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What is an Orchestra?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By mabeT — On Jun 16, 2011

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!

By blackDagger — On Jun 14, 2011

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.

By yumdelish — On Jun 14, 2011

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.

By Windchime — On Jun 14, 2011

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!

By Potterspop — On Jun 14, 2011

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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