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The Differences between Orchestra and Concert Band

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When you hear the word "orchestra," you probably think of names like "New York Philharmonic," "London Symphony," or maybe "Boston Pops." No problem. But when you hear "concert band," what enters your mind? For most people, most likely just a big question mark. This article strives to explain one very basic difference (out of many) between these two types of musical ensembles: Instrumentation. Let's dive in.


Sometimes it looks like such a mess when you see a large musical group sitting on stage. All sorts of wood and brass stick out, and who knows what kind of exotic drumheads they have to beat on, way in back. Here's a cheat sheet approximating traditional orchestral instrumentation:

* Strings - violins, violas, cellos, double basses, harps, and piano.
* Woodwinds - flutes, piccolo, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon.
* Brass - horns, trumpets, trombones, bass trombone, and tuba.
* Percussion - timpani (kettle drums), snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel (bells), xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, chimes, and auxiliary percussion.

(There have been many heated discussions about how to classify a piano. The strings inside make the sound, so it's a string instrument, but the hammers hitting the strings are what cause the sound in the first place, so it's also a percussion instrument. The debate rages on, but for purposes of this article, it will be with the strings.)

A full symphony or philharmonic orchestra usually contains between 80-100 musicians, strings being the largest group by far, with the violins most often playing the melody. An orchestra of less than about 40 musicians is called a chamber orchestra, but you'll almost never hear about these unless you seek them out on your own.

A concert band has the same instruments as an orchestra, except without the huge string section. The number of players is about the same, though, which means expanded brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. There is more opportunity for a wider variety of band musicians to play the melody, therefore allowing many different instrument combinations to be heard. A concert band with a smaller number of musicians is still called a concert band.

As with any ensemble, the musicianship of a chamber group is based on the quality of the players, but many are just as good as a full orchestra or wind ensemble.

Most modern concert bands do not use a harp or piano. However, these instruments are sometimes included at the discretion of the conductor, depending on how prominent their parts are. (i.e. The piano is a featured instrument in many George Gershwin pieces, and you will almost never hear an orchestra play a Gershwin tune without one. However, a band could probably get away with omitting the piano, since the main melodies will most likely have been written into the wind instrument parts.)


When kids take wind instrument lessons, they usually start on trumpet, trombone, clarinet, or flute. When they grow older, unless they decide to branch out and learn a similar or additional instrument, they continue with what they know. Therefore, many school and community band directors must be on their guard to keep these sections to a manageable number. They must also keep in mind that if they want their band to have full instrumentation, looking out for players of the more unique instruments (i.e. oboe, bassoon, tuba, French Horn, E-flat clarinet, etc.) is a necessity.

Depending on what pieces they'd like to program, band directors should also make sure they can rely on a certain number of dedicated percussionists. Just like the wind instruments, there are generally more percussion parts in a band than in an orchestra.

At the very least, a band should have one player for each of the following: timpani, mallets, drum set, and auxiliary percussion. If a drum set is not available, plan on securing two more percussionists so that three players will be on snare, bass, and cymbals, in place of the set. In this same vein, having two mallet players and two auxiliary players allows even more freedom when choosing repertoire.

Remember: Every percussion part is a solo. This means 4-8 players ideally, but if you absolutely insist on limiting the number of percussionists in your concert band,'d better hire an octopus.


Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the soundtrack - most likely you will hear an orchestra, not a band. In this way, pop culture is receiving its share of orchestral music, but with mixed results.

Movie soundtracks are being played in both orchestra and band concerts all over the world, but if asked to compare the two ensembles, the average listener would probably say that the orchestra sounded better because they played the original music from the movie. That is what their ear knows, What they are used to hearing.

Since there are very few original soundtracks featuring concert bands, transcriptions or arrangements of the original orchestral pieces must suffice. While there exist numerous high caliber bands, and many good arrangements, the average listener may still come away from a performance thinking, "It was good, but it didn't sound quite right," or possibly, "It was good, but the band doesn't play it like in the movie." (i.e. If you heard the "Indiana Jones" theme played by an oboe instead of a trumpet, you'd say something was wrong.) That's because the instrumentation of the band is different, and will produce an inherently different sound than an orchestra. Not worse, not better - just different.

More about this author: Len Morse

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