What Is a Wind Orchestra?

John Markley

A wind orchestra, also commonly known by other terms such as a wind band, wind symphony, or wind ensemble, is a type of performing musical ensemble with instruments usually limited to the woodwind, brass, and percussion families. Instruments outside of these categories, such as keyboard instruments or stringed instruments, are also sometimes used, though they are much less common. Wind orchestras commonly play both compositions created with the wind orchestra in mind and versions of classical music or popular songs arranged for the wind orchestra's instrumentation.

Wind orchestras usually prominently feature woodwind instruments, such as flutes.
Wind orchestras usually prominently feature woodwind instruments, such as flutes.

Wind orchestras usually prominently feature woodwind instruments, such as flutes, clarinets, and oboes, along with brass instruments such as trumpets, trombones, and tubas. The orchestra can have a large percussion section using a variety of different drums, cymbals, and pitched percussion instruments, such as the xylophone. The precise size and instruments of a wind orchestra can vary considerably, and so in many cases one instrument may substitute for another that is called for in the original composition but is not part of the orchestra.

The origins of the wind orchestra lie largely in military music. The use of drums and horns to quickly send signals, inspire soldiers in battle, or keep them moving at an even pace while on the march is an ancient practice that goes back thousands of years. European martial music evolved over the centuries from a combination of Europe's native traditions and the influence of cultures with whom European powers were frequently in conflict, especially the Ottoman Empire. By the 1700s, many military bands had started performing for kings and noblemen in addition to their more practical functions and became increasingly popular at ceremonial occasions.

In 1952, the American conductor Frederick Fennell founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and began popularizing the idea of wind ensembles as a form of civilian music, playing compositions intended specifically for wind orchestra performances instead of military marches or arrangements of music originally composed for a full symphony. From the middle of the 20th century onward, the amount of music written specifically for the wind orchestra has grown enormously, though professional wind ensembles are still much less common than symphony orchestras. The most prominent wind orchestras today are the Dallas Wind Symphony in Texas and the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra in Japan.

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