Symphony Orchestra – How the Instruments Play Together

The modern Western symphony orchestra is one of the largest musical ensembles and surely the most colorful. While a symphony orchestra varies in size, at full strength, it can have upward of one hundred musicians with over twenty different instruments. We reviewed most of these instruments in the Musical Instruments post. Do you wonder how these instruments play together in an orchestra?

What is a Symphony Orchestra?


The terms orchestra and symphony seem interchangeable, they actually mean different things. Thus let’s review the definition of these terms.

Broadly defined, an orchestra is “a group of performers on various musical instruments for playing music, as symphonies, operas, popular music, or other compositions.”

Symphony comes from Greek roots that literally mean “sounding together, the harmony of sound.” It was borrowed into English as early as the 1200s. In classical music, symphony is a type of elaborate, multipart composition such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. or Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

Therefore a symphony orchestra (often called “a symphony” or “an orchestra” for short) is a large ensemble that includes a collection of strings, woodwinds, brasses, and percussion instruments to perform symphonic compositions.

For instance, many cities have symphony orchestras –

  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • San Francisco Symphony
  • Philadelphia Orchestra
  • New York Philharmonic
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • etc.

As you can see, some symphony orchestras name themselves Philharmonic. The word philharmonic literally means “music-loving.” The term is mostly used for organizations dedicated to their love of music, e.g., philharmonic society. When a symphony orchestra is sponsored by a philharmonic society, it usually would have the name Philharmonic.

In many cases, it is to identify the different symphony orchestras in the same city. For example, Vienna has both the Vienna Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. They are the same kind of symphony orchestras but different entities. The names help to distinguish them.

What are the Divisions of Orchestral Music?

orchestra seating chart

There are four main divisions in an orchestra:

  • Strings
  • Woodwinds
  • Brasses
  • Percussion

Each division has several instruments. We also group the orchestra instruments by these divisions. Moreover, there is the fifth group, which consists of keyboard instruments. Not all symphonic performances require keyboard instruments.

The above seating plan is typical for an orchestra. In order to achieve the best balance of sound, the strings are placed toward the front and the more powerful brasses at the back.

In an orchestra violins usually outnumber all other instruments. For a hundred-musician orchestra, there are normally 30 plus violins. Since the violin produces the highest pitch in the string instrument family, it often plays the melodies. Also, check out our post about piano vs. violin.

Orchestra Conductor

Interestingly, when the orchestra originated in the 17th century, it had no orchestra conductor. The orchestra was small enough at that time to have one of the instrumentalists lead the performance. After two hundred years, around the early 19th century, the orchestra had expanded to more than 60 players, and the need for a conductor arose.

The orchestra conductor brings the music together and ensures each instrument plays its own position that is harmonious with the whole orchestra. He or she is like a musical traffic cop and makes sure that the cellos don’t overshadow the violins and the oboe yields to the clarinet at the right moment, for instance.

YouTube video


In this post, we reviewed the symphony orchestra and how the instruments play together by following the conductor’s lead. Along with the knowledge of musical instruments, you may appreciate the symphonies at a deeper level. I would encourage you to listen and distinguish different instruments and their roles and functions in the symphonic performance.

Symphonies are colorful and powerful compositions. There are many well-known symphonies you can enjoy on YouTube or other digital means, or go to a concert hall to experience the live symphony music when possible.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below!

Related: Listening to Music Series

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