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Orchestra Types

September 2021 post “Soloists”

July 2021 post “Programming”

June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

Picture of Orchestra

“…. and now we will hear from Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra…”


“… heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny… with the NBC Orchestra…”

How often did we hear the word “orchestra” used for various bands and musical ensembles? Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show Band” was billed as the “NBC Orchestra”. Almost every “band” leader in the 40’s was listed with his “orchestra”.  And these were relatively small groups of musicians, many of which did not even have any strings.

And what’s the difference between a Symphony Orchestra and a Philharmonic Orchestra? (Precious little!)

As a disclaimer for this article, I will refrain here from addressing any use of the term “orchestra” other than how it is used in current day terminology, referring to some ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Even limiting it like this will leave us with many differences.

One of the most significant ways to distinguish orchestra types is by the joint classification of degree of professionalism and the size of the budget (which, as you may expect, are directly proportional). The American Symphony Orchestra League formally lists orchestras in categories from A to E, where A signifies the highest level of professionalism along with the largest budgets, down to E which signifies non-professional musicians with the smallest budgets. B orchestras are completely professional but with smaller budgets; C orchestras are typically professional with yet smaller budgets than B and more simple seasons and soloists. D orchestras often combine professional musicians (some paid with some small stipends) and some “community” members (unpaid). There certainly are orchestras that fall between these artificial labels. Yet, this system does serve well to classify differences between organizations when seeking grant monies, donor solicitations, head-hunting of musicians and soloists, and other prestigious aspects of orchestral “business” like touring and recording.

Another categorization of orchestras has to do with education. As schools have their graduated differences (elementary, jr. high, high, collegiate), so too do orchestras. Moreover, differences even occur within one such category – for instance – junior high and high school. Here in Milwaukee, we have a great symphonic program for youth called “Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra”, commonly referred to as MYSO. They boast no less than five different orchestras within their organization. (see

Sometimes orchestras are designed to be “seasonal”. Most often, they are “summer” orchestras. However, special “holiday” (Christmas) orchestras can be assembled to meet a special need in a given community. One such local example in Wisconsin’s Door County is the “Peninsula Music Festival”, in its 70th season! This orchestra meets only for the summer and has a small but robust series of symphonic concerts.

A more unusual type of orchestra is based upon politics and diverse cultures. Social activists organize groups of orchestral musicians to “represent” various global political and/or cultural diversity. These “peace” orchestras often travel to various countries to model political and cultural collaboration with the intent of inspiring such collaboration beyond the symphonic stage. Most notably, one such famed orchestra was organized and even conducted by the great Daniel Barenboim (world-renowned pianist and conductor, former music director of the Chicago Symphony!). This “West-Eastern Divan Orchestra” is comprised of Israelis and Arabs of many different countries. PLEASE SEE this great 8-minute link!

You may read more about this group in Barenboim’s own books. It is an amazing story!

Orchestras may also be differentiated by “style”. These special orchestras are typically called “period” orchestras which may specialize in “early” music (baroque, for instance) or “classicism” (as in Haydn/Mozart), or “20th century” repertoire. The “early” period orchestras are known for their in-depth musicological research into how the music of a certain era in a certain geographic region might have been played and therefore how it sounded. They will use only instruments made in that geographic region, made in that time period (this the name – period), and lastly, will play the music in the manner of that time period (“performance practices” of that era). These are talented historians and theoreticians who studiously replicate to the smallest details the performance of a symphonic work so that we can hear how it would have  sounded then. “Performance practices” include things like what kind of “temperament” (the specific scales – distances between pitches) was used at that time, and even the exact “pitch standard”. (You may know that we now use the pitch standard of A = 440 Hz. In former centuries, that pitch was significantly lower, by almost a full half-step.)

Lastly, I would like to remind everyone that, in our entertainment industry, we have need of still other orchestras. Notably, the making of movies often requires the formation of an orchestra to realize a soundtrack. Sometimes these are “pick-up” orchestras, where an orchestra manager (who has a huge list of available professional musicians) hires needed musicians for a short contract (like one week or two weeks). Other such film orchestras have more steady employment and can maintain a rather consistent ensemble. Cruise ships and other such entertainment venues (Disney…etc.) can also have their own orchestras, all designed expressly to serve a particular function in the community.

Orchestras really do come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, so to speak, yet all of these mentioned in this article, radically diverse though they be, have in common the makeup of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, AND that they ALL exist to provide you and me with the incredible privilege of hearing symphonic music played live by a symphony orchestra!!!

(opening picture is of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall of the Symphony Center in downtown Chicago)

 © Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.