The Orchestra



An orchestra is a group of musicians who play together on various instruments. Sometimes it performs alone ,at other times it plays along with a group of singers. Orchestras give concerts and play for ballets or operas. They also provide background music for movies and TV shows.

When we speak of orchestras we usually mean symphony orchestras. They have many instruments and play mostly classical music which is performed in concerts.

Some symphony orchestras have only professional musicians. The most famous are in the larger cities of the world. Among them are the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston and London Symphony.

Orchestral music is written in the form of a score, which shows the notes that are played by each instrument. Every musician only sees the notes that he or she plays. The conductor stands in front of the orchestra and directs the musicians .

An orchestra can have up to 20 kinds of different instruments. Large symphony orchestras can have a hundred musicians . Smaller ones like chamber orchestras have between 5 and 40 players. They originally were small enough to play in a chamber or hall.



Sections of an Orchestra


A modern orchestra consists of four sections or families of instruments. The string section is the most important part of a symphony orchestra. It has more than half of the musicians and consists of violins, violas , cellos and string basses . The violinists play high sounds and are divided into two groups. The first violins and the second violins usually play different parts. The leading first violinist is the concertmaster of the orchestra. He helps the other musicians tune their instruments and serves as the assistant . Cellos and string basses play low sounds .

The woodwind section consists of flutes, bassoons , oboes and clarinets. An orchestra can have between two and four of each of these instruments. Sometimes these musicians change instruments , for example, a flutist may switch to a piccolo . These two instruments have high piercing tones , whereas the bassoon may have the lowest tones of the whole orchestra.

The brass section has several trumpets, French horns, trombones and one tuba . These instruments are especially important in the loud, exciting parts of the music. Trumpets and horns play the higher parts, trombones and tubas dominate the lower parts. This section is located mostly at the centre and back of the orchestra.

The percussion section has all sorts of instruments, especially those that you can hit, rattle or shake . The drums are the best known among these instruments. In a symphony orchestra, kettledrums or timpani make the music more exciting . Other percussion instruments include bells, cymbals , gongs, tambourines or xylophones.

Other instruments like the harp , piano or saxophone may be added to the orchestra if they are needed.



The Conductor

A conductor directs the musicians with a stick, called the baton. But he does important things before the performance . He chooses the music that is to be played at a concert and decides how it should be played- loud or soft, fast or slow. Then he calls the musicians to rehearsals where he often lets sections or individual musicians play their parts over and over again until the sound is perfect.



History of the Orchestra


The word orchestra was first used by the ancient Greeks and meant the front part of a stage . During the Middle Ages it also included the musicians on the stage . The first orchestras were organized by kings and queens of France and in Italian churches and places during the late 6th and early 7th centuries . Most of these orchestras used stringed instruments and played for ballets, operas and at dance parties.

By the early 1700s some European composers , like Johann Sebastian Bach or George Frederic Handel, wrote music just for orchestras. Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang A. Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven perfected the classical symphony in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the 20th century composers like Richard Strauss or Igor Stravinsk y created musical works that needed large ensembles . Later on electronic instruments were added and new sounds created .


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Related Topics



  • add =put in, include
  • among = along with, together with
  • ancient = old
  • assistant = someone who helps his boss
  • bassoon = a musical instrument like a long wooden tube; it produces a low sound
  • brass = musical instruments that are made of metal
  • century = a hundred years
  • chamber = a small room
  • chamber orchestra = a small group of musicians who play classical music together
  • common = something that can be found very often
  • composer = a person who writes music
  • conductor = someone who stands in front of a group of musicians and directs them
  • consist of = is made up of
  • create = make, write
  • cymbal = a musical instrument in the form of a thin round metal plate, which you play by hitting it with a stick or by hitting two of them together
  • decide = choose
  • develop = grow
  • direct = to be in control of
  • divide = separate
  • dominate = here: they are the most important instruments in this section
  • ensemble = group of musicians who play regularly
  • especially = above all
  • exciting = moving, very lively
  • flutist = someone who plays the flute
  • harp = large instrument with strings that you play with your fingers
  • include = contain, consist of
  • individual = single, only one
  • kettledrum = large metal drum with a round bottom
  • late = the last years of ...
  • leading = the best or most important
  • located = is found
  • musicians = people who play music
  • note = a symbol on paper that stands for a musical sound
  • percussion = musical instruments that you hit or shake
  • perfect = to do something so long that you can do it very very well
  • perform = to play in front of people
  • performance = presentation of music in front of people
  • piccolo = musical instrument that looks like a small flute
  • piercing = very high , sharp and not so nice to hear
  • professional = to do something for money
  • provide = give
  • rattle = shake quickly many times
  • rehearsal = when all the musicians practise before a performance
  • section = part
  • serve = work as, operate as
  • several = many
  • shake = to move an object quickly from one side to another
  • stage = higher area of a hall or theatre on which the musicians sit when they perform
  • string = instruments that have strings
  • string bass = a very large musical instrument shaped like a violin that the musician plays standing up
  • switch = change
  • symphony = long piece of music, usually in four parts that is written for an orchestra
  • tone = sound
  • trombone = a large metal instrument that you play by blowing into it and sliding a long tube in and out to change sounds
  • tuba = a large metal instrument that consists of a curved tube with a wide opening that points straight up; it produces a very low sound
  • tune = to make a musical instrument play the right tone
  • various = different
  • viola = a wooden instrument that you play like a violin ; but it is larger and has a lower sound
  • whereas = while, but
  • woodwind = musical instruments made of wood or metal that you play by blowing air into them. They usually have finger holes.