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Year 5 Music

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A Magical Musical Tour

At first, it can be difficult to work out how an orchestra works. That's why the English composer Benjamin Britten wrote The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. In this piece of music, you'll hear the same melody, or theme, played a number of times, by different instruments of the orchestra. This makes it easier to identify each of the instrument families, as they take turns. When a piece of music plays the same theme in different ways, it is called a theme and variations. Henry Purcell first wrote this theme as music for a play, and then Britten wrote the theme and variations in his piece of music.

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The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra begins as the whole orchestra plays the main theme. The four major families – woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion instruments – play the theme and variations, then the whole orchestra plays together. Listen to Britten's piece, played first by the full orchestra then in groups of instruments (in each theme). While reading along below, listen to each separate variation to identify instruments by how they sound.

The woodwinds begin with the high notes of the piccolo and the sweet, clear sound of two flutes, accompanied by violins and a harp. The thoughtful-sounding oboe comes in next, followed by the smooth and athletic clarinets, which make sounds that seem to loop all around. The bassoons come in next and make the deepest, fullest sounds.

Among the brass instruments, the horns lead the way. The trumpets come in with higher, bright sounds. The trombone, played by sliding one metal tube in and out of another, adds a deep voice. The bass tuba has an even deeper, heavier sound.

The family of strings then comes in, led by the violins. Their sound is so important to the orchestra that there are more of them than any other instrument. Violas, a bit larger in size, have a deeper, often sombre-sounding tone. Both the violin and the viola are held against the musicians chin while he or she draws a bow across the strings. Cellos, much larger than the violas, are held upright on the floor, between the knees of the players. Cellos have a rich, warm sound. The double bass, the largest member of the string family, rumbles when it plays its lowest notes. The harp belongs in this instrument family, too. A harpist plucks its 47 strings while sitting beside it.

The percussion instruments take their turn as the kettle drums, or timpani [TIM-pan-ee], make deep, vibrating sounds you can feel as well as hear. There are many rhythmic noisemakers in the percussion family, including the bass drum, cymbals, tambourine and triangle. Wooden blocks clapped together make a sound like the crack of a whip, commanding the whole orchestra to play together again.

Have you listened to The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and heard the different themes played by a) the full orchestra, b) the woodwind section, c) the brass section, (d) the string section and e) the percussion section? What did you hear in each different variation?

Benjamin Britten ends his tour of the orchestra with the conclusing section in which instruments play one after another as if singing a round. This gives us another chance to hear the distinctive qualities of each family of instruments. Now we can appreciate the role each has in the full orchestra's sound. The brass instruments ring out at the end of the piece, adding a sort of celebratory icing to the rich cake made by the sound of the rest of the orchestra. Each time you listen to this piece, you will be able to identify more clearly the instruments of the orchestra by the sounds that they make.


This activity is adapted from pages 186 - 187 of What Your Year 5 Child Needs to Know.