Orchestra: Definition, Sections & Layout

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  • 0:01 History of the Orchestra
  • 1:37 Sections of the Orchestra
  • 3:48 Layout of the Orchestra
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the creation of the modern orchestra. You'll also learn about what instruments you're likely to find in an orchestra and how they are typically arranged.

History of the Orchestra

Whether it's coming from a TV commercial, a movie score, or your favorite cartoon, the sound of the orchestra is everywhere in our culture. That's because an orchestra's standard combination of instruments offers a wonderful variety of sounds, perfect for expressing everything from gentle, delicate emotions to statements of overwhelming power. In this lesson, we'll take a look at how the orchestra developed, what sections it contains, and how a full orchestra is laid out on a concert stage or in a recording studio.

The term orchestra refers to any performing group of many musical instruments. It's actually a Greek word that originally referred to the area directly in front of a theater stage. In fact, if you attend a live performance of a musical, you'll see an orchestra performing in exactly that spot.

The orchestra as we know it today began to develop in 1600 with the invention of opera in Italy. Just like modern musical theater, early opera was sung drama written for singers and accompanied by an ensemble of instruments placed in front of the stage. These early orchestras also performed short introductory pieces before the beginning of operas.

Orchestral music became so popular that composers began to write large pieces for orchestra alone, called symphonies. The ensembles that performed these symphonies developed a standard lineup of instruments by the middle of the nineteenth century, and that lineup has remained basically the same to the present day. That's why our modern orchestra is often called a symphony orchestra.

Sections of the Orchestra

The modern symphony orchestra contains four main sections: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. In order to help this large group of musicians play together with coordinated rhythm and expression, an orchestra is usually led by a conductor, who stands in front of the entire ensemble and directs the musicians using standardized hand gestures.

The string section is the largest in the orchestra. It is comprised of instruments that derive their musical sound from the vibration of tuned strings. The orchestra contains two large groups of violins, plus groups of the violin's larger, lower-pitched relatives: the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The harp is also a member of the string section.

The woodwind section of the orchestra consists of instruments whose sound is produced by blowing into a tube to create a vibrating column of air. This section includes instruments like the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet. Originally, all of these instruments were made of wood: that's the origin of the name woodwind.

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