Instant Expert: Nutcracker

Instant Expert: Nutcracker

The Voices of the Orchestra

Ever listened to the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and French variations in the second act of Nutcracker and wondered, “What instrument is making THAT sound?” Here are some small clues to help you enjoy these Nutcracker variations and identify the woodwind and brass instruments that they showcase.

The sound an instrument makes is closely linked with how it looks. All woodwind and brass instruments are tubes, with holes or values to change the notes or pitches they produce. Some might be slightly more conical in shape (think an ice cream cone), like the oboe, English horn, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba. They are smaller at the top of the instrument, where the musician puts it to their lips, and gradually get wider. Other instruments—such as the flute, piccolo, and clarinet—might be more cylindrical; they stay the same from mouthpiece to the end.

As a general rule, the smaller the tube, the higher the notes it produces. The smallest instrument in the orchestra—the piccolo—is only 13 inches long and plays the highest notes. It can span about three octaves (as a reference, a piano covers seven octaves).

And one of the largest instruments, the contrabassoon, is 18 feet long when unraveled and can play a low B-flat—the lowest note on the piano keyboard! It can also span about three octaves. (While the contrabassoon isn’t featured in Nutcracker, it is featured in more modern ballets such as Romeo & Juliet, Cinderella, and The Rite of Spring.)

But the range of a musical instrument doesn’t just depend on the length of tubing, but on the circumference. While the French Horn is 30 feet long when unraveled, its tubing is smaller in circumference than that of a tuba; therefore, it can play a higher range of notes. And its long tubing means a wider range of notes, too. Unique among wind and brass instruments, the French Horn can play four and half octaves!

Here are SF Ballet Orchestra members Scott Thornton (Principal Bass Trombone) and Stephanie McNab (2nd Flute & Piccolo) playing the same melody from “The Chinese Dance.” Hear the difference in their ranges?

Nutcracker runs December 8–27, 2022

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Header Image: Hansuke Yamamoto in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson