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An introduction to the music of the modern orchestra

A general introduction to the instruments and music of the orchestra as well as a few notes on the evolution of the orchestra.

An orchestra can be defined as a large group or ensemble of instruments. Although what we think of as the modern orchestra was basically created in response to the compositions of 19th-century composers such as Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, the origins of this modern orchestra may be found in the 16th century. By the 18th century, most orchestras included a string section along with a few winds and a harpsichord, but it was in the 19th century that the orchestra really came into its own.

The modern orchestra is very large in comparison to its predecessors in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, sometimes comprising 100 or more players. The basic instrument families and their members are as follows:

The Strings: The string family of instruments are all made of wood with strings attached, and it is in fact the strings which produce their sound. The violin is the smallest and highest in pitch range, followed by the viola, then the cello, and finally the double bass, which is as tall as many of its players. The harp is in a category by itself, but with its many strings ranging in pitch through several octaves, it is still considered part of the string family.

The string section of a modern orchestra will likely include:

Violin I (or First Violins): 16

Violin II (or Second Violins): 16

Violas: 12

Celli (the plural of Cello or Violincello): 10

Double Basses: 8

Harps: 2

The Woodwinds: The woodwind family of instruments are all made of wood, with the exception of most flutes and piccolos (which are made of metal), and their sound is produced through an enclosed column of air. The timbre of each member of the woodwind family is unique, depending primarily on the type of mouthpiece of the instrument in question (whether single or double reed, mouth-hole, etc.)

The woodwind section of a modern orchestra will probably include:

Flutes: 3

Piccolo: 1

Oboes: 3

Clarinets: 3

Bass Clarinet: 3

Bassoons: 3

Double Bassoon: 1

The Brass: The brass family of instruments are all made of brass, and their sound is also produced through an enclosed column of air. A particularly distinguishing characteristic of the brass family is its cup-shaped mouthpiece.

The brass section of a modern orchestra will likely include:

French Horns: 6

Trumpets: 4

Trombones: 4

Tuba: 1

Percussion: The percussion family of instruments is the largest of all the orchestral families, and its representation in any orchestra is specifically designated by the compositions being performed. (For example, not all orchestral compositions may call for a celesta or triangle, and thus these instruments do not always appear onstage.) The percussion family is generally characterized by instruments that produce their sounds by striking or shaking elements of the instrument together.

The percussion section of a modern orchestra will probably include:

Tympani: 3

Bass Drum: 1

Side drum: 1

Glockenspiel: 1

Cymbals: 1

Triangle: 1

Chimes: 1

Xylophones: 1

Celesta: 1

Piano: 1

(And other percussion instruments as specified by the composition in question)

Although in centuries past, the orchestra would have been conducted or led by the first violinist (today`s concertmaster) or harpsichordist, the modern orchestra is directed by a conductor.

Introductory suggestions for listening to orchestral music through the ages:


Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, c. 1720

Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: "Spring", c. 1725


Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, c. 1788

Haydn, Symphony No. 94 in G Major ("The Surprise"), 1791

19th Century:

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, 1808

Richard Strauss, Don Juan, 1889

20th Century:

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, 1913

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5, 1937

By Rajan P. Parrikar

The monograph preceding this feature was dedicated to Marwa and its purlieu (see The Marwa Matrix). Marwa and its neighbouring tract, Poorvi, supply the vast majority of vespertine melodies for the Hindustani system. The principal rAgas embosomed in these two worlds represent the highest level of melodic inventiveness known to mankind. On behalf of the charming girls of Sawf, I invite you to join us on this jaunt as we survey the lay of the Poorvi Province. Throughout the promenade, M =shuddha and m =teevra madhyam.

