Following my previous question about new instruments in orchestras, I was listening to a few concerts and well, some write the instruments being used throughout the concert, others don't. Most don't. While listening, now and then I can hear different sounds and effects I cannot recognise. I can't understand what instrument is playing that, in what octave and how.

How can I understand what instrument is playing, in what range and what is the technique being used to develop this sound?

As an example suppose you have a viola and a violin or a trumpet and a trombone. At some point they really start sounding alike, but there are also different ways of extracting sound and sometimes instruments blend and it's hard to tell one from the other in a mix. I'm not having much problem dividing a rock or a pop song into voices but with classical instruments it's really difficult, especially saxophones. I can never tell how they extract some effect and if one is playing in the range of another I confuse them.

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    Listen to each instrument play solo pieces a lot and you'll start distinguishing. Some brass instruments get confusing for me, but it's just because I've never spent much time listening to them. Sometimes you can tell by the type of part they're playing; violas usually get lower, less exciting parts (hey, it's true) whereas first violins tend to have shrill, higher, more melodic parts and second violins mirror the first violins in some cases, playing the same part an octave or tenth or whatever lower. Not always, though... Jan 16, 2017 at 17:28
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    It's probably easier for you to distinguish rock instruments because you've probably listened to more rock music. Listen, listen, listen, listen and then do some more listening and I think you'll be telling violins from violas more clearly. Jan 16, 2017 at 17:46
  • So it all comes with listening only? I was thinking of trying to find those instrument players and speak to them about the sound and techniques but that's hard to do. Jan 16, 2017 at 17:53
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    "I was thinking of trying to find those instrument players and speak to them about the sound and techniques but that's hard to do" A conductor one told the trumpeter who recorded the Star Wars film soundtrack that his playing was "much too gothic, I need it more Renaissance" and "too Rembrandt, I need it more Renoir." In reply, "Murphy calmly opened his trumpet case and produced a replica Colt 45 revolver that sounded like the genuine article. He "shot" the conductor and there was no further talk of Rembrandt." theguardian.com/music/2010/nov/29/maurice-murphy-obituary
    – user19146
    Jan 16, 2017 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


Here's a few options:

  • Listen to a lot of recordings, and become more familiar with the sound of each instrument. Alternately, listen to a lot of live music. I can tell the difference between a trombone and a french horn pretty quickly, because I've been sitting in front of a trombone section for six years.

  • Listen to recordings whilst following along with the score. If the piece is old enough, you will probably be able to find the complete score on http://imslp.org. It's legal, because the pieces are out of copyright. If this is possible, it's a really good option, because you can see how the piece is notated, then listen to the produced sound.

  • Watch recordings on YouTube, and actually see the musicians play. You can then see which section is playing visibly. The slightly pricier option is to go to actual orchestral concerts. I'm of the opinion that everyone should do this at least once, but it's not going to be cheap.

  • Join an orchestra or band. This does require you to play a suitable instrument. I was (am) a keyboard player, but I also picked up saxophone so that I could join a concert band. Pretty much all of my practical arranging knowledge comes from playing in this band, and listening to all of the ways that sound can be generated. Conversely, I don't know very much about string instruments, because I never play with them.

  • Talk to some players, or conductors, about sounds that you don't understand. This will be most effective if they've actually played the piece in question, but it can still give you pointers in the right direction.

  • Obtain a musical dictionary like this one. It lists a whole lot of instruments, along with their ranges and other details. It can be a handy reference. Nowhere near as good as using your ears, but it's cheap, and might give you a start.

  • Obtain some books on orchestration. This one, from Rimsky-Korsakov, has some interesting sections where he discusses the sound produced by various orchestral combinations, and includes lots of score extracts. It's out of copyright, so you can grab it from IMSLP. The original is in Russian, which I gather is not a problem for you, but there's an English translation as well.

  • Yeh i know about Rimsky-Korsakov books. I would like a printed version though, will try to look for it. Unfortunately it's quite expensuve to go to a concert here. I've had this wish for a long time. I also want to visit an organ hall. I can tell a french horn. Richard Wright from Pink Floyd often used it, especially in Wish you were here. Jan 17, 2017 at 6:12
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    I'd add Join an orchestra to the extensive list given above. You'll get to hear instrumental passages in isolation and together, and you'll also hear phrases that are appropriately written for each instrument. Jan 17, 2017 at 12:59
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    SovereignSun - there are no French horns on Wish You were Here. There's a synth that sounds a bit brassy - but it's not a real horn. Jan 17, 2017 at 13:01
  • @BrianThomas Good call. I've added it in.
    – endorph
    Jan 17, 2017 at 21:35
  • @BrianTHOMAS Actually you are talking about the studio album while I was refering to the concert version with orchestra. In the Wall by the way there are many interesting orchestra instruments. Jan 18, 2017 at 5:40

In addition to the other suggestions I would recommend purchasing the orchestral score for a piece and listening to the recording while watching the score. You'll be able to tell what each instrument is playing and see what all the instruments are doing at one time. It's nearly impossible to pick out what every instrument is doing just by listening to a recording.

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    Please do not add a signature to your post as stated in our FAQ. Feel free to put it information like this in your profile.
    – Dom
    Jan 19, 2017 at 4:49

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