Top Five Most Underrated Instruments

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

One contrabassoon and three regular bassoons await their operators One contrabassoon and three regular bassoons await their operators (flickr/nobleviola)

This week, The Economist’s More Intelligent Life Web site began polling readers on “Which Instrument Is the Best?” The idea is the brainchild of London Times music critic Richard Morrison and he collected nominations for the guitar, piano, the French horn, the Hammond organ and the voice.

While the Brits debate the top musical banana, we thought we’d consider the five most underrated instruments in the symphony orchestra. We tip our hats to the instrumentalists who put in the same amount of work without barely a melody to show for it.

1. The Viola

The middle child of the string section, the viola historically provided the harmonic support for melodies carried by the higher pitched violins or in the melancholy-sounding cellos. Talented players such as Yuri Bashmet and WQXR’s own Nadia Sirota have helped expand the instrument’s repertoire by commissioning new works, but the instrument still plays second fiddle—and violists have filled Web sites with self-deprecating jokes to prove it.

2. The Contrabassoon

On the lowest end of the wind section sits the contrabassoon, the comic foil of the orchestra. When a musical joke is in order or something nefarious happens this double reed often lets out a low blurt. But a flatulent misfire can provide plenty of unintentional humor. The temperamental instrument has led some wind players, including the National Symphony Orchestra’s Lewis Lipnick to switch to a more polite contraforte.

3. The Timpani

Stationed at the back of the orchestra, the mallet-wielding timpanist can seem a little heavy handed in comparison to nimble-fingered brass, wood and string players up front. But these resonant kettledrums require much more nuanced pounding than banging on pots and pans. Percussionist Jonathan Haas, the so-called Paganini of the timpani, shows off the instrument’s versatility in the 14-drum Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists, which he commissioned.

4. The Bass Trombone

The slide trombone literally sticks out in a symphony orchestra with its moving parts. The bass trombone, on the other hand, is rarely separately distinguished from its from the more popular tenor varieties. But this brass instrument is responsible for carrying much of the late Romantic repertoire, including one of the most recognizable themes of music ever written: Ride of the Valkyries.

5. The Piano (as ensemble instrument)

For an instrument that stars in numerous concerti, the piano often blends into the background when it’s an equal among orchestral instruments. However, bolstering other sections was the intent of incorporating piano into symphonic ensembles.

Weigh in: Did we overlook an instrument, thereby making even more underappreciated? Add your comments below.


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Comments [30]

Paul Soh from Singapore

Tuba and all basses outside the strings cause' that's my instrument. No one really realizes how massive bass support just a lone tuba and a lone contra bassoon can provide to the double basses especially in a concert hall.

Jul. 24 2015 10:21 AM
404:Notfound from BATCAVE

The baritone is very underrated, sadly.

Jun. 01 2015 09:27 PM
Mary Zhuang

The string bass, definitely. Or people call it the double bass.

Mar. 03 2014 08:26 PM
Lisa from Boston

Bassoon in general is under appreciated, as is trombone. However I definitely think the oboe and baritone oboe are almost equally as under appreciated as the trombone.

Aug. 28 2013 04:51 PM
Kevin Hall

cimbasso! Verdi opera isn't right without it.

Feb. 08 2013 11:56 AM

Constantine from New York has a good point about the Sarrusophone. A whole family of brass double reed instruments designed for the wind band by a conductor in Belgium (to replace the oboe and bassoon family) so that they could be heard. The only one used in orchestral scores was the C contrabass Sarrusophone (manufactured by Buffet in Paris) but most that still exist are in Eb (built by Conn in the US) which were used in wind bands, not symphony orchestras. You can still buy a C contrabass Sarrusophone (custom made) from Bernt Eppelsheim who has a workshop in Munich, and who builds the keys and mechanisms for Guntram Wolf's Contraforte, which I now play in the National Symphony. The Sarrusophone is a warm and rich sounding instrument, but since the C contrabass instruments are virtually extinct now, the orchestral parts written by Ravel, Stravinsky, and some other well known composers are usually played on the contrabassoon, which simply does not sound as good. But when I play those parts on my Contraforte, the sound is much closer to the original C contrabass Sarrusophone.

Aug. 08 2012 08:19 PM
My Instrument from Greenwich, CT.

Yeah you forgot MY INSTRUMENT, heh, you could play it all day. Yessir.

May. 02 2012 03:30 AM
Terrence from Maryland

I wish the writer would have used a better example than the Valkyries; the bass trombone's part in Valkyries is really no different than the tenor. If the whole purpose of this article is to give people an insight (with a bit of humor) into the inner workings of the orchestra, then pick a piece of music that actually features the bass trombone as it's own character, not as a regular member of the trombone section - which is how it functions in the excerpt used.

