but, in piano passages, all wind-instruments, wood or brass are of fairly equal balance.


It is more difficult to establish a comparison in resonance between wood-wind and strings, as everything depends on the number of the latter, but, in an orchestra of medium formation, it may be taken for granted that in piano passages, the whole of one department (all 1st Violins or all 2ndViolins etc.) is equivalent in strength to one wind instrument, (Violins I = 1 Flute etc.), and, in fortepassages, to two wind instruments, (Violins I = Flutes = 1 Oboe + 1 Clarinet, etc.).


Professor Belkin Comments: Balance – These “balance equations” are to be taken as very approximate, and as holding true ONLY WHEN THE INSTRUMENTS INVOLVED ARE PLAYING THE SAME KIND OF MATERIAL. The ear normally follows activity, and thus a violin section will attract more attention when playing a lively figure than when playing held notes. This is one of the elements making orchestral balance very hard to quantify. Another problem is that winds and brass change tone more in different registers than strings do, so, for example, combining low flutes with violins is quite a different matter than high flutes.



It is still harder to form a comparison with instruments of little sustaining power, for too great a diversity in production and emission of sound exists. The combined force of groups of sustained resonance easily overpowers the strings played pizz. or col legno, the piano played softly, or the celesta. As regards the glockenspiel, bells, and xylophone, their emphatic tone will easily prevail over other groups in combination. The same may be said of the kettle-drums with their ringing, resounding quality, and also of other subsidiary instruments.


Professor Belkin Comment: However, all these instruments are percussive, and therefore soon fade away. This points to a very important orchestral distinction, not based on timbre, namely between sustained sounds and percussive sounds.


The influence of the timbre of one group on another is noticeable when the groups are doubled; for instance, when the wood-wind timbre is closely allied to the strings on the one hand, and to the brass on the other. Re-enforcing both, the wind thickens the strings and softens the brass. The strings do not blend so well with the brass, and when the two groups are placed side by side, each is heard too distinctly. The combination of the three different timbres in unison produces a rich, mellow and coherent tone.


All or several wind instruments in combination will absorb one department of added strings:





One department of strings added to the wood-wind in unison produces a sweet coherent quality, the wood-wind timbre still predominating; but the addition of one wind instrument to all or part of the strings in unison, only thickens the resonance of the latter, the wood-wind timbre being lost in the process:



Muted strings do not combine so well with wood-wind, as the two tone qualities remain distinct and separate. Uniting plucked strings and percussion with instruments of sustained resonance results in the following: wind instruments, wood and brass, strengthen and clarify pizzicato strings, harp, kettle-drums and percussion generally, the latter lending a touch of relief to the tone of the wood-wind. Uniting plucked strings and percussion with bowed instruments does not produce such a satisfactory blend, both qualities being heard independently. The combination of plucked strings with percussion alone, is excellent; the two blend perfectly, and the consequent increase in resonance yields an admirable effect.

The relationship which exists between string harmonics and the flute or piccolo constitutes a link between the two groups in the upper range of the orchestra. Moreover, the timbre of the viola may be vaguely compared to the middle register of the bassoonand the lowest compass of the clarinet; hence, in the medium orchestral range, a point of contact is established between the quartet of strings and the wood-wind.



The bassoon and horn provide the connection between wood-wind and brass, these two instruments being somewhat analogous in character when played piano or mezzo-forte; the flute also, in its lowest register, recalls the pianissimo trumpet tone. Stopped and muted notes in horns and trumpets are similar in quality to the oboe and Eng. horn, and blend tolerably well with the latter instrument.


Concluding this survey of orchestral groups I add a few remarks which seem to me of special importance.



The principal part in music is undertaken by three instrumental groups of sustained resonance, representing the three primary elements, melody, harmony and rhythm. Instruments of little sustaining power, though sometimes used independently, are chiefly employed for ornament and color; instruments producing indeterminate sounds play no melodic or harmonic part, their functions being purely rhythmical.



By glancing at the order in which the six orchestral groups are placed, strings, wood-wind, brass, plucked strings, percussion producing definite, and those producing indefinite sounds, the reader will be able to determine the part played by each in the art of orchestration, from the secondary standpoint of color and expression. As regards expression, the strings come first, and the expressive capacity of the other groups diminishes in the above order, color being the only attribute of the last group of percussion instruments.



The same order obtains from the standpoint of general effect in orchestration. We can listen to strings for an almost indefinite period of time without getting tired, so varied are their characteristics (videthe number of string quartets, suites, serenades etc. written for strings alone). The addition of a single group of strings will add lustre to a passage for wind instruments. On the other hand, the quality of wind instruments soon becomes wearisome; the same may be said of plucked strings, and also percussion of every kind which should only be employed at reasonable intervals in orchestral composition.

It cannot be denied that the constant use of compound timbres, in pairs, in three’s etc. eliminates characteristics of tone, and produces a dull, neutral texture, whereas the employment of simple, elementary combinations gives infinitely greater scope for variety in color.

Professor Belkin Comment: The single most common beginner’s defect in orchestration is overuse of doubled timbres. As RK points out, this is a quick route to dull, grey sound.]


Take an Interactive Tour of Orchestral Instruments [same as on other pages]

Instruments of little sustaining power

Instruments of Little Sustaining Power.