The Poorvi-Pooriya Dhanashree-Paraj-Basant Axis

Poorvi is a rAgAnga, a rAga and a thAT. The Poorvi thAT is coincident with the 51st Carnatic melakartA Kamavardhini with the swara set: S r G m P d N. The Marwa thAT differs from Poorvi through its use of the shuddha dhaivat. This seemingly minor alteration, however, generates a profoundly different governing dynamic. Recall that the chief rAgas of the Marwa group - Marwa, Pooriya and Sohani - all drop the pancham. But with the komal dhaivat in Poorvi, the aesthetic imperative makes the pancham indispensible. And so it is that almost all the rAgas of this thAT carry that swara. The pancham is often langhan alpatva (skipped) momentarily in key sangatis but it is never wholly absent (there are, as always, notable exceptions). The rAgas of the Poorvi thAT fall broadly under two sub-classes subject to their anga heritage: the Shree-anga rAgas and the Poorvi-anga rAgas. The mighty Raganga Raga Shree has been dealt with earlier and readers are referred to Raga Shree: Close Encounters. In the ensuing paragraphs we shall write out the lakshaNAs of the four chief rAgas of the Poorvi ensemble and flesh out the arcana associated with each of them.

The lakshaNAs of Raga Poorvi are considered first.

S, N' S r G and N' r G

The shaDaj comes in both modes, skipped and otherwise. The development gravitates towards the gandhAr in either direction, as we shall shortly see.

G r G m P, P m G, r S N' S r G

With the right ucchAraNa these poorvAnga clusters are sufficient to establish Poorvi.

N' S r G, r M G, Gm P, d, P m G M (r)G, r (G)M G

This tonal phrase packs a great deal of Poorvinformation. The peculiar behavior of shuddha madhyam comes into play here and dispels any incipient ideas of Pooriya Dhanashree. Take stock of the two different modes of approach to the shuddha madhyam (it will be seen later how the ucchAraNa and chalan keep Poorvi distinct from Paraj on this score). The gandhAr in Poorvi comes in for special treatment. Note, for instance, the kaN of r in the M -laden cluster.

m d S" and m d N, N S"

The tonal phrases typically employed for the uttarAnga launch. Although the pancham is an important nyAsa swara it is also rendered langhan alpatva in movements in either direction.

S", N S", r" N d, P

A crucial tonal sentence found in several rAgas of the Poorvi thAT, notably Pooriya Dhanashree and Shree. The ucchAraNa of r" N d P for the Shree-anga rAgas assumes a slow, piercing meeND.

P, m P d m G r S r G

The bridge that ties together the poorvAnga and uttarAnga tonal activity.

Putting it all together we formulate a sample chalan:

S, N S r G, m G r G r (G)M G, r G m P, d m P m G M (r)G;

m d N S", S", N r" N d, P, d m G M (r)G, r S N' S r G

We now move to Raga Pooriya Dhanashree which is all the go these days and has elbowed Poorvi out from the concert stage. Pooriya Dhanashree retains most of the lakshaNAs of Poorvi sans the shuddha madhyam. However, while Poorvi is gandhAr-based, the breath of Pooriya Dhanashree's life is the pancham. Accordingly, most of the tonal activity is centred around that swara. A couple of other additional lakshaNAs merit mention since they encase the rAga signature, to wit:

P, m G m r G, P

The reiteration of G m r G is a sine qua non and the concluding hook-up with P from G as shown is recommended to instal the dominance of P. The Arohi prayogas in Pooriya Dhanashree are almost always via N' r G m P whereas in Poorvi N' S r G is also admitted.

< -- Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande

Obiter dictum: On the subject of of nomenclature, Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande conjectures that when the erstwhile Kafi-thAT Raga Shree branched into a Poorvi-thAT Shree, a similar transformation in its janya Raga Dhanyasi may have given rise to a counterpart Dhanashree, which, on account of its Poorvi-thAT affiliation, took on the moniker "Poorvi Dhanashree," finally settling into "Pooriya Dhanashree."

