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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

Opera was the multimedia of the Baroque.

During the Baroque era (1600-1750), opera was the multimedia of its day. as it contains music, comedy, drama, dance, as well as stage sets and effects. By the 17th century, it has become the premier form of entertainment. The Instrumental ensemble that has come to be known as the “orchestra” evolved from the group of musicians that accompanied these Baroque operas. These ensembles were referred to as the “orchestra” because that is the name of the location in the theater where they sat. The name originated n Ancient Greek theater. The round area directly in front of the stage where the Greek chorus chanted was called the “orchestra” and the name of this area remained a theater tradition.

The earliest opera house orchestras consisted of strings accompanied by a keyboard (a harpsichord or organ) playing what was called a continuo. A continuo consists of a bass line that is played as written along with symbols that the keyboardist (or sometimes a lutist) which chords to play to harmonize it. This is not unlike the modern day chord charts that rock and pop players often play from. Other instruments including woodwinds, brass, and tympani were added. All four families of instruments had become part of the “orchestra.”

Composers and audiences grew fond of the full sound of these opera house instrumental ensembles. The instrumetnal interludes in which they were featured became knwon as sinfonias, from where we get the word "symphony." Eventually, composers created pieces for the expressly for the orchestra and a new genre of instrumental music came into being.

Through the works of Barquoe composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741), and George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759), the instrumentation and orchestration that we consider to be characteristic of the "orchestra" today was solidified and established. In the earliest works for orchestra, the woodwinds and brass would often simply double the string parts. Later in the Baroque, composers became more adept at orchestration and they began to understand more about the strengths, weaknesses, unique character, and range of timbres of the instruments, orchestration (and instrumentation). As time progressed, orchestration and instrument choices continued to evolve. Through this natural evolution, the orchestra itself also matured as well.

J. S. Bach, Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major BWV 1068, Air & Gavotte

The Orchestra Evolution In Later Periods

Classical (about 1750 to 1820)

As the Age of Enlightenment emerged in the West, the Baroque period began to give way to a new style. Thinkers looked to the architecture and philosophy of the Classical world, ancient Greece and Ancient Rome for inspiration. Thinking about the world was based on structure, similar to the stone walls and columns of a Greek or Roman building. In music, this meant switching from a polyphonic texture that characterized Baroque style to preferring homophonic texture that emphasized melodies accoampnied by strong harmonies. Form was valued and the forms that evolved during this period are still some of the dominant ones that art composers compose in today.

This era was the time of monumental composers and orchestrators, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and Ludwig van Beethoven. The works composed during this period of still some of the most widely performed today. For this reason Western art music, no matter the time period in which it was written, is colloquially referred to as "Classical" music.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor of , Op. 67

Romantic (about 1800 to1890)

As the 19th century began, composers continued to use the harmonies and developed during the Classical era. However, they began to focus less than structure and more on individual emotional expression. They also sought to use art to elevate the beauty of nature. The orchestra's sections became larger and new instruments were added, including the tuba and more percussion. Prominent Romantic composers include Pytor Illych Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), Edvard Grieg (1843 –1907), and Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897).

Edvard Greig, In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46

Post-Romantic (1890 to 1940)

Post-romantic composers continued to use Classical forms as well as the emotional expression of the Romantic era. They furthered deviated from the forms and expand their harmonic language to create even more personal music. Composers include Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No 9 in D major, fourth Movement

Modern (1900 to 1975)

The Modern era was a period an immense change and upheaval. Music of the modern era encompasses many influential styles, including the Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Serialism, Post-Serialism, and more. The music of this period is so varied that it would be impossible to cover all of the important styles here.

During this period, two world wars were fought and technological developments increased exponentially. Electronic instruments, such as the theremin and the ondes Martenot, were invented. Amplification, microphones, and recording forever changed the world of music. Through increased communication and recording, world music, such as the Indonesian Gamelan, the ragas of India, and African polyrhythm influenced Western composers. Popular music such as Jazz and Rock’n’Roll influenced the concert hall as well.

Significant composers include Impressionists Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), jazz-influenced George Gershwin (1898 -1937), as well as innovative Modernists Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).

Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra (Fünf Orchesterstücke), Op. 16

Contemporary (1950 to today)

Contemporary music includes style that are still in practice of living composers today. Those include minimalists such as Phillip Glass (b. 1937) and Terry Riley (b. 1935), postmodernists, postminimalists, and composers of new media and and electroacoustic works as well. Composers may choose to incorporate extra-musical sounds in their works. Listen to Tan Dun’s (b. 1957) Water Concerto, in which the composer incorporated the sounds of water into the orchestra, for an excellent example of extra musical sounds.

Tan Dun, Water Concerto

The Orchestra and the Budding Composer

Having a understand of he orchestra and its history is essential to mastering how to compose for the orchestra. What is interesting to note is that most (if not all) new composers learn the art of orchestration most naturally by evolving similarly to how the orchestra evolved, from small to big, from limited to boundless. It is easy to become overwhelmed when thinking of the size of the contemporary orchestra (about 100 players!), add in the audience, and that's a lot of ears. Starting small and working to big is my recommended approach.

I suggest that students start with a given melody and harmony that is written for strings and/or keyboard and then simply write the woodwinds and brass as doubling these parts. I recommend beginning orchestrators start by writing a solo work for the piano or for two to four instruments in the family of instruments (strings, woodwinds, brass, or percussion) that they feel most comfortable. Then arrange that solo piece for increasingly more players and for different combinations of players. For example, you may take a piano piece and arrange it for string quartet, then woodwind quintet, and then a combination of strings and woodwinds. Eventually, you will have a fully orchestrated work that makes us of the distinct timbres of the entire orchestra.

Another approach is to think of the instrument families as a group, rather than as individual sections or instruments. In this way, you are only considering four "voices" at once, rather than a dozen or more. For example, you first write a general strings part, then add a general woodwinds, brass and percussion parts. After you have this four part sketch, go back and flush out the individual sections and instruments, such as violins 1, violins 2, violas, cellos, basses, flute 1 and 2, clarinets 1 and 2, and so on and so forth. Once you’ve done this, go back again and clean up your parts and add more details or take away any unnecessary notes.

Interestingly, the process of "Classical" orchestration is a very similar to process of choosing instruments, effects, and samples that music producers, electronic musicians, and even DJs use. For now, however, I am limiting our discussion of orchestration to the so-called "Classical" music. So, let’s focus on the features of each of the instrument families used in the orchestra for now. For a little more general background and an introduction to each of the four families, see the next post, Orchestration Basics: Families of Sounds?


Further Reading

The Instruments of the Orchestra I: Families. Frederick Symphony Orchestra Musical Musings. (Accessed 5 Sept. 2020).

Kreitner, Kenneth, et al. Instrumentation and orchestration. Grove Music. Oxford Music Online. (Accessed 5 Sept. 2020).

Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice. iUniverse. 2005.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts. Her curricula has been used by teachers across the USA and around the world.


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