The Online Library of Knowledge

Music and dance


Orchestra of the Opera by Edgar Degas (1869)Orchestra of the Opera by Edgar Degas (1869)An orchestra is a large group of musicians playing instruments usually from different families, such as strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. A classical symphony orchestra consists of bowed string instruments (violin, viola, cello and double bass), as well as brass (horn, trumpet, trombone and tuba), woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon), and percussion instruments (including timpani or kettledrums). Other instruments, such as the harp or celesta, may sometimes be included. The term "orchestra" comes from the ancient Greek word for the area in front of the stage in the theatre reserved for the chorus. A full-size orchestra may consist of over 100 musicians, depending on the piece being played. The term chamber orchestra refers to smaller-sized ensembles (groups) of about 50 players or fewer.

Orchestral players demonstrate their instruments

A Renaissance consortA Renaissance consort


The nobility of Renaissance Europe hired groups of musicians, called consorts, to provide music for dancing. They played instruments like the cornett, sackbut, shawm (an early oboe) and curtal (an early bassoon). But the music they played was not written for any specific instrument, so consorts could not be considered to be true orchestras.

In early Baroque orchestras, a music director marked out time using a roll of white paper that was easy for the players to see. Lully indicated the beat for his musicians at the court of Louis XIV by pounding the floor with a long poleā€”on one occasion striking his foot, which quickly developed an infection from which he died.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile