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What is the Difference Between a Symphony and an Orchestra?

September 2, 2022

What is the Difference Between a Symphony and an Orchestra?

You may have heard the terms “symphony” and “orchestra” used interchangeably, but is there a distinction between the two? They both offer a range of musicians and instruments, and on the surface, seem very similar. In this post, we’ll explore the symphony vs. orchestra debate in more detail.

What is an orchestra?

An orchestra is a large musical ensemble typically containing string, woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. The term “orchestra” can be used to refer to several different ensembles, including the full orchestra (the largest), the chamber orchestra (a smaller version), the pit orchestra (a subset of the full orchestra that provides live music for a play or opera), or a concert band (a large wind ensemble).

The word “orchestra” comes from the same Greek word meaning “a place where contests take place.” The word was first used to describe a musical group in the late 17th century.

What is a symphony?

A symphony is an orchestra’s large-scale musical composition, usually requiring 50-80 instruments. Symphonies refer to the music, not the musicians performing it, and similar to stage plays, they may have several movements or acts of, often complex, elaborate classical music.

What is a symphony orchestra?

A symphony orchestra is the largest type of orchestra and is composed of strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. 

One of the defining characteristics of a symphony orchestra is how the different sections of the orchestra are divided. The most common way to divide an orchestra is by instrument families, with the strings being one section, the woodwinds being another, and the brass and percussion being a third. This division allows the conductor to balance the orchestra’s sound better and create a more cohesive overall sound.

While traditional symphony orchestras typically perform pieces by classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, many orchestras have turned to popular music options as well. From pop to rock, to jazz, soundtracks, even march music, we play it all. They are also the most common type of orchestra in concert halls.

Is a philharmonic the same thing?

Essentially, a philharmonic and a symphony are the same, the only true difference is the origin of the name. The words originate from the Greek words. Philharmonic means “love of harmony,” while the word symphony means “an agreement of sound.”

A philharmonic led by a conductor consists of anywhere from 80 to 100 musicians and is comprised of four sections; brass, woodwinds, percussion and strings. 

The history of the philharmonic orchestra dates back to the 18th century, when the first such orchestra was founded in London. Since then, philharmonic orchestras have been established in many other cities worldwide. These orchestras typically have a “core” of professional musicians, who are supplemented by “freelance” or “casual” players as needed.

Both orchestras enjoy performing a wide variety of music, and include a huge selection of instruments. While many orchestras perform themes, such as holidays, a specific composer, or even just a mood, they all agree that music touches the soul no matter if you are playing or listening. 

Experience a Live Symphony Orchestra like never before!

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to experience a live symphony orchestra like never before.

The Colorado Symphony is one of the leading orchestras in the country, and we’re proud to offer a variety of concerts and programming that is sure to please everyone. We have something for everyone as we play a wide variety of genres and musical themes. Review our upcoming live events in Denver and reserve your tickets today.