In this lesson, you’ll learn about the creation of the modern orchestra. You’ll also learn about what instruments you’re likely to find in an orchestra and how they are typically arranged.

History of the Orchestra

Whether it’s coming from a TV commercial, a movie score, or your favorite cartoon, the sound of the orchestra is everywhere in our culture. That’s because an orchestra’s standard combination of instruments offers a wonderful variety of sounds, perfect for expressing everything from gentle, delicate emotions to statements of overwhelming power. In this lesson, we’ll take a look at how the orchestra developed, what sections it contains, and how a full orchestra is laid out on a concert stage or in a recording studio.

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The term orchestra refers to any performing group of many musical instruments. It’s actually a Greek word that originally referred to the area directly in front of a theater stage. In fact, if you attend a live performance of a musical, you’ll see an orchestra performing in exactly that spot.

The orchestra as we know it today began to develop in 1600 with the invention of opera in Italy. Just like modern musical theater, early opera was sung drama written for singers and accompanied by an ensemble of instruments placed in front of the stage. These early orchestras also performed short introductory pieces before the beginning of operas.

Orchestral music became so popular that composers began to write large pieces for orchestra alone, called symphonies. The ensembles that performed these symphonies developed a standard lineup of instruments by the middle of the nineteenth century, and that lineup has remained basically the same to the present day. That’s why our modern orchestra is often called a symphony orchestra.

Sections of the Orchestra

The modern symphony orchestra contains four main sections: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. In order to help this large group of musicians play together with coordinated rhythm and expression, an orchestra is usually led by a conductor, who stands in front of the entire ensemble and directs the musicians using standardized hand gestures.

The string section is the largest in the orchestra. It is comprised of instruments that derive their musical sound from the vibration of tuned strings. The orchestra contains two large groups of violins, plus groups of the violin’s larger, lower-pitched relatives: the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The harp is also a member of the string section.

The woodwind section of the orchestra consists of instruments whose sound is produced by blowing into a tube to create a vibrating column of air. This section includes instruments like the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet. Originally, all of these instruments were made of wood: that’s the origin of the name woodwind.

Like the woodwind section, the brass section of the orchestra also consists of breath-powered instruments. However, brass instruments have a brighter, more brilliant sound than woodwinds because they are made of metal, usually (you guessed it) brass. The trumpet, the trombone, the French horn and the tuba are all examples of orchestral brass instruments.

The percussion section of the orchestra contains a wide variety of instruments whose sound is derived from striking something, like a drumstick hitting a snare drum or two cymbals crashing together. The percussion section includes instruments like the timpani, a set of four tuned drums, and the triangle, a metal instrument that produces a brilliant, ringing sound when struck with a metal rod.

The piano is sometimes considered a member of the percussion section because its sound comes from hammers striking tuned strings. Occasionally, instruments like the piano and the pipe organ are classified as part of a fifth orchestral section: keyboard instruments.

Layout of the Orchestra

Orchestras always arrange groups of the same instrument together in order to help musicians create a blended tone. Beyond that, every individual orchestra has the freedom to choose whatever layout works best for its performers and its acoustical space. Most orchestras use similar performance layouts for the simple reason that some instruments are louder than others, and it usually works best to place quieter instruments closer to the front of the stage and louder instruments closer to the back.

A typical Symphony Orchestra layout
Symphony Orchestra Layout Chart

This chart depicts a typical symphony orchestra layout. The strings have been labeled in red, the woodwinds in yellow, the brass in green, and the percussion section in purple.

Lesson Summary

An orchestra is a performing group of many musical instruments. The modern symphony orchestra is led by a conductor, and consists of string, woodwind, brass and percussion sections. The strings section contains instruments like the violin and cello. The woodwinds section contains instruments like the flute and clarinet, which used to be made of wood. The brass section contains instruments that are generally made of brass or other metals, like the trumpet and tuba. The percussion section contains instruments that are struck, like drums and the triangle.