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Note: Students who wish to practice their skills learned in this unit are encouraged to access this site for an opportunity to practice instrumentation.

Note: Students unfamiliar with instruments and their ranges are encouraged to access this site to review instrument ranges. Furthermore, when prompted to choose a genre of music for Unit 4, students unfamiliar with instrument ranges are encouraged to choose "Classical Music" as their genre, so as to have this site as a reference guide for that unit.


This unit introduces the concept of "Instrumentation". Instrumentation is simply the process by which a composer chooses which instruments will play what notes of a given composition. Many factors including timbre (the quality of the sound an instrument makes), range, and music style will influence a composer's decision when it comes to what notes get played by which instruments.

This unit will primarily focus on instrument choice when it comes to ranges, while decisions regarding musical style will be saved for the fourth and final unit; Composition.


To begin, even with the simplest of musical works, there are limitless possibilities as to how such a piece of music can be played. While a classical musician might decide to arrange a piece for string quartet or for an orchestra, a rock guitarist would probably choose to have the piece of music played with guitars, bass guitars, and vocals. In this unit, for the student not familiar with a wide variety of instruments, we will be covering instrumentation in classical music. First, we will introduce the string instruments of a string quartet or orchestra, and then we will introduce the wind instruments.

Note: Students already very familiar with instrument ranges and the many different kinds of instruments can skip this unit and proceed directly to the unit on Composition.


Violin VL100.png


The violin is the first instrument we will cover here. The smallest of the stringed instruments, the violin is also the highest pitched of the stringed instruments. As illustrated above, the violin has four strings that, when played from lowest to highest, sound the notes G, D, A, and E (also illustrated above on the treble clef). The violin often plays a single line or melody, although a player can play two notes on adjacent strings at the same time with the violin bow. For the exercises in this course, we will be assigning the string instruments only a single note at a time.




The viola is very similar to the violin, albeit larger and with a deeper tone. Violas often play middle notes in an arrangement, between the high violin and the low cello. Like the violin, the viola has four strings which, when played from lowest to highest, sound the notes C, G, D, and A (also illustrated above on the alto clef). Like the violin, we will be assigning the viola only a single note at a time, even though much more complex options are available.




The cello is the lowest pitched of the three string instruments we will cover here. Like the violin and the viola, a cello has four strings tuned, from lowest to highest, as C, G, D, and A. This tuning places the cello's open strings exactly an octave lower than the viola's open strings. Cellos most often play the bass notes in arrangements, providing the foundation for the other higher instruments to play melodic and harmonic lines. Again, we will only be assigning a single note to the cello at this time.

String Quartets


A string quartet is an arrangement of four string instruments, most commonly two violins, a viola, and a cello. This type of group has had countless compositions and arrangements made for it over the years. In this course, we will be taking a look at arranging for string quartet, recognizing which instruments are most likely to play which notes, and analyzing chords given a string quartet arrangement.

Quick Quiz - String Quartet

Below are questions that will test your knowledge of the ranges of the string instruments. You will be presented with a selection for piano. See if you can identify which instrument should be playing what notes.

1. Identify which notes should be played by which instruments in a string quartet. INST1.jpg
Answer: Violin 1 plays the highest notes, while the remaining notes are played by Violin 2, Viola, and Cello, respectively. INST2.jpg
2. Identify which notes should be played by which instruments in a string quartet. INST3.jpg
Answer: The highest notes in this progression must be played by the Violins. In this case, the melody should be played by the Viola, while the lowest notes should be played by the Cello. INST4.jpg
3. Identify which notes should be played by which instruments in a string quartet. INST5.jpg
Answer: At first it appears that the melody should be played by the Violin, but when it dips lower it becomes clear that the Cello is the most appropriate instrument to be playing the melody. INST6.jpg

Additional Instruments

In this unit we will introduce four other instruments commonly found in orchestras. These instruments, referred to as "the wind section", are the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, and the bassoon. These expressive instruments only allow a player to play a single note at a time, due to the nature of the instrument.

The Flute



The flute is the highest pitched of the wind instruments introduced here. As mentioned above, the flute can only play a single note at a time. Flutes often carry the melodies, much like the violins, and will even play many of the same melodic lines that violins play in an orchestra.

The Oboe



The oboe is the second highest pitched of the wind instruments here. Oboes and flutes do often play the same melodic lines, although oboes usually tend to stick to a lower octave than the flutes. If we are comparing the wind instruments here to the string quartet introduced above, we would compare the oboe to the second violin, rather than the viola, due to its pitch range and quality of sound.

The Clarinet



The clarinet is a middle-range instrument. Much like the viola, the clarinet can play melodic lines but does play lower notes than the flute or violin. The clarinet is also a "transposing instrument", which means the notes on the page are written at a different pitch than what we hear. This concept, however, will not be explored here. In the examples, you will see the clarinet parts written out in "concert pitch", or as they would be heard.

The Bassoon



The bassoon is the lowest of the wind instruments introduced here. Much like the cello, bassoons typically provide the harmonic foundation for the other instruments to play melodic notes above it. Bassoons and clarinets have a sound quality that lends itself well to playing notes lower in the register, as opposed to flutes and oboes which typically live in the higher registers of their ranges.

Wind Quartet


For the examples in this course, we will briefly introduce the concept of a wind quartet. While not as popular an ensemble as the string quartet, the wind quartet will be useful in recognizing different instruments and thinking about harmony as different voices move. Wind quartets can be made up of one of each of the wind instruments introduced here in this section; a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, and a bassoon. Return to the exercises above and see if you can determine how the examples would be arranged for a wind quartet.

Once you have finished quizzing yourself, you can proceed to the next unit on Composition, where the three preceding units will come together to give you a better understanding of music composition.

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1. Apple Inc. (2000-2017). MusicTheory.Net. Retrieved from:

2. Noteflight LLC. (2008-2017). Noteflight.Com. Retrieved from:

3. Symphony Orchestra Library Center. Ranges of the Instruments. Retrieved from: