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I want to train myself into distinguishing the instruments being played simultaneously in orchestral music (primarily Wagner and Bruckner, maybe Mahler). Ideally I want to be able to say at each point in time something like: „Oh, this is a french horn, a group of violins and two clarinets“ (example is sketchy).

How can I work to achieve this goal?

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    The usual "How do I get to Carnegie Hall" joke applies here. As the answers suggest, start by getting familiar with each instrument solo. – Carl Witthoft Oct 14 at 14:12
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    @CarlWitthoft a bit off-topic, but I find listening to solo violin and a group of violins (in an orchestra), that they sound really different – NickQuant Oct 14 at 14:54
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    @NickQuant Yes they do sound different. Notice that adding more instruments will change the timbre as much as it changes the volume. – ibonyun Oct 14 at 19:06
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    @ibonyun Probably timbre change is the reason that I cannot listen to string quintets, but I do not get irritated by strings in orchestra. – NickQuant Oct 14 at 19:17
  • @NickQuant good point; but I'd still start with a single instrument and "work my way up" – Carl Witthoft Oct 15 at 14:06
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You begin by listening to individual instruments, to learn what they sound like, and the variations in their sound. Solo pieces, quartets, etc. are one way to do this. Searching Youtube for instrument tutorials is another. I got my start in instrument recognition with Piccolo, Saxo et Compagnie when I was about 3 years old. Then try recognizing instruments in larger ensembles, working your way up to full orchestra. This is a matter of practice.

TV registrations of an orchestra can help, because they allow you to see who's playing. Or find an orchestral score and read along.

You won't be able to hear everything at all times. The difference between 12 and 14 violins is subtle. Softer instruments get drowned out by louder ones: if the difference in volume is large enough, you won't be able to hear the softer instrument at all, due to limitations of our hearing.

A good sound system (and good recordings) helps. Cheap loudspeakers sound 'muddy', obscuring detail when you play complex music. Youtube sound quality is pretty bad. Play a well-recorded CD on a decent hifi system, and things get much clearer.

All this is one aspect of a more general process for training your hearing. Sound engineers do a lot of this: learning to distinguish sounds, the effect various settings on the mixer have on sound (equalization, dynamics processing, other effects).

Musicians do this too, I suspect: when you play your instrument a lot, you learn how to produce various sounds with it (depending on the instrument, you may have more or fewer options for this), you learn what happens when you play in an ensemble etc.

It all starts with active listening: focusing entirely on what you hear, and trying to analyze it, rather than treating music as a background to other activities. It helps to practice with a more experienced person who can point out interesting bits in the music: I've had many occasions where a sound I was struggling with became clear (and recognizable to me ever after) when another engineer pointed out what was happening.

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    Some further remarks: There are often "colour blends" that is different instruments playing in unison which gives a sound colour different from the individual instruments. Sometimes you think you only hear one type of instrument because the other one is softer, but if you then remove the softer instrument it sounds differently. Sometimes two instruments blend so well together so that it is almost like a different instrument. – Lars Peter Schultz Oct 13 at 22:09
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    Lots of good advice! Re listening at good sound quality, decent-quality headphones are usually much more affordable than a comparable-quality hifi system. One piece of your advice I’d emphasise a bit more is reading along with the orchestral score. Lots of classical scores are available free from IMSLP. When you’re new to it, score-reading takes practice; good places to start are classical symphonies (eg Beethoven) and chamber music (eg Mozart), and slow movements may be easier at first. – PLL Oct 14 at 18:19
  • @LarsPeterSchultz "but if you then remove the softer instrument it sounds differently". I would say the most common example of this in music in general is the bass. You don't always hear the bass clearly, but if it's gone, you'll definitely notice. – Shikkou Oct 15 at 12:30
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There are several compositions written in purpose to present the orchestra, the instrument sections and the single instruments to the audience and especially for children like Peter and the wolf (Sergej Prokofiev) and The young persons guide to the orchestra (Benjamin Britten).

You may listen to any youtube videos, watching or only listening.

a) camera focusing on soloists and sections

b) videos showing sheet music and the score

Starting with Solos, ensembles, chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras.

I use to practice this game like a puzzle when listening radio music:

Identify the instrument, the era, the composer, the form, the genus ...

Edit: So lets add some videos!

Peter and the wolf

Y.P.Guide

Bolero

Symphony no. 7

Moldau

Romanian folkdances

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    Thank you for pointing out the visual aspect. I think, especially when you're not very experienced with the instruments already, actually being able to see the musicians playing can help a lot with getting familiar with the instruments character. When you're in a live concert try focusing on a tone or a melody and try to find out who is playing it! – Carpid Oct 15 at 13:56
  • +1 for Peter and the Wolf, that's the canonical example. But I'm pretty sure I got my first "orchestra instruments 101" from clips on Sesame Street! – jasnoj Oct 15 at 17:16
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  1. Get an idea, how each instrument sounds separately (as covered in other answers)
  2. Train to read scores of ensembles with increasing number of instruments while listening. For orchestra pieces like symphonies start with smaller setting like Haydn. (Mahler, Berlioz, Wagner are a league above). Pieces with a singer are helpful (e.g. cantatatas and oratorios), since you can use the sung text to re-synchronize if you lost position.

I would not expect to achieve perfection soon, so you may fail to distinguish between two and three clarinets, or viola and violin, or in some ranges even between different instrument families like bassoon and French horn.

Knowledge of instrument history also helps: because the clarinet was invented comparatively late, if you detect a similar sound in Vivaldi, it is more likely to be chalumeau. Similar transitions exist with other instruments as viola da gamba vs. violin/viola/violoncello, dulcian vs. bassoon.

4

I would find a good recording of a work of one of those composers and get a printed full score. In many cases you can get these from imslp.org . Listen to the recording and follow in the score. Repeat this until you know what's going to come, before you hear it. This takes time and patience, but you can really gain an insight into the orchestration and works, as well as recognizing the instruments by their sound.

3

The simple answer is, if you can, join an orchestra (or concert band) yourself. Or, if you can't play yourself, sit in on some rehearsals (with a score or borrow a part) and pay attention. I seem to have absorbed this ability without even trying or even being aware of it. And, it probably only actually took about a 6 months to a year of weekly rehearsal attendance (bonus - you also get to find out the shapes of the boxes for all the instruments, too). A conductor will often call for (e.g.) "flutes, oboes, clarinets only" during a rehearsal - some tricky part where those instruments play together. You get the visual feedback of seeing people pick up their instruments and a sound that is unhampered by speakers or digital compression. It doesn't have to be a professional group, in fact, it might even be better if it isn't. More rehearsal and more breakdown of the group will help you to identify different instruments.

If you can't do this, then solo instruments (unaccompanied) first, build up through quartets (say, wind quintets) to brass bands, wind bands and chamber orchestras and eventually full orchestras. Understand that sections (brass, strings, wind, percussion) can often sound very similar, so try to identify sections first rather than individual instruments.

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    I don't know whether I have to shame myself now, but I never knew, that one can freely attend the rehearsals if you are not a student of a conservatory. That would have been an awesome solution! – NickQuant Oct 14 at 15:25
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    @NickQuant, you need to look for "community bands" or non-professional orchestras (sometimes associated with a church). I play in a community band myself and, while it isn't as good as some of the bands of my youth, it has most of the instruments. No one would have noticed someone attending the rehearsals of my student concert band (we rehearsed in a big hall, relatives or partners of the musicians sometimes sat in on rehearsal). Or you could just bite the bullet and try learning an instrument! Then you could join as a member. – Pam Oct 14 at 15:45
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    Just check with the conductor (or chair), first, though! They'll probably ask you if you play. But I would say that rehearsals would be better for this than full performances - you'll hear the same instruments and the same passages again and again. – Pam Oct 14 at 15:56
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Thought about this for a while and finally came down on this division: You gotta start by breaking the entire set of sounds into groups. Usually called "range" When considering the frequency range we have to agree on some terms..but you probably have already heard them. Bass sounds are the lowest, Tenor is mid low, Altos are mid high and Sopranos are the highest. The way to think of this visually is by looking at a piano. Humans generally can hear in a frequency range between 20hz (left end of the piano) and 20,000hz (or 20kHz, the right end of piano) with a 440h "A" note near the middle of the piano. This classification increases along an exponential curve, which is why a piano with 88 keys represents a difference of around 19,000hz, rather than about 100hz. You can look at a visual EQ monitor in iTunes..or on your dad's 70's era "receiver" that he still keeps plugged into a 5 disc changer, despite the fact you keep buying him the newest iPhone.. and get a quick understanding of how this works. If you turn the two left-most EQ knobs all the way up and the rest all the way down, you'll hear a lot of Bass and probably mess up your speakers pretty quickly, but you'll lose practically everything else. ... and at the risk of stating the obvious, we know the low end of the frequency range is bass sounds, but in an orchestra that might include Tuba, Bass Clarinet, Baritone saxophone and the kettle drums. The very high end frequencies will be flutes and clarinets, trumpets or even higher pitched brass horns, cymbals etc.. A dog whistle is pitched above 25khz and usually closer to 40kHz...which is why it will never bother you but it will send Spot scrambling in circles. If you DO find you can hear a dog whistle, check with your doctor to see if you're turning into a Werewolf.

