A Beginner's Guide

Interested in learning more about orchestral music?  Below is some basic information to get you started.

What is an orchestra?

An orchestra is a type of musical ensemble that mixes different families of instruments in order to play complex musical pieces. There are several different types of orchestras.  

Philharmonic and symphony orchestras are typically made up of around 70-120 musicians.  Instruments used fall into several different categories such as strings, brass, precussion and woodwinds.  Other types of instruments such as harps and pianos, or even electronic instruments may also be included depending on tbe piece being played.

For a description of different instrument categories click here

A chamber orchestra, named so due to being historically hosted in palace chambers, generally uses the same types of instruments as larger orchestras, but are smaller in size than symphony orchestras.  Unlike in symphony orchestras where several performers will play the same part, chamber orchestra performers always have their own unique part to play.


What kind of music does an orchestra play?

When one hears the word orchestra it usually conjures the sounds of western classical music.  While a majority of orchestral music tends to fall into this category it is not uncommon for orchestras to also play symphonic versions of music from popular culture, often referred to as orchestral pops.


What is the structure of a symphonic orchestra?

The majority of the performers are section members.  Sections consist of multiple instruments of the same group, and each section member generally plays the same part. Each section has its own section head, known as the principal.  Violins are unique in that they are divided into two different sections, first and second.  The principal of the first section is also known as the concertmaster, and is considered the leader of the strings section, as well as the entire orchestra, subordinate only to the conductor.

 Orchestra Map001

I saw my first concert and loved it! Where can I learn more?

Fantastic! Below are a few links that you should find interesting.

  1. Khan Academy:  This site offers some examples of different orchestral instruments.
  2. Spinditty: The article on this site contains an overview of orchestral history.
  3. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: You can find a glossary of musical and orchestral terms here.
  4. Wikipedia: A complete list of orchestras in the United States can be found here.