Music Theory
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Which instruments in an orchestra typically play the melody?

Before we answer this questions, let’s list all of the standard orchestra instruments by family:

Strings

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Double Bass

Woodwind

  • Flute
  • Oboe
  • Clarinet
  • Bassoon

Brass

  • Trumpet
  • French Horn
  • Trombone
  • Tuba

Percussion

  • Pitched percussion – glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, chimes, timpani
  • Unpitched percussion – snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, tam-tam, etc.

The first thing you might deduce from this list is that unpitched percussion instruments can’t play the melody. That is correct! While, that doesn’t mean that they don’t play a crucial role in the compositional process, those roles will not be discussed at this time.

Usually, the melody is reserved for the loudest and highest instruments. For instance the violins, flutes, oboes, clarinets, and french horns often play the main melodic content while violas, cellos, and bassoons occasionally have strong melodic passages. It’s more rare for tubas, trombones, and double basses to take the melodic lead, but it does happen in certain pieces like Mahler’s first symphony.

Guided Listening: Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (Eroica): Movement 1

  • 0:00 – 0:18 After the first two loud chords the melody is played by the cellos and basses in unison followed by a response in the violins.
  • 0:18 – 0:27 The melody is then restated by the flutes, clarinets, and french horn followed by a call and response section between a group comprised of the violins, cellos, and basses, and another group consisting of the flutes, clarinets, and bassoons.
  • 0:27 – 0:44 This section lacks clear melodic content and is primarily used to build tension, notice how Beethoven plays with the texture to create a nearly monorhythmic syncopation. This is a hallmark of his compositional style.
  • 0:44 – 0:54 The melody loudly returns in a triumphant fashion. The flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassons, french horns, trombones, violas, cellos, and basses are all performing the melody or a harmony line of the melody. Even the timpani is adding to the texture with a unison rhythm!