This division along frequency range might sound a bit arbitrary, or at least not specific enough for learning to distinguish instruments, but you'll find that training your ear for timbre (an instrument's specific quality) is a lot harder than training your ear to notice frequency. Once you learn to recognize frequency range (and you'd be surprised how with a little bit of training you'll quickly be able to pick out notes AND their exact Hz) you'll find you can easily separate groups of instruments IN TO range .. and after THAT you can start distinguishing the instruments themselves.

Personal Anecdote feel free to skip I started training as a violin player at age 3, and I was taught by the Suzuki method which wasn't that common when I was taught. Suzuki method worked thusly: The teacher would play a phrase. The student endeavors to play it back with no other visual cues (written music, etc) The crazy thing is I hate the violin now, but I've been trained on several instruments and that ability to repeat a phrase after hearing it once has never failed to make learning a new instrument easier. I can't really know if other ways are better, but I think it helped my music career.

Years later, studying audio production, the only ear training method that all recording students were graded on (regardless of whether you played an instrument) was called "GoldenEars" and it was based solely on frequency recognition.

So that's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.

PS. =Can Software Pull the Saxophone out of an Ensemble Recording?= I really like the concept of software that could pick out an instrument from a recording, and I imagine it isn't as far off as we might think, the codecs that allow us to make mp3 files out of much larger "real sound" WAV files could be viewed as the opposite of this, as they work by removing bits of "redundant" information from the larger files. Most people now 20 years on from Napster can hear the difference between an MP3 and a WAV but there's an accepted level of decay that most people are willing to live with. If we can program the removal of a certain percentage of information in a sound file and still hear basically what we began with, I have to imagine that pulling a certain classification of samples and bits could give you just vocals or just instrumentals. It would also depend a great deal on the type of ensemble. Pulling just JOhn Coltrane out of the Miles Davis Quartet wouldn't be all that hard, as the Tenor sax is easily distinguished from Miles' Trumpet and Paul Chambers drums. But an orchestra situation obviously creates new hurdles. Regardless, the people who will crack this will of course be DJs. Necessity is the mother of invention and DJ's are constantly looking for instrumentals and Vox-only tracks... So, as usual, the street will break it, probably via something we already have access to, and then ProTools will quickly commodify it and we'll pay big bucks for said filters. You heard it here first!

@bobbymobetta

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    No, the fundamental frequencies of piano go up to about 4 kHz. There are higher harmonics, but you don't hear those directly. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/… – Hobbes Oct 16 at 6:16
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    I've got a mixing console that includes a spectrum analyzer, so I've seen the spectrum of lots of different instruments. There's more overlap than difference. A cymbal crash has components below middle A, for instance. A band playing together will predominantly produce sounds in the same frequency range. – Hobbes Oct 16 at 8:21
  • That's definitely my mistake in characterizing the piano with that wide a range.. But it is true that the human hearing range clips out around 18-20kHz... my immediate jump to map that range onto the piano keyboard shows you that a.) I didn't take all that many piano lessons, b.) I was typing a bit late ..but I think also c.) to an extent illustrates the early ear training I had which was I suppose you could say almost an oral tradition being passed. – bobbymobetta Oct 17 at 7:30
  • (Even that isn't true... Suzuki had a fundamental basis in ear training, but I most certainly also learned to read and it was most certainly from a a book titled Suzuki Method Book1 ... lol, so.. ..yeah. not to go off topic or anything. Thanks in all honestly for catching me on that. – bobbymobetta Oct 17 at 7:32
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I am not too good in music, but, different instruments sound different due to their sound containing different amplitudes of frequencies [mainly harmonics, but also "fixed" ones e.g. due to a violin frame vibrating] in addition to the "nominal" one [ =the tone played, like the 440Hz A ]

With the available computing power, I would be surprised unless you could find a mobile app or at least some Apple/PC SW that filters out a given instrument from the orchestra sound. Maybe also gives you an "equalizer" that allows you to increase/decrease the volume of a certain instrument, and mute others if you wish.

If you can't find one, someone will hopefully make one soon, inspired by your question, as, anyway, this is an SE forum.

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    No, you will not find any reliable "extract this instrument" software. – Carl Witthoft Oct 14 at 14:13
  • Well, and I really wanted to train my ear into doing it. – NickQuant Oct 14 at 14:38
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    Not yet, but it might be somewhat on the way. – Pam Oct 14 at 15:54
  • @Pam probably might be the issue with reliability. Convnets are not allmighty. – NickQuant Oct 14 at 19:28
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    @Pam I even bet, that for two instruments (from different groups) one could get an analytic solution. For "Wagner" - I doubt (at least in foreseeable future) – NickQuant Oct 14 at 19:36

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