Instrument Specifics

In this section we’ll look at some of the instrument specific musical terminology and facts that have appeared in past papers for Grade 7.

This is not an exhaustive list however, and you should strive to increase your knowledge by studying musical scores as you listen along, and look up any unfamiliar words or symbols you find.

String Instruments

Pizzicato (or pizz.) is an instruction to pluck the string with a finger, rather than the normal method of using the bow.

Arco is used after a pizzicato instruction, to show that the normal bowing method should be resumed.

 Written above the stave, this is an “up bow” symbol, which means the player should push the bow upwards to play this note. Don’t confuse it with an accent!  
 Also written above the stave, this is a “down bow” symbol – the player should draw the bow downwards to play the note.  
°This small circle symbol indicates that the player should lightly touch the string as he/she plays, in order to produce the effect of “harmonics”. This allows higher partials of the note to be audible and changes the timbre of the sound produced. A similar symbol is sometimes used for “open string” (see below).

Double and triple stop String instruments can play chords. When the player sounds two notes simultaneously, he/she draws the bow across two strings at the same time. A triple stop is a three-note chord. 

The following extract is from a violin part, showing triple stops. A triple-stop chord is normally played in an arpeggiated manner, starting at the lowest note.

triple stops on string instruments

Tremolando (or tremolo, or trem.) is a shimmering effect created by quickly alternating between up and down bows. The repeated notes are often marked with a slash, and the term tremolando (or one of its abbreviations) is sometimes used.

Don’t confuse this symbol with a “measured repeated notes” slash, which uses the same symbol. The difference is that with measured note values, the speed of the notes will be semiquavers (16th notes) at the most. Anything faster than that will be a tremolando. An example of a tremolando can be heard at the start of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”.

Sul means “on” and is used with the letter name of a particular string, to indicate that that string must be used. For example, “sul G” means “use the G string”.

Open string. String players get many different notes out of just one string, by placing their fingers on the string to make it shorter. This is called “stopping” the string. The lowest possible note that any string can produce is the note that sounds when it is not “stopped” at all – this is the “open string”. Each string instrument has four strings, each with its own “open note”.

You should learn the pitches of the strings of all four standard orchestral string instruments. Luckily, they are not difficult to remember! The viola and cello are tuned to the same notes, but the cello is an octave lower. The violin and double bass tunings are a mirror image of each other:

string tunings

You may be asked whether, in an extract, a string player “has to use” an open string. Pay attention to the wording – it is not the same as “can use”. If a player has to use an open string it will be because:

  • The extract contains the lowest playable note on that instrument (i.e. the open note on the lowest string) OR
  • There is an instruction to use an open string (often marked with an “0” above the note) OR
  • The indication “sul” (see above) matches up with a string’s fundamental pitch. For example, a notated D includes the instruction “sul D”.

Look at these example viola notes, and consider whether the player has to use an open string or not:

open string notation

1. No. The player can use an open string (the D string), but doe not have to (they could play this as a stopped note on the lower pitched G string).

2. Yes. This is the lowest, and therefore unstopped, note on the indicated D string.

3. Yes. The “o” symbol indicates that an open string (the A string) must be used.

4. Yes. This is the lowest, and therefore unstopped, note on the instrument.

5. No. The player is instructed to play an E by stopping the D string.

The symbols for open string and harmonics look similar. The symbol for an open string usually looks a little larger, but the easiest way to differentiate them is to look at the pitch of the note. An open string symbol can only be used with a note which matches the tuning note of one of the instrument’s strings.


Harp parts sometimes contain an instruction for the harpist to set the pedals to certain notes. Written between the staves, the tuning notes will be given. Make sure you know the note names in Italian, French and German as well as in English.


Another standard harp term is “glissando” or “gliss.” which is a rapid glide through several notes with a sweeping effect.

This extract shows a harp glissando, followed by a bar of silence in which the player retunes the pedals to E natural, B flat and A sharp. Notice the use of enharmonic equivalents (within the music (E#=F, B#=C) and the pedal instructions (Bb & A#)), which are quite common in harp music and facilitate playing the same note on different strings.


In general, piano music is written on two staves combined with a curly brace at the left-hand edge. The top stave is usually in the treble clef and intended for the right hand, whereas the lower stave is in the bass clef and intended for the left hand.

However, since the range of the piano is so wide, it is quite common to find the treble clef used for the left hand, when it is playing high notes, or for the bass clef to be used for the right hand, for low notes. Always check the clefs before you do anything else!

While most piano music is written for the right hand to play higher notes than the left, at times the pianist may be asked to cross hands, and at other times, the hands may be almost in exactly the same place. In these cases, the score will indicate which hand should be used.

Mano destra or “m.d.” means “right hand” in Italian.

Mano sinistra or “m.s.” means “left hand”.

French horn

French horn players place their right hand slightly inside the bell of the instrument during “normal” play. Sometimes the composer wants to make a more muffled sound, and will instruct the player to push their hand further inside the bell.

This is notated with a plus or cross symbol +, and is called a “stopped note”. An “o” symbol can be used, to clarify when an unstopped note is required.

stopped horn


The two most common sounds produced from the timpani (or kettle drums) are the single stroke, and the characteristic timpani “roll”.  The roll is produced by rapidly striking the timp with alternate left and right mallets and is often used to create a feeling of drama or tension.

A roll can be indicated with the letters “tr” or notated as a slashed note. This is not a trill!

In this example, the timpanist begins the roll very quietly and crescendos through until bar 3, which is accented:

timpani roll (not a trill)

Timpani drums need to be tuned to the correct pitch, so you may see a tuning indication within the score.

Reed Instruments

Often you will be asked to find something for example in a “single reed” or “double reed” part – so you need to know what type of reeds each instrument uses.

The oboe, bassoon and cor Anglais are all double reed instruments. This means they use two thin reeds which are bound together, and air is blown between the two reeds. This makes the column of air inside the instrument vibrate, which produces sound.

double reed

Clarinets (and saxophones – but they are not orchestral instruments) use a single reed. The player blows between the reed on one side, and the mouthpiece on the other.

single reed