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What Is a Symphony Orchestra?

Orchestras often have a first and second section of violins.
A double bass, part of the string section of a symphony orchestra.
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  • Written By: A.M. Boyle
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 20 July 2014
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A symphony orchestra is a group of specific musical instruments that is capable of playing an arrangement of music called a symphony. The orchestra, led by a conductor, can vary in size and can have anywhere from 41 to 96 instruments included in the ensemble. Instruments used in a symphony orchestra fall into four basic categories, or families, namely strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

The concept of the orchestra is said to have originated in ancient Egypt, when musicians gathered in groups to play music together. This concept evolved into what people recognize as the modern-day symphony orchestra in the late 1500s. During that time, composers wrote and designed elaborate musical compositions to be played by a certain group of instruments. These lengthy compositions became known as symphonies and were usually divided into four parts. While not all orchestra instruments are required for each part to play the entire symphony, all the instruments of an orchestra are generally needed at some point.

Each of the four sections of a symphony orchestra consists of a variety of musical instruments. The musicians who play each of the instruments sit in a particular arrangement. While certain rules as to where each instrument should be seated apply to all symphony orchestras, the exact setup can vary slightly. A person called a conductor always stands in front of the orchestra to lead the musicians, making sure they all follow the written composition precisely.

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The string section always includes two sets of violins, called the first and second violins. They usually sit to the right of the conductor, although some setups could have the second violins seated to the left of the conductor. The string section also includes violas, cellos, and double basses. The violas usually sit front and center. The cellos are at the front also, typically to the conductor’s left, with the basses directly behind them.

A symphony orchestra also includes a woodwind section. The woodwinds consists of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Depending on the size of the orchestra, the woodwind section can also include a piccolo and an English horn. This section generally sits in the center directly behind the violas.

Another section of the orchestra, the brass, generally sits behind the woodwinds. The brass ensemble includes French horns, trumpets, trombones, and a tuba. Smaller symphony orchestras may exclude the trombones.

Every symphony orchestra needs to have a percussion section as well. This section is generally stationed behind the other instruments and can include a timpani, base drum, snare drum, and cymbals. Some orchestras will also include one or two harps. The number of each instrument included in a symphony orchestra varies depending upon the size. Of course, the more instruments the orchestra has, the more versatile they become, and the fuller and more dramatic the sound.

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