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What Is a Rock Orchestra?

Dan Harkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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An prominent pillar of progressive rock music is the sub-genre of sympohonic rock, one that is epitomized by exaggeratedly drawn-out orchestral arrangements and often fantastical subject matter. Some symphonic rock founders like Genesis and King Crimson used standard rock equipment with synthesizers to explore full orchestral themes and soundscapes. Other ensembles, like the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, have gone at the effort from the opposing angle, forming the full-blown rock orchestra to play classically tinged modern arrangements.

The addition of a rock band's rhythm section to a standard-looking orchestra is a major sign that an orchestra is really a rock orchestra. This means that in addition to the standard orchestra's string, horn and woodwind sections would be an electric attachment of guitar, bass and drum kit — occasionally several of each. A rock orchestra is therefore versatile enough to play rock arrangements with a classical twist and classical arrangements with a rock twist.

Many point to the British bands Yes, Genesis, Moody Blues and King Crimson as the originators of the first symphonic rock music, back in the 1960s. Often employing a full rock orchestra for performances, these bands met their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but have decreased since. Still carrying the torch of symphonic-style rock, however, are dedicated rock orchestras like ELO, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra and others, albeit from a different perspective.

Occasionally, as in the case with the albumThe Royal Philharmonic's Orchestra Presents Symphonic Rock established orchestras will modify its ranks to become a rock orchestra. More often, rock orchestras will be formed on more local levels. These groups are often organized by music teachers trying to interest students in joining band. They are also part of some camp experiences, like the one founded by Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Mark Wood. That camp's counselors put students through a crash course in rock instrumentation, followed by a concert-hall performance.

Any rock band can add an orchestra to lend certain recordings or performances a symphonic sound. One notable example is The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which includes a broad orchestral sound in parts. Though generally considered a psychedelic rock band, Pink Floyd is another band that occasionally created a rock orchestra sound in its music, particularly the song, "Atom Heart Mother" from the group's same-named 1970 album. In 2011, bands like Radiohead and Coldplay regularly incorporate a rock orchestra sound on various samples.

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Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.
Discussion Comments
By Tomislav — On Sep 19, 2011

@bluespirit - Symphonic rock is another word that basically means rock orchestra. For a band to be labeled symphonic rock it must have a symphony and be considered progressive rock.

I think the rock orchestra concept is a beautiful idea, and when the best of the rock world meet up and collaborate with the best of the orchestra world, something magnificent takes place.

It is two, in some ways, opposite worlds connecting. I use the word connect, because somehow that is what rock and orchestra do when done together correctly. It is the salty and sweet snack made of music, if you will.

I think when you listen to these types of music, classical and rock, it is easy to get caught up in how one-dimensional some pieces can be. But when you put them together, somehow more than just two dimensions and sounds are heard.

By bluespirit — On Sep 18, 2011

I am confused with some of the terms I am learning in my music class. Is symphonic rock what I think it is? Electronic orchestra music? Or is it another type of orchestra?

By LisaLou — On Sep 18, 2011

Many years ago I went to an Electric Light Orchestra concert. Even though I didn't like a lot of rock music, I like the way they combined rock music with some classic sounds.

One of their songs that they are most famous for and is probably my favorite is "Don't Bring Me Down". I can still remember hearing them perform this song and the whole crowd was cheering like crazy.

It seems like you don't hear as much rock orchestra music as you used to, but there are still a few bands who do a good job of performing this style of music.

By Mykol — On Sep 18, 2011

I had the chance to go to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas concert last year. Since I have never been a big fan of rock music, I wasn't sure quite what to expect.

I was simply blown away by the whole thing. I loved the combination of the classic and rock music. What really set it apart was the addition of all the lights they used.

Everything was synchronized perfectly, and I could have listened to them for hours. I am so glad I didn't let my unfamiliarity of rock music keep me from going.

I would definitely attend another concert if they come back to my area again.

By cloudel — On Sep 17, 2011

I really loved the rock orchestra featured on several of Coldplay’s songs. They have a tendency to write dramatic music and soaring melodies that really lend themselves to being played by an orchestra as well as by keyboard players and guitarists.

Their big hit “When I Ruled the World,” is full of orchestral music. It was such a popular song that you could not turn on the radio and avoid hearing it for many months. I even heard several television programs using it as background music.

I loved the use of the bass drum as part of the orchestra. It added so much drama to the few parts where it was used. Just two simple booms delivered a powerful feeling that the song was about to escalate.

By Oceana — On Sep 16, 2011

My friend’s heavy metal band recently collaborated with the local orchestra on two songs for their new album. You wouldn’t think that the two would mix very well, but the songs were slower than their typical thrashing rhythms.

Three guitarists each played different harmonizing parts while the orchestra provided a beautiful background that served to set the mood. They created a sort of haunting hum that had an eerie effect.

I don’t like metal music, but I loved these two songs. Well written guitar rhythms and solos get to me, and when they are accompanied by strings, I really feel it. These songs showed me that they really are talented musicians.

By seag47 — On Sep 15, 2011

When I think of a rock orchestra, I think of the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain.” It’s a long, slow song with a dramatic video featuring an orchestra playing along with the hard rock band.

The first part of the song is accented by beautiful orchestra music mixed with the piano and soaring guitar solos. The song changes mood and tempo about two-thirds of the way through, and the dark and foreboding sound of violins and cellos really helps with the effect.

Without the orchestra, this song would not have been nearly as beautiful and popular. This is the perfect example of a good rock orchestra.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 15, 2011

It’s amazing how two totally different types of bands can sound so wonderful together. When you have the best players in both bands, then you get a phenomenal sound.

The rock band Collective Soul did a concert in Atlanta a few years back with a full orchestra. They have two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer, a pianist, and a lead singer. Backing them were violins, flutes, and every other type of instrument you find in a typical orchestra.

The event was recorded onto a live DVD, which I bought. I love the band by themselves, but the addition of the orchestra really brought out beautiful and soft aspects of their songs.

By popcorn — On Sep 14, 2011

@letshearit - I am glad that bands kept working to get the rock orchestra to what it is today. I absolutely love the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and there is nothing better in my opinion, then resting and relaxing to one of their intense tunes.

For those that are curious about rock orchestra, I think that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a good place to start. Their sound is very well put together and it feels natural the way they blend rock with all of the instruments that a full orchestra can offer. Their concerts are impressive and a must see for anyone who loves good music.

By letshearit — On Sep 13, 2011

One of the first times I recall there being a group that adopted the rock orchestra sound into their music was back in 1969 when Deep Purple performed a full live show with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a very experimental performance, with the rock band and orchestra more or less taking turns alternating between their respective musical styles.

The two separate worlds of rock and orchestra music were really not very well integrated and it just kind of became a one-off thing before later bands came along and bridged the gap more successfully. However, I still think Deep Purple deserves a mention in this article as a pioneer in this field.

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
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