Musical Instuments: Ensambles: Orchestra

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble that contains sections of string, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. The term orchestra derives from the Greek ὀρχήστρα, the name for the area in front of an ancient Greek stage reserved for the Greek chorus.[1] The orchestra grew by accretion throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century. A smaller-sized orchestra for this time period (of about fifty musicians or fewer) is called a chamber orchestra. A full-size orchestra (about 100 musicians) may sometimes be called a “symphony orchestra” or “philharmonic orchestra“; these modifiers do not necessarily indicate any strict difference in either the instrumental constitution or role of the orchestra, but can be useful to distinguish different ensembles based in the same city (for instance, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra). A symphony orchestra will usually have over eighty musicians on its roster, in some cases over a hundred, but the actual number of musicians employed in a particular performance may vary according to the work being played and the size of the venue. A leading chamber orchestra might employ as many as fifty musicians; some are much smaller than that. Orchestras can also be found in schools. The term concert orchestra may sometimes be used (e.g., BBC Concert Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra)—no distinction is made on size of orchestra by use of this term, although their use is generally distinguished as for live concert. As such they are commonly chamber orchestras.

Sections of an Orchestra

A modern orchestra consists of four sections or families of instruments. The string section is the most important part of a symphony orchestra. It has more than half of the musicians and consists of violins, violas , cellos and string basses . The violinists play high sounds and are divided into two groups. The first violins and the second violins usually play different parts. The leading first violinist is the concertmaster of the orchestra. He helps the other musicians tune their instruments and serves as the assistant . Cellos and string basses play low sounds .

The woodwind section consists of flutes, bassoons , oboes and clarinets. An orchestra can have between two and four of each of these instruments. Sometimes these musicians change instruments , for example, a flutist may switch to a piccolo . These two instruments have high piercing tones , whereas the bassoon may have the lowest tones of the whole orchestra.

The brass section has several trumpets, French horns, trombones and one tuba . These instruments are especially important in the loud, exciting parts of the music. Trumpets and horns play the higher parts, trombones and tubas dominate the lower parts. This section is located mostly at the centre and back of the orchestra.

The percussion section has all sorts of instruments, especially those that you can hit, rattle or shake . The drums are the best known among these instruments. In a symphony orchestra, kettledrums or timpani make the music more exciting . Other percussion instruments include bells, cymbals , gongs, tambourines or xylophones.

Other instruments like the harp , piano or saxophone may be added to the orchestra if they are needed.



The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, is a musical composition by Benjamin Britten in 1946 with a subtitle “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell“. It was originally commissioned for an educational documentary film called Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. The work is one of the best-known pieces by the composer, and is one of the three popularly-used scores in children’s music education, together with Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

This work, in the composer’s own words, “is affectionately inscribed to the children, for their edification and entertainment”

Kölner Philharmonie – WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln Benjamin Britten: The young people’s guide to the orchestra conducted by: Jukka Pekka Saraste (Chefdirigent)

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