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Top Five Most Underrated Instruments

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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.