What Is an Orchestra?

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing in Sydney Harbour to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday (January 27, 2006). Paul McConnell/Getty Images

The word "orchestra" was used to describe the place where musicians and dancers performed in ancient Greece. The orchestra, or symphony orchestra, is generally defined as an ensemble mainly composing of bowed stringed instruments, percussion, wind and brass instruments. Often, the orchestra is composed of 100 musicians and may be accompanied by a chorus or be purely instrumental. In today's setting, the word "orchestra" not only pertains to a group of musicians but also to the main floor of a theater.

An example of early music pieces for modern day symphony orchestras is evident in the works of Claudio Monteverdi, specifically his opera Orfeo.

The Mannhein School; composed of musicians in Mannheim, Germany, was founded by Johann Stamitz during the 18th century. Stamitz, along with other composers, cited that there are four sections of the modern day orchestra:

Musical Instruments of the Orchestra

  • strings (cellos, double bass, violas, first and second violins)
  • brass (trumpets, horns)
  • woodwinds (bassoons, clarinets, oboes, flutes)
  • percussion (timpani)

During the 19th century, more instruments were added to the orchestra including the trombone and tuba. Some composers created music pieces that needed orchestras that were very large in size. However in the late 20th century, composers opted for smaller sized orchestras such as chamber orchestras.

The Conductor

Composers play many different roles, they can be performers, songwriters, educators or conductors.

Conducting is more than just waving a baton with a flourish. A conductor's job may look easy, but in reality it's one of the most demanding and highly competitive fields in music. Here are several resources that explores the role of conductors as well as profiles of well-respected conductors in history.

Notable Composers for the Orchestra

Orchestras on the Web