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Orchestral music is one of the most traditional forms of Western music. So, what is it? Explore the elements of the orchestra and orchestral music, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Orchestra

Music is often defined by the instruments used to play it.

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Rock n’ roll features electric guitars. Traditional African folk music is defined by the use of drums. Modern pop music is defined by auto-tuning. The instruments used to create music have a major impact on defining that genre.

This is true of rock and traditional African folk songs and pop, but also true of orchestral music.An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble, and it is one of the traditional forms of Western music. For centuries, Western ideas about music have been defined by the elements and instruments of the orchestra, and, no, the auto-tuner was not one of them.

Instruments of the Orchestra

Like I said, an orchestra is defined as being a large ensemble of instruments. So, what are these instruments? Well, the traditional orchestra contains 5 different sections of instruments, each with their own roles and functions.

First is the woodwinds. This section generally has flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoon. Next is the brass section, featuring French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas.

The percussion section is in back, with instruments often including the timpani, snare drum, triangle, xylophone, and bass drum.The strings section contains harps, violins, violas, cellos, and basses. Traditionally, this is the largest section of the orchestra, often double or even triple the size of the other sections, so this is also the section that generally carries the melody. Most of the others provide various harmonies. The fifth section is the keyboards, generally meaning a piano or organ. This section is not part of all orchestras, but it’s becoming more and more common.This is what a traditional orchestra generally looks like.

However, this has changed several times throughout history as the orchestra grew in size. A standard orchestra will only have 2-4 players for each of the brass and woodwind instruments, but many more string instruments, a practice started in the 19th century by Beethoven.Modern orchestras often include other instruments in order to create a specific sound. Saxophones and guitars are now pretty common, and sometimes modern orchestras also bring in non-Western instruments like Chinese strings or Amerindian flutes. Even electronic instruments ranging from electric violins to harps to guitars are making more of an entrance in the modern orchestra.

Important Members of the Orchestra

Your average orchestra will have between 40 and 80 players. And they all have different roles. Most notable is the first chair of each instrument group, a position called the principal.

That’s an important title. The principal is in charge of leading that instrument group, and is generally the one who performs solos. Each instrument has a principal, and so does each section.As for the string section, well, the principal of the strings is the first violin.

The first violin is also the concertmaster, the second-in-command behind the conductor. This tradition dates back to the years before orchestras actually had conductors, and the first violinist was responsible for starting the music and keeping time.Ever since the 19th century, however, orchestras have a conductor, the leader of the orchestra who directs the music. Besides maintaining the tempo, the conductor lets sections know if they’re playing too loud, or playing too soft, when to slow down or speed up, and basically is in charge of making sure that the sound is perfect. The conductor also chooses the songs to be played, sometimes changes instruments’ roles, and adjusts the scores as needed. This is a very respected position that requires intimate knowledge of every part of the music and an ability to maintain balance amongst the various sections.

Orchestral Music

That’s what orchestras look like, but what are they actually playing? The most common form of orchestral music is the symphony, an extended instrumental piece of music written specifically to be played by an orchestra. Generally, symphonies have four parts, or movements, and feature the talents of the entire range of instruments in the orchestra. When we think of classical music, this is usually what we’ve got in mind.

However, orchestras are also the traditional musical accompaniment to operas, and in recent years also frequently perform the scores for movies and even video games. So, the orchestra is still around, and still defining our ideas about good music.

Lesson Summary

The orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble and really one of the traditional forms of Western music. The traditional orchestra has five sections of instruments: the woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and keyboards. The strings section is usually the largest and generally carries the melody.In each section is a principal, the first chair instrumentalist in charge of that section.

The first violinist is the principal for all of the strings but also the concertmaster, the second-in-command of the entire orchestra. The first-in-command, of course, is the conductor, who directs the orchestra.Orchestral music is defined by these instruments and roles, and the result is a specific type of music called the symphony, an extended instrumental score written for a large ensemble. However, orchestras are often used to provide the music for other performance arts, from opera to movies to video games. The orchestra has defined our modern ideas about music.

And all without ever using an auto-tuner.

Instruments and Important Members of the Orchestra

Sections/Personnel Types/Roles
Woodwinds clarinets, oboes, flutes, bassoons
Brass trumpets, trombones, tubas, French horns
Percussion drums, tympani, triangles, xylophones
Strings violins, violas, cellos, harps, bass
Keyboards piano, organ
Conductor directs orchestra
Concertmaster second-in-command
Principal first chair of each section

Learning Outcomes

After you are done with this video, you’ll be able to:

  • Define orchestra
  • Identify the instruments that make up each section of an orchestra
  • Describe the duties of the major members of an orchestra
  • Explain what the symphony is

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