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What is an Orchestra?

An orchestra is a diverse ensemble of musicians, each wielding instruments that harmonize to create symphonies that can stir the soul. It's a testament to collaboration, where strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion unite under a conductor's baton to bring compositions to life. Imagine the stories that unfold through their melodies—what tales will the next performance tell? Join us to find out.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An orchestra is an ensemble of musicians who play musical compositions that are designed to be performed by a large group of instruments. In order to be considered an orchestra, the ensemble must have several sections, including string instruments, woodwinds, and brass instruments, with most also having a percussion section. It is led by a conductor in performance and can perform a wide variety of musical pieces at all sorts of events.

The word is derived from the Greek word for the area of the stage where the chorus sang and danced during performances in Ancient Greece. In staged performances with an orchestra, the musicians are classically positioned in a pit in the front of the stage, which closely mirrors the design used in Greece. While performing on its own for a concert, the musicians are often positioned on a stage so that people can see them.

To be considered an orchestra, there must be several different sections of musicians.
To be considered an orchestra, there must be several different sections of musicians.

If an orchestra has fewer than 50 players, it is known as a chamber orchestra. Chamber orchestras can vary widely in size, and they may have more than 50 players on staff, allowing for substitutions as needed while providing a pool of specialized talent. A harpist, for example, may be necessary in some pieces but not in others. These groups tend to perform smaller, more intimate pieces. The music can get quite complex, especially when it calls for a large complement of players.

An orchestra typically plays classical music.
An orchestra typically plays classical music.

Orchestras with 100 or more members are known as “full” orchestras, and they are sometimes referred to as symphony or philharmonic orchestras. There is no difference between those two terms, and in fact some cities have one of each, with people using the terms to differentiate between two different groups of performers. Ballets, operas, and other performances that include music are often performed with a chamber orchestra, rather than a full one, depending on the composition being performed.

An orchestra with fewer than 50 members is called a "chamber orchestra".
An orchestra with fewer than 50 members is called a "chamber orchestra".

The huge ensemble of instruments in a full orchestra can allow the musicians to perform very large and very complex pieces. Various sections can harmonize with each other in a variety of ways, and the group may be supplemented with a chorus for works that include vocal elements. Some of the greatest works of classical music were composed for full orchestras, and seeing them in person can be a very illuminating experience, as watching the musicians can provide interesting clues into the ways that the different sections work with each other.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an orchestra and how is it structured?

Ballets are often performed with chamber orchestras.
Ballets are often performed with chamber orchestras.

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble traditionally used in classical music that combines instruments from different families, including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The structure of an orchestra is typically divided into four main sections: strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses), woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), brass (trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas), and percussion (drums, xylophones, cymbals). Each section has a leader, and the entire orchestra is directed by a conductor who ensures coordination and interpretative unity.

What is the role of the conductor in an orchestra?

Orchestras usually feature a combination of instruments.
Orchestras usually feature a combination of instruments.

The conductor serves as the artistic leader and chief decision-maker of an orchestra. They are responsible for interpreting the score, setting the tempo, ensuring the correct balance between sections, and shaping the overall sound of the ensemble. The conductor uses a baton and a range of hand gestures to communicate their vision to the musicians during rehearsals and performances, guiding them through dynamic changes, entrances, and phrasing to achieve a cohesive performance.

How does one become a member of an orchestra?

Opera features singers in combination with chamber orchestra music.
Opera features singers in combination with chamber orchestra music.

Becoming a member of an orchestra typically requires a combination of formal musical education, extensive practice, and successful auditioning. Musicians often hold degrees from conservatories or universities and have honed their skills through years of individual and ensemble practice. Auditions for orchestras are highly competitive, requiring candidates to perform selected pieces and excerpts that demonstrate their technical proficiency, musicality, and ability to blend with the ensemble's sound.

What is the difference between a symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra?

A symphony orchestra is a large ensemble that usually consists of over 70 musicians, suitable for performing a wide range of symphonic repertoire. In contrast, a chamber orchestra is a smaller group, typically with 20 to 40 musicians, which is more suited for performing music from the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic periods, as well as contemporary works intended for smaller ensembles. The intimate setting of a chamber orchestra allows for a more personal and nuanced performance.

Can orchestras play music from genres other than classical?

Yes, orchestras can and do play music from a variety of genres beyond classical. Many orchestras perform arrangements of popular music, film scores, jazz, folk music, and world music. This versatility allows orchestras to reach a broader audience and explore a diverse range of musical styles. Collaborations with artists from different genres are also common, showcasing the adaptability and creative potential of the orchestral ensemble.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

mabeT

A few years ago I was listening to a radio station that only plays Christmas music between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. What can I say? I get in the Christmas spirit and stay that way for a while.

Regardless, as I was jamming away to old and traditional favorites, they threw something new at me; and I just had to have it!

It was Transiberian Orchestra’s rendition of ‘Carol of the Bells.’ Now, I’ve heard this played every which way, including instrumentally. But nothing before or since has ever compared to this amazing musical talent’s take on the old classic!

As a result, I choreographed an entire dance number that was presented at our annual Christmas Show. It was a total hit!

blackDagger

As a child growing up, I lived in a town where classical music was actually looked down upon by most of the locals. These were good and hardworking folks, but they just didn’t see the point of any kind of music that you didn’t sing to.

So imagine my surprise, and my entire family's, when I went to see my first orchestra performance and fell head over heels in love with it.

The music spoke to me, and still does to this day. And to this day, those who are closest to me have no concept or understanding as to why.

I’ve tried to explain it and I’ve tried to get them to open up their minds, but I suppose music is more of something which must speak to the soul.

I have visited many orchestra halls and have taken many scornful looks for the trips, but the music makes it worth it.

yumdelish

I think that orchestra conductors do an amazing job, especially those who make guest appearances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I especially enjoy watching Michael Krajewski. His humor and style are very engaging.

Windchime

I find it really interesting that the original meaning in Japanese of the word karaoke is 'empty orchestra'. Having suffered through several events where people attempt to share their (lack of) musical talent, there are very few who can do justice to the music supporting their efforts!

Potterspop

When I was on holiday in Austria I had the pleasure of going to see the Vienna Mozart Orchestra play. It was absolutely amazing, as close to going back in time as I can imagine we can get.

The musicians were wearing old fashioned costumes and wigs, which added something special to the atmosphere, as did the singers from the Vienna State Opera.

You do need to book ahead in the busiest times to make sure you get orchestra tickets on the dates you are visiting. It is well worth the effort though.

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    • To be considered an orchestra, there must be several different sections of musicians.
      By: oliver.wolf
      To be considered an orchestra, there must be several different sections of musicians.
    • An orchestra typically plays classical music.
      By: kirvinic
      An orchestra typically plays classical music.
    • An orchestra with fewer than 50 members is called a "chamber orchestra".
      By: Mr Twister
      An orchestra with fewer than 50 members is called a "chamber orchestra".
    • Ballets are often performed with chamber orchestras.
      By: Aleksandr Doodko
      Ballets are often performed with chamber orchestras.
    • Orchestras usually feature a combination of instruments.
      By: Nikolai Sorokin
      Orchestras usually feature a combination of instruments.
    • Opera features singers in combination with chamber orchestra music.
      By: Kalim
      Opera features singers in combination with chamber orchestra music.