What Is a Modern Orchestra?

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  • Written By: Angela Farrer
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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A modern orchestra is an instrumental ensemble that is usually larger and more diverse than most of its predecessors. It typically consists of the four main instrument sections plus additional specialty musicians according to the needs of the repertoire. The instruments in the woodwind and string sections are largely the same as those in orchestras of the Romantic era during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few instrument changes occur in the brass section, and the most noticeable differences of the modern orchestra are generally in the percussion section.

The typical string section of a modern orchestra consists of violins, violas, cellos, and string basses in similar numbers to Romantic era orchestras. Some contemporary orchestras have a slightly fewer second chair violins, but the rest of the string sub-sections are largely unchanged. Unlike many 19th-century string sections, most modern orchestras employ only one harp player rather than two.

Woodwind sections in a modern orchestra usually consist of clarinets in the A or B-flat major keys, a change from the E-flat clarinets of the late Romantic orchestras. Two musicians each typically play flutes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons in a modern orchestra, as opposed to three each in orchestras of earlier centuries. One contrabassoon, one English horn, and one piccolo usually complete the rest of the woodwind section.


The brass instruments of this large music ensemble sometimes have less variety than in past orchestras. Standard trumpet keys are normally C keys, a slight departure from those of the past that appeared in C, F, of B-flat. A modern orchestra can also have a slightly fewer horns and trombones.

Percussion musicians often have a wider range of instruments in a modern orchestra. This section can consist of up to 14 or 15 diverse drum types, such as the timpani, snare drum, and bass drum. Other instruments, such as the marimba, glockenspiel, and xylophone are also frequently included to give each music performance a unique and rich sound. Depending on the requirements of the pieces performed, percussion musicians may add sound flourishes from tambourines, chimes, and triangles as well.

Due to its size and complexity, modern orchestras are usually classified as symphony rather than chamber orchestras. The overall structure of this ensemble is considered heavily influenced by the demands of composers. As pieces of music grow in sound complexity, the modern orchestra continues to develop in both instrument variety and musician talent level to meet these artistic needs.


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Post 7

Every year our church choir performs an Easter musical concert. This is always accompanied by our church orchestra. Both of these groups are made up of quite talented musicians and they have even made a couple of CD's.

I never thought much about the difference in types of orchestras. This would be considered a modern orchestra because they have a percussion section included.

I enjoy listening to all of the instruments, but I really like to hear the strings play. There is a lady in the orchestra who plays the harp and I never get tired of hearing her play.

She had a few featured solo parts that sounded just beautiful. I am always uplifted by the rich sounds of the orchestra and look forward to their numbers more than anything else.

Post 6

I haven't been to a lot of orchestra concerts, but I am most fascinated with those that have a good percussion section.

It seems like the last two orchestra concerts I attended used many more percussion instruments than previous concerts I went to.

I don't know if these were considered modern orchestras or not, but I know that I sure enjoyed the diversity that the percussion brings.

The last concert I went to used several different drums, a triangle, and free standing cymbals. Their sounds were not overly powerful but blended in perfectly with the rest of the music.

Post 5

My sister plays the piccolo in an orchestra that performs at events around town. I remember when she brought it home for the first time. I did not think that something so tiny could even be heard in a massive orchestra.

She played it for me, and it was indeed capable of being very shrill. However, it also could emit very soft, soothing notes.

I went to see her perform live with the orchestra, and the piccolo players had several brief parts all to themselves while the rest of the musicians paused. The soft notes they played during these solos were so beautiful. They were like subliminal suggestions rather than shouts.

When the rest of the orchestra chimed back in, I could hear the piccolo now and then, chiming its shrill voice. It’s like the hummingbird of the orchestra - a colorful, little fluttering thing amongst the big, soaring flock.

Post 4

I took my young cousin to the fourth of July fireworks in the park this year, and during the display, a modern orchestra played various patriotic songs. She was equally interested in the fireworks and the music, and she tried to watch both.

She was especially fascinated with the xylophone. During certain parts of a song, every other instrument would fall back while the xylophone played a short solo. It had a beautiful ringing sound that reminded her of raindrops falling.

I can see why orchestras are hired to play background music to showy displays. It really made me feel something inside. Fireworks alone are impressive, but the music of the orchestra tells you what to feel and makes sure that you experience that emotion.

Post 3

Aside from there being more percussions, I think another major difference between Romantic era orchestra and a modern orchestra is the type of music that is made. When I think of a Romantic era orchestra, I almost solely think of classical music. But a modern orchestra can play many different types of music from classical to jazz and even rock music, although that might fall into the category of a rock orchestra.

I think the type of music is more important because the changes in instruments that are being used is because the orchestra began to play different kind of music, not the other way around.

Post 2

@turkay1-- I'm not entirely sure, but I think that in any case, the setup is decided on by the conductor of the orchestra. I don't think there is an all encompassing rule for it.

I'm guessing that since at least one piece of most modern orchestra instruments existed in the classical orchestra before, the line just got bigger and longer. Sometimes, to fit in extra instruments, the violins are placed on opposite sides and the remaining instruments in a line in the middle. At the end of the day though, the conductor is going to decide because the number and variety of instruments from concert to concert will change.

Post 1

With these changes in instruments in modern orchestras, have the setup and order of the instruments also changed?

I know that in classical orchestras, the instruments are always lined up with the violins coming first, string bases second, woodwind third and brass fourth.

With the addition of more percussion instruments in the modern orchestra, how has the order changed? Do the percussion instruments come last now or are they placed elsewhere?

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