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What Is a Classical Orchestra?

Orchestras often rely heavily on stringed instruments, such as the violin.
A string bass, part of the string section of a classical orchestra.
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  • Written By: Angela Farrer
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2014
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A classical orchestra is a specific type of instrumental ensemble arranged into sections by the types of instruments played. A certain number of musicians make up the percussion, brass, woodwind, and string sections. These groups also have certain assigned parts in each musical performance as far as providing melodies, harmonies, and various rhythms. The first versions of the basic classical orchestra preceded the larger orchestras of the Romantic era during the nineteenth century. More musicians with a wider variety of instruments later joined each section to accommodate the artistic needs of different composers.

Early incarnations of the classical orchestra consisted of a smaller number of musicians, usually 50 at the very maximum. This type of ensemble is still frequently called a chamber orchestra in order to distinguish it from larger symphony orchestras that can sometimes include more than twice that number of players. A true classical orchestra typically has a narrower range of sound particularly in the brass and percussion sections. Much of the musical focus is on the string and woodwind sections.

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The brass section of a classical orchestra often has as many as six musicians, typically two trumpets and four French horns. The keys of each brass instrument can also differ according to the pieces of music to be played. The percussion section of the same ensemble often consists of a timpanist to supply the supporting rhythm sections. Much of the difference between a classical and a large symphony orchestra lies in the numbers of musicians in each of these two sections.

Musical performances of a classical orchestra often rely heavily on the melodies that the stringed instrument players provide. Up to 12 violins are usually in the string section, and they are further divided into first and second violin sections. The first section violins usually play the most intricate and demanding melodies, while the second chair players provide a combination of harmonies and simpler melodies. Smaller groups of violas, cellos, and string basses complete the string section with backing harmony and rhythm parts.

Woodwind sections of classical orchestras are generally made up of eight musicians playing four instruments: oboes, flutes, bassoons, and clarinets. Particularly the flutes and clarinets can share parts of the melodies with the violin section, depending on the demands of the chosen musical compositions. The bassoons and oboes provide further harmony to both the woodwind section and the orchestra as a whole.

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Discuss this Article

stl156
Post 4

@titans62 - There is really no difference between a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic besides the name. I am not sure what the origin of the word is. It is important to know the words for the sake of distinguishing orchestras, though. In London, for instance, they have the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The only major orchestra I have had the opportunity to see was the Boston Pops, but it was well worth it. I would say they are one of the most highly regarded orchestras in the United States if not the world. I love the fact that they play a lot of popular music, as well.

I would love a chance to see some of the other famous orchestras, though, like the New York Philharmonic. What would everyone else say are some of the best orchestras in the world? I might want to keep an eye out for them if they are every in the US around my area.

titans62
Post 3

Any time I have seen an orchestra perform, there is always a piano, too. Is that a part of the normal orchestra, or is the piano just an instrument that is often featured in different pieces?

Any time I have been to an orchestra concert, it seems like there are a lot more people than mentioned in the article. Maybe it just looks like there are a lot of people when they are up on the stage.

One question I have always had is, what is a philharmonic orchestra? Whenever I listen to classical music on the radio, I always hear a lot about philharmonics, but I have never really known what they are.

cardsfan27
Post 2

I have always been more drawn to modern orchestral music. I love composers like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. I think their type of ensemble is more often called a wind symphony, though, since they have all of the normal orchestral instruments covered as well as including more of the wind instruments and more percussion.

I figure I am probably a little bit partial, though, since I always played the saxophone all the way through grade school and into college. I never really got a lot of chances to be a part of any orchestras, just mainly concert bands. On the other hand, though, I always got to play jazz, which string players didn't get to play (except for the string bass).

matthewc23
Post 1

I have heard of chamber orchestras before, but wasn't really sure what the difference was. I'm glad the article pointed out that difference.

I really love listening to classical music. It is so relaxing. I always listen to it while I am laying in bed at night and a lot of times when I am doing housework and things like that. It is kind of cliche, but I think my favorite composer would have to be Beethoven. I guess he is considered one of the best for a reason, though.

I live in a small town, and I always wish there were more opportunities to see orchestras perform. The nearest one we have is about an hour and a half away at a university. They are really good, though, and put on a few performances each semester, so it is definitely worth driving to see them.

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