Plucked Strings.

When the usual orchestral string quartet (Vns 1, Vns II, Violas, ‘Cellos, D. basses) does not make use of the bow, but plucks the strings with the finger, it becomes to my mind a new and independent group with its own particular quality of tone. Associated with the harp, which produces sound in a similar manner, I consider it separately under the heading of plucked strings.



Note: In this group may be classed the guitar, zither, balalaika; instruments plucked with a quill, such as the domra, (*) the mandolin etc., all of which may be used in an orchestra, but have no place in the scope of the present book. *A domra is a Russian instrument which, like the balalaika, is better known abroad. (Translator’s note.)



Although capable of every degree of power from ff to pp, pizzicato playing has but small range of expression, and is used chiefly as a color effect On open strings it is resonant and heavy, on stopped strings shorter and duller; in the high positions it is rather dry and hard. Table D below indicates the range in which pizzicato may be used on each stringed instrument.


In the orchestra, pizzicato comes into operation in two distinct ways:

a) on single notes,
b) on double notes and chords.



The fingers of the right hand playing pizz. are far less agile than the bow; pizz. passages therefore can never be performed as quickly as those played arco. Moreover, the speed of pizzicato playing depends upon the thickness of the strings; on the double basses, for instance, it must always be much slower than on the violins.
In pizzicato chords it is better to avoid open strings, which produce a more brilliant tone than of covered strings.


Professor Belkin Comments: Pizzicato – This may not be entirely accurate; e.g. a G major chord sounds perfectly fine using open strings. The point is simply to realise that open strings are more resonant and to avoid inadvertent accents where not appropriate.


Chords of four notes allow of greater freedom and vigor of attack, as there is no danger of accidentally touching a wrong note. Natural harmonics played pizz. create a charming effect; the tone is weak however, and they are chiefly successful on the violoncello.



The black notes are dry and hard, without resonance, and

should only be used when doubled with the wood-wind.



The Harp.



In the orchestra, the harp is almost entirely a harmonic or accompanying instrument. The majority of scores require only one harp part, but in recent times composers have written for two or even three harps, which are sometimes compressed into the one part.


Note: Full orchestras should include three or even four harps. My operas Sadko, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesh, and The Golden Cockerel are designed for two harps, Mlada for three.
Video of HarpPlaying in an Orchestra (with flute)




The special function of the harp lies in the execution of chords, and the florid figures springing from them. As only four notes at the most can be played by each hand, the notes of a chord should be written close together, with not too great a space between one hand and the other. The chords must always be broken (arpeggiato) should the composer wish otherwise he should notify it (nonarpeggiato). In the middle and lower octaves the resonance of the strings is slightly prolonged, and dies away gradually. In changes of harmony the player stops the vibration of the strings with his hands, but, in quick modulations, this method is not feasible, and the mixture of one chord with another produces a discordant effect. It follows that more or less rapid figures can only be realized clearly and neatly in the upper register of the harp, where the strings are shorter and harder in tone.


As a general rule, in the whole range of the harp:





Only the notes of the first to the fourth octave are used; the extreme notes in both compasses may be employed in special circumstances, and for doubling in octaves.


The harp is essentially a diatonic instrument, since all chromatic passages depend on the manipulation of the pedals. For this reason the harp does not lend itself to rapid modulation, and the orchestrator is advised to bear this fact in mind. But the difficulty may be obviated by using two harps alternately.


Note 1: I would remind the reader that the harp is not capable of double sharps or double flats. For this reason, certain modulations from one key to another one, adjacent to it can only be accomplished enharmonically. For instance, the transition from C flat, G flat or D flat, major to their minor sub-dominant chords or keys is not possible owing to double flats. It is therefore necessary to start enharmonically from the keys of B, F sharp or C sharp, major. Similarly, on account of double sharps, it is impossible to change from A sharp, D sharp or G sharp, minor to their respective dominant major chords or keys; B flat, E flat and A flat, minor must be the starting-points.
Note 2: A chromatic harp without pedals has now been invented in France (Lyon’s system) on which the most abrupt modulations are possible.

The technical operation known as glissando is peculiar to the harp alone. Taking for granted that the reader is conversant with the methods of acquiring different scales by means of double-notched pedals, it will be sufficient to remark that glissando scales produce a discordant medley of sound owing to the length of time the strings continue to vibrate, and therefore, as a purely musical effect,glissando can only be used in the upper octaves, quite piano, where the sound of the strings is sufficiently clear, yet not too prolonged. Forte glissando scales, entailing the use of the lower and middle strings are only permissible as embellishments. Glissando passages in chords of the seventh and ninth, enharmonically obtained, are much more common, and as the above reservations do not apply, every dynamic shade of tone is possible. Chords in harmonics can only consist of three notes written close together, two for the left hand and one for the right.


The tender poetic quality of the harp is adapted to every dynamic shade, but it is never a very powerful instrument, and the orchestrator should treat it with respect.


At least three, if not four harps in unison are necessary, if they are to be heard against a full orchestra playing forte. The more rapidly a glissando passage is played, the louder it will sound. Harmonic notes on the harp have great charm but little resonance, and are only possible played quite softly. Speaking generally, the harp, like the string quartet, pizzicato, is more an instrument of color than expression.

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