The bass trombone certainly has it's own "personality" in the orchestra. They call it the chainsaw, and for good reason; it's incredibly loud, especially in the lower range, and usually takes a person with a rather "special" personality to play it.
Likewise, people call the contrabassoon the "farting bedpost."

But the example picked wasn't a good choice to highlight the differences of the bass trombone.

Apr. 30 2012 03:21 PM


Apr. 30 2012 03:07 PM

I agree with the bass trombone, although trombones in general are greatly underappreciated. One need only listen to symphonies by Brahms, Schuman, Shostakovitch or Mahler to hear the versatility of that instrument. The trombone's most luminous moment may come in the Sibelius 7th symphony where three times it plays the same melodic line with greatly differing affect each repetition.

I would also nominate the pipe organ to be included in this listing. New York concertgoers are being cheated out of the experience of hearing the 'King of Instruments' holding forth alongside the full symphony orchestra. It is a moment of great impact when the organ bursts forth to join with the other instruments to make a mighty impact. Saint-Saens, Respighi, Copland, Richard Strauss (and others) understood this and used the instrument to great effect. I hope those who run concert halls that don't have them will decide to add a pipe organ to their concert space. And those who already have them should be encouraged to program concerts, recitals and lectures to feature them and highlight their existence.

Apr. 30 2012 10:43 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

The Bass Drum - truly the heartbeat of any band or orchestra. John Philip Sousa said of his long-time bass drummer, Gus Helmecke, that "Gus was the finest bass drummer in the world and had the the soul of a great artist." In fact, Gus could get many different sounds, nuances, and effects from his drum and this was in the era when the crash cymbal was attached to the top of the drum and the player used the left hand for the other cymbal while holding the beater with the right.

Apr. 29 2012 08:11 PM

The viola da gamba

Apr. 28 2012 05:27 PM


It sounds like you may be a little confused. The principal oboe spot in the orchestra is the best wind spot. They have the most melody and are featured more than any of the other instruments. Just saying!

Apr. 28 2012 08:23 AM
Bjarki Daviðsson from Reykjavík, Iceland

The Uilleann Pipes!

Apr. 28 2012 06:55 AM
John F. Mignone from Long Island, New York

The tuba, of course, because everyone thinks it only goes oom-pah. People are usually surprised to find out that the tuba can play beautiful melodies with a very pleasing sound.

Apr. 27 2012 06:21 PM
Sally from Ossining

The string bass. Interesting the several mentions the English horn has gotten considering the number of beautiful solos written for it.

Apr. 27 2012 03:08 PM

SOUSAPHONE!! (Hands down)

Apr. 27 2012 03:03 PM
Jeff from Warwick, NY

The Euphonium. Besides Holst's Mars, it is hardly ever heard, and it is a great alternative to the French Horn or Trombone.

Apr. 27 2012 03:02 PM
Evan from NYC

English Horn, most beautiful instrument in the orchestra!

Apr. 27 2012 09:49 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I think the E-flat Clarinet is an indispensible part of Richard Strauss's orchestral and operatic arsenal; and it's distinctiveness in Copland's "Music for the Theater" and Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" show it's versatility and usefulness to those composers who I think have nothing in common with R. Strauss.

Apr. 27 2012 08:47 AM
Shoshana from NYC

I'm thrilled that Viola has not only made the list but is #1. I was a proud violist from third grade all the way through the end of high school. I think it takes a certain kind of person to choose the viola at such a young age. My appreciation of violists:

Apr. 27 2012 08:09 AM
Constantine from New York

Whoops! I meant sarrusophone.

Apr. 26 2012 09:49 PM
Gail Tauber

The oboe. Just heard a concert of strings with solo oboe--so surprising wonderful.

Apr. 26 2012 06:44 PM
Constantine from New York

Don't forget the sassusophone, the heckelphone, the basset horn and the crumhorn.

Apr. 26 2012 06:19 PM
david kroenlein from irving

how about the bass saxophone!! or constrabass basssoon!!

Apr. 26 2012 05:59 PM
Andy from Canada


Apr. 26 2012 05:38 PM
Sue from New York

The bass clarinet underscores low parts of the music, and rarely is recognized in its own right. "The Rite of Spring" has a very prominent, beautiful bass clarinet part.

Apr. 26 2012 05:16 PM
Rebecca from Texas


Apr. 26 2012 03:34 PM
Jim Theobald from Manhattan

As a bass trombonist, I appreciated the mention of my horn. Most people don't know what it is I'm playing and that all the extra tubing is not on a "regular" (tenor) trombone. The Romantic composers and beyond wrote wonderful parts for it, including Mahler, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok and Stravinsky.

Apr. 26 2012 01:48 PM
sylva from NYC

The English Horn!

Apr. 26 2012 10:54 AM

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