I don't understand how a change in instrumentation can make the same sequence of notes feel different if nothing else is changed about the piece.

I mean for example if I listen to Symphony no 5 by Beethoven in full orchestration I hear it being very dark and minor in the 1st movement, a lot of fluctuation in the 2nd and 3rd movements, and very happy and major in the 4th movement.

On the piano I hear those same feelings. And it isn't any less dramatic then it is with a full orchestra.

  • While the key change is probably influential, the fact that the last piece you linked is sequenced (and played back with lousy soundfonts) kind of invalidates the whole experiment. Try finding an human-performed version. Mar 20, 2015 at 20:17
  • I couldn't find anything else that included the first movement with a flute or even the piece transposed so I just deleted the video with the 4 flutes and the corresponding text from the question.
    – Caters
    Mar 20, 2015 at 20:51
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    I'm not sure I understand the question. You ask why different instrumentation changes a piece's character, then proceed to show two performances with different instrumentation that you say have the same character. Which is it? Mar 20, 2015 at 22:06
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    This is a really big topic. I'd get a book on instrumentation or orchestration to start studying it. People spend their whole life studying topics like this and it's not like one instrument only represents one type of emotion or feeling. Depending on how you use it it can have one of many and there are many, many other things that factor in.
    – Dom
    Mar 20, 2015 at 22:17

2 Answers 2


Well, @GregJackson missed your point. I believe your point is that you've heard people claim that changing the instrumentation can have a big change in the overall effect of a piece, but you yourself have not experienced this. Perhaps you're thinking that those of us who have experienced it are just imagining it, or perhaps you're curious how to have this experience.

If it's the latter -- I wonder if you've had the opportunity to hear a lot of live music? There is such a thrill in going to hear a symphony orchestra, and hear the different colors coming from the various instruments -- trombone, timpani, gong, English horn! If you haven't, then this would be my prescription for you. I think you will automatically get more appreciation for instrumentation through these experiences.

However, I do think that to say that the whole personality of the piece changes would be an overstatement.

Happy listening!


Different instruments have different timbres, due to the strengths and frequencies of the overtones being different. This causes harmonies to work differently with different instruments - sometimes a chord that can sound quite rough or discordant on one instrument can sound more harmonious on another. Having said that, most orchestral instruments, and the piano, have overtone structures that are more or less sets of integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. This means that the harmony of a similar arrangement of notes played on the piano and as an orchestral arrangement are likely to basically "work the same way" as far as most people's ears are concerned - this is most likely what you are referring to.

Different instruments have different volume envelopes, and sometimes pitch envelopes and instabilities, which also affects the music. The piano will often "smooth out" harmonic changes as the decay of previously-played notes blurs into the attack of fresh ones. A string section often sounds very lush because of slight tuning differences between the instruments (accentuated by vibrato) - this is something best experienced in the concert hall rather than just watching a video on youtube!

Of course some instruments are capable of different techniques - good luck trying to do vibrato or a filter sweep on a piano. But not all pieces require special techniques for their fundamental nature to come through.

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