top of page

Orchestration Basics 1 – What is the Orchestra?

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Meet the Orchestra

Orchestra in hall with audience and conductor
Manuel Nägeli, Unsplash

What sounds do you hear or sights do you see in your mind when you think of the "orchestra?" Perhaps, you hear certain piece of music, such as the Bum-Bum-Bum-Dum, of Beethoven's iconic Fifth Symphony or the rich sound of strings, woodwinds, and brass over the bed of booming tympani. Or, you may imagine a group of people wearing tuxedos and gowns sitting on a stage in a magnificent concert hall. Or, do you remember that time you saw a young student awkwardly carrying the double bass that is larger than she was down a school corridor? All of these sounds and sights are pieces of the orchestra, but the orchestra is a larger concept than any of these, it's the legacy of more than 40,000 years of music history. From the earliest music makers using their voices, animal skin drums, and bone flutes to today's world full of electronically created sounds, the artistic and intentional blending of timbres have been used to create a larger impact that one timbre alone can create.

Timbre is the particular quality of a given a sound. In music, this refers to the particular sound of a distinct singing voice or musical instrument.

According to the academic standard, Grove Music, an orchestra is "any large grouping of instrumentalists," and orchestration (sometimes referred to as instrumentation) is "The art of combining the sounds of a complex of instruments (an orchestra or other ensemble) to form a satisfactory blend and balance." The Western (or "Classical") orchestra is made up of four families of instruments; they are strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. For the most part, when musicians think of orchestration, they are specifically speaking of instrumentation for the orchestra.

In this series on orchestration and instrumentation, Orchestration Basics, we will learn a bit about these four main families in the Western orchestra, as well as incorporating other sounds into music to create the our desired soundscape. A soundscape is the total and intentional sound experience a composer wishes to create. We will also discuss how composers and orchestrators might consider the roles of the conductor, the concert hall, and audience.

Composer Pauline Oliveros described a soundscape as "All of the waveforms faithfully transmitted to our audio cortex by the ear and its mechanisms."

Even if you are.a budding musician, you are probably familiar with the the afore-mentioned four families of the orchestra. In Western music, you will sometimes see Electronic instruments and other sounds as a fifth family. Most non-Western instruments are close relatives of instruments found in the four main families. The Chinese Erhu is is similar to the Western violin and can be considered part of the strings. The popular Indian drum, the Tabla, is a percussion instrument. (See my on-going the Musical Bridge Blog Series for information on selected world instruments.)

In this post, we will learn a little orchestra history and discuss some ways for composers to approach their first orchestral compositions. We will talk about each of the four families in the next post and focus on them more closely in following posts. Now that we've defined the orchestra and orchestration, Let's discover where the Western orchestra began.

Eine Kleine Orchestral History