Project 3

This exercise asks us to familiarise ourselves with the different sections of a symphony orchestra: woodwind, strings, brass and percussion.

As a cellist I already have a fairly good knowledge of string instruments, and have been playing the cello in my local amateur symphony orchestra for about a year now.  I love the rawness and emotional expression that the sound of a solo string instrument can achieve, as well as the intensity of a full string section playing together in a symphony orchestra.  Woodwind is the next most familiar section to me: I learnt the flute for a short while as a child, and have some experience composing for flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon as part of the Level 1 Composition course I have recently completed.  I also did some research on percussion instruments for this course, so my weak spot is definitely the brass section and I will focus my efforts on that for this project.

To start with, I listened to the suggested pieces for each section of the orchestra and wrote notes in my listening log.  I then moved on to research the brass section in more detail.

Brass Instruments

The name is rather a misnomer, as brass instruments can be made of materials other than brass, and some instruments that are often made of brass (such as the saxophone) are technically classed as woodwind!  The categorisation appears rather to be based on the mechanism of producing sound – via vibrations of the player’s lips.  The technique used to create this effect is known as embouchure – a term also applied to flautists, though in their case the sound is made by directing the lips to cause air to travel over the mouthpiece.

The pitch of the produced sound can be controlled through changing the instrument’s length.  This is achieved in the following ways:

  • Trumpets, horns, tubas and similar instruments use valves operated by the player’s fingers, forcing the air down more or fewer sections of tube
  • Trombones use a slide, moved by the player’s hand

Any given length (valve combination or slide position), has a corresponding fundamental frequency, and players can cause harmonics of this frequency to be sounded by changing their embouchure.

I am always interested in the science behind the sound of different instruments, and found a good page about this for the brass section on the UNSW website.  It was particularly interesting to read about how the timbre of a brass instrument changes when it is played loudly versus softly, due to the different spectrum of harmonics that is produced.  It also explains how the bell of a brass instrument transmits the high harmonics particularly well, which is what creates the characteristic bright sound.  When mutes are used (this is quite common in jazz music), they both alter the harmonic spectrum as well as soften the sound.

Brass instruments are used in many different contexts; here are a few that I can think of:

  • The military, e.g. marching bands
  • Baroque music
  • Classical concertos
  • Jazz
  • Swing music
  • Ceremonial events

The trumpet seems particularly versatile to  me, and it is interesting how it can be equally effective as part of a big band as well as in music for very serious occasions.

Some notes on specific pieces featuring brass instruments that I listened to can be found here.

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