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Orchestra vs Symphony: What’s the Difference?

It’s a Symphony! It’s an Orchestra! It’s a Symphony Orchestra!

To start off, the word “symphony” is of Greek origins and translates literally to “harmony of sound”. A symphony, as known today, is an intricate musical composition intended to be played by an orchestra.

This brings us to the definition of an orchestra: a group of musicians who play on different musical instruments to deliver a single elaborate musical piece such as an opera or, you guessed it, a symphony!

What Exactly is a Symphony Orchestra and What Makes it Unique?

Quite simply, it is a special type of orchestra whose sole purpose is to play classical symphonies.

Contrary to other types of orchestras which are usually smaller in size, the number of musical instruments can amount to more than 100 in a single symphony orchestra! All of these diverse instruments combine in tunes and merge into a masterpiece we call a symphony.

The leading instrument in a symphony orchestra is usually the oboe.

The rest of the orchestra is composed of string instruments (cello, bass, violin, viola, harp, etc.), wind instruments (saxophone, clarinet, flute, etc.), brass instruments (trumpet, trombone, tuba, etc.), and percussion instruments (snare drums, bass drums, tambourine, cymbals, triangle, maracas, etc.).

An interesting note is that the piano is considered both a percussion and string instrument.

Music instruments

The exact distribution of musical instruments in a symphony orchestra is roughly the following.

  • 16-18 first violins, 16 second violins
  • 12 violas and 12 cellos
  • 8 double basses
  • 5-8 horns
  • 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones
  • 3-4 percussions
  • 1-2 harps
  • 1 tuba, 1 kettledrum, 1 keyboard

Who is the Conductor and What is His Role in an Orchestra?

The man behind the tempo control and harmony we hear in a symphony orchestra’s performance is the conductor. He uses hand signals and a baton (a stick used to enhance his mobility and precision).

It is difficult to memorize the times at which the tempo should pick up or slow down, or at which each instrument makes its entry into the piece. The conductor’s purpose is specifically that: to guide the musicians for a finer musical quality.

What Are the Types of Orchestras?

While it is easy to mistakenly categorize orchestras into three different types – chamber, philharmonic, and symphony – the last two are actually the same. Interestingly, all of these words have foreign origins.

The word chamber comes from the word “chambre” in French, meaning “room”. Spoiler Alert: This tells us something about the size of chamber orchestras … Just as the word “philosophy” can be broken down into “love of wisdom”, the word “philharmonic” can be broken down into “love of music”.

If you are still reading this, you yourself are a philharmonic person – a music lover! A philharmonic orchestra is just another name for a symphony orchestra; however, it differs from a chamber orchestra in several ways.

Chamber Orchestra Symphony Orchestra
Area of Performance Smaller Stages Larger Halls
Number of Musicians Less than 50 More than 80
Conductor/Maestro Often not present Necessarily present
Music Quality Cleaner, more intimate, more fine-tuned Louder, more expressive, more diverse

What Are the Best and Most Famous Orchestras in the World?

According to BBC Music Magazine, some of the world’s best orchestras are

  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • Berlin Philharmonic
  • Budapest Festival Orchestra
  • Hallé (Manchester)

Among the most famous are

  • Vienna Philharmonic
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

and many, many more …

Who Are the Most Famous Composers of All Time and What Are They Best Known For?

From the 1700s, masses of people have paid a combined value of millions of dollars to gather in some of the world’s largest halls and auditoriums to listen to orchestras play their favorite symphonies.

Most of the time, symphonies are numbered to indicate the order by which the composer produced them. Some composers have produced pieces so marvelous that they have shaped our understanding of quality symphonies today and have influenced our tastes in music.

Ranked according to BBC Music Magazine, the best composers of all time along with their most well-known compositions are

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach (German) – Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Mass in B Minor, Cello Suites
  2. Igor Stravinsky (Russian) – The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, Petrushka
  3. Ludwig Van Beethoven (German) – Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Moonlight Sonata No.14, Eroica Symphony No.3
  4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austrian) – Exsultate Jubilate, Horn Concerto No.4, The Marriage of Figaro
  5. Claude Debussy (French) – Clair de Lune, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Unsurprisingly, and yet unfortunately, these great composers date back to the late 1600’s, 1700’s, 1800’s, and early 1900’s. This is a major indication of the decreasing interest and financial investment in classical music and groundbreaking symphonies.

We also notice that all of these composers are European, indicating the immense importance of art and interest in it in the European culture.

To Wrap it All Up

Symphonies and orchestras are two very different things, each of which would not exist without the other. However, people often confuse them due to the type of orchestra called “Symphony Orchestra”.

While today’s world is not very much invested in producing such musical compositions, very few would pass on watching a large orchestral performance and listening to the previously composed works of art by hundreds of composers around the globe.

Some modern musicians have even modernized orchestras to deliver beautiful modern pieces in a symphonic manner.

James Smith

James is a passionate explorer and the creative mind behind, a platform dedicated to unraveling captivating distinctions. With an insatiable curiosity, he uncovers hidden nuances in various aspects of life, from cultural traditions to scientific phenomena. James believes that appreciating differences fosters personal growth and societal empathy.