Next in line, Raga Paraj. This is an uttarAnga pradhAna rAga with melodic emphasis in the vicinity of the tAra shaDaj. In the poorvAnga there are two madhyams, like Poorvi; the distinction lies in the ucchAraNa and chalan. The uttarAnga has a superficial resemblance to Basant that may confuse the casual ear but not that of an initiate. The melodic trajectory in Paraj hews to the Kalingada line while retaining its Poorvi-thAT swaras. Oftentimes, the two are combined into "Paraj-Kalingada." Let us develop the rAga heuristically:

P, Pd Pd mP, (m)G M G, m G r S

The intonation of the shuddha madhyam-laden phrase is direct without intermediary kaNs (cf Poorvi). The Kalingada chalan can be retrieved from the above by replacing m with M. Sometimes an explicit G M P M G is also taken.

md md N, N S" N d S" N

Again, a likeness of Kalingada obtains (there we have only the shuddha madhyam and Pd replacing md). The elongation of N in S" N d S" N is a Paraj signpost.

S" N d P, G m d S" N, N S"r" S"r" N S" N d S" N

The dhaivat is rendered durbal throughout.

Paraj is a chanchal prakriti rAga. Additionally, the recommended Arohi locus forgoes the rishab, as in N' S G m d N.

We come to the final member of the Poorvi quartet - Raga Basant. Like Paraj, Basant is an uttarAnga pradhAna rAga. The difference lies in its chalan and ucchAraNa, and its drawing on portions of the Shree-anga. There are also special sangatis that are uniquely Basant. The following tonal sequence captures its essence:

m d r", S", r" N d P, [P] mG m->G, m G r S

The first half of the chalan derives its ucchAraNa from Shree. It is slow, meeND-laden and gambheer in prakriti. Note the jump from d to the tAra saptak r". The second half begins with the square-bracketed pancham (to denote a shaken (and stirred) swara). The molecule - [P] mG m, G - where the first m is quick and the second is elongated is sui generis to Basant.

d N r" N d P, G m d N m, G, m d G m G, m G r S

The r" N d P is Shree-inspired. Note, however, that the critical lakshaNAs of Shree - the strong rishab and the r-P coupling - are absent in Basant. The rishab, in fact, is skipped in Arohi sanchAris. The G m d N m and m d G m G are redolent of Pooriya albeit with the komal dhaivat.

m G r S, S M, mMG, N d P

The shuddha madhyam is not required in Basant but is often included as an additional artifact for rAga bheda. It appears in a small LalitAnga cluster and the thought is typically terminated in the manner indicated above.

This completes our prolegomenon of the Poorvi based melodies. These rAgas are so pregnant with nuance that they can scarcely be expounded effectively through the written word. Nevertheless, it is hoped that some flavour of the melodic depth, ingenuity and the power of Raga has been conveyed. In practice the lakshaNAs of rAgas are burnt into a musician's being through tAleem and, in the case of the 'higher' musician, also through ceaseless reflection.

Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang"

In the opening clip, Pandit Ramashreya Jha "Ramrang" discursively ranges over the Poorvi terrain. It is a magnificent display spanning 18 minutes. He addresses both shAstra and its praxis, adducing traditional compositions to fortify the development. One particularly poignant moment is around 9:30 where he briefly recites a lakshaNgeet of Bhatkhande in Raga Basant; it is a revelation of the Chaturpandit's drishTi. Ramrang, in what is by a long chalk, the finest exposition extant on the subject -

The audio procession begins. The selections comprising this panorama are the pick of the basket, many of them unpublished. The four principal Poorvi rAgas are represented on this page and the derivatives on the next. It is left to the reader to discern the fidelity to, or the extent of departure from, generally accepted lakshaNAs.

Raga Poorvi

'Light' items adhering strictly to Poorvi are not very common. From MEERA (1979), Ravi Shankar's tune is voiced by Vani Jairam: karuNA suno Shyam mori -

That completes the Poorvi offering. It is a pity that such a profoundly beautiful melody has been cast off by most performers of the day. Bhatkhande remarks that some tantrakArs, especially from Rampur, assert that the dhaivat in Poorvi is 'chaDhi.' This is, of course, a matter of individual or stylistic choice.

Raga Pooriya Dhanashree

There is no better vehicle of expression today for the bathos-stricken than Raga Pooriya Dhanashree. The rAga finds employment aplenty in all genres.

Jitendra Abhisheki chants from the Bhagavat Geeta -

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