Orchestra, Symphony & Philharmonic: Differences & Meanings

Pro Music Vault Home Comparisons Orchestra, Symphony & Philharmonic: Differences & Meanings

In this article, you are going to learn the differences between orchestras, symphonies, and philharmonics.

In short, an orchestra is made up of two components, one of which is the symphony/philharmonic.

How an orchestra, symphony, and philharmonic differ is described as follows.

Table of Contents

What Is An Orchestra?

An orchestra is defined as a musical ensemble playing classical music either for a large group in a concert hall or auditorium, or a smaller room or chamber.

When combined with music written to be played by an orchestra (a symphony) the result is a symphony orchestra.

A chamber orchestra is a smaller group of musicians typically numbering around 50, who meet together and play classical music for a smaller audience.

What Is A Symphony?

The word “symphony” means a musical composition.

When you add an orchestra to a symphony, becoming a symphony orchestra means that the piece was written for an orchestra of musicians who had all the right instruments for the piece to be performed as written.

In other words, a symphony is a type of orchestra that means the full group of an orchestra.

Another description for the symphony is a large orchestra playing classical music, usually for an audience and led by a conductor.

What Is A Philharmonic?

A philharmonic is a type of orchestra – the word means “appreciation of music.”

The words philharmonic and symphony are often used interchangeably to describe an orchestra. When one mentions a symphony orchestra it usually denotes a philharmonic orchestra as well.

A philharmonic orchestra also plays instrumental music – usually classical music.

Types Of Orchestras

There are different types of orchestras, although their meanings have changed considerably in modern times.

There is only one type of symphony, even though the word “symphony” tends to have different meanings depending on the context.

Philharmonic is one type of orchestra. Used alone, the word “orchestra” means a musical ensemble. In other words, an orchestra is a group of musicians.

The types of orchestra are: chamber orchestra, symphony orchestra, and philharmonic orchestra.

Chamber Orchestra

A chamber orchestra performs in front of a smaller audience, in a smaller room, with a smaller number of musicians.

Like a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra has 4 sections: brass, woodwind, percussion, and strings. A piano is sometimes included.

The number of chamber musicians is often between 12 and 40, and there are usually 50 to 60 instruments.

The chamber orchestra differs from the symphony orchestra in that there are fewer musicians. Unlike the symphony orchestra, each musician plays a different part of the composition, even though there may be several of the same instruments present.

Another key difference in a chamber orchestra is that there is no conductor to lead the orchestra.

Leadership is typically formed via a type of musician hierarchy. The musicians in a chamber orchestra tend to work together more, which may cause more of a dependence on each other in the group.

The smaller group has a greater intimacy, but with the stronger personalities of some of the musicians coming into conflict with one another, turnover can be high.

Some of the pieces the musicians in a chamber orchestra play are written specifically for smaller groups of musicians.

Because they are not played in large orchestras, these pieces may be lesser-known, even though they are often written by some of the leading classical music composers like Bach, Brahms, and Dvorak.

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Chamber orchestras were formed in the 17th century by Europe’s royalty and upper class, who employed musicians to entertain guests in a “chamber,” which was typically a small room in the estate.

The term chamber led to “chamber music,” which ultimately came to mean music played by a small group of musicians for a small audience.

The French also introduced chamber orchestras by using “chansons,” which were comprised of 4 singers and 1 lute.

That later evolved into a group of stringed instruments performed with or without a voice. Finally, by the 18th century, Joseph Hadyn began writing music for these string quartets, and the chamber orchestra was born.

Later, composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert joined Haydn in composing music for groups of string instruments, but accompanied the string instruments with a piano as well.

Symphony Orchestra

The word “orchestra” is a Latin word for “area in front of a stage.” The word “symphony” means “sounding together” or an “agreement of sounds.”

Symphony is a term for big ensembles, with more variety in the instrumentation; not just strings, winds, brass, and percussion.

A symphony orchestra also performs musical compositions that are not symphonies. One example is jazz compositions.

The term “consonance” means blended sounds that sound good together.

Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque Periods, the symphony would come to describe all different styles of music, including some instrumental music that was part of a larger dramatic work.

One of the more well-known composers of the symphonies was Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote 106 symphonies in under 40 years.

Most of the compositions Haydn wrote were for smaller ensembles or the chamber orchestra.

Symphonies are comprised of 100 musicians or more, with about 100 instruments. One of the determining factors in recognizing a symphony is a doubling up on a part of the music played to increase the volume.

In general, the emphasis of the symphony orchestra is primarily on the sound and the actual music-making.

As the organization of the symphony solidified in the mid 18th century, organizers of the symphony started charging a fixed price for the privilege of attending a concert.

Those in attendance paid a price for a seat in the concert hall where the symphony orchestra was playing, and from those funds the musicians were paid for their work.

This type of fixed seating payment model has continued into today, with most symphonies charging a set price for a seat in the music hall where the symphony is performed.

Philharmonic Orchestras

The definition of a philharmonic orchestra can best be described as a symphony orchestra.

The terms are used interchangeably when talking about large-scale classical music venues.

However, there are some differences in philharmonic that are worth noting.

The term “philharmonic” came into prominence in the early 19th century, meaning “loving harmony.” It describes a large, multi-instrument ensemble.

Another meaning associated with philharmonic quite frequently is an “appreciation of music.”

With a philharmonic orchestra, the emphasis is on the organizers and the audience.

The term philharmonic has come to mean organizers of an orchestra, together with societies putting together a concert series.

One of the common purposes of the philharmonic orchestra in the mid 18th century was organizing concerts to benefit charity.

Another difference between a symphony and a philharmonic involved the payment due to the musicians for a concert at a philharmonic orchestra.

Many times, ticketing was not fixed, and the audience was free to pay whatever they wanted at the end of the concert.

The money collected was then distributed to the musicians as payment for their part in the orchestra.

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This method of payment was generally phased out and is no longer in existence today.

Philharmonic orchestras vary in name by the city in which they play. For example, some of the more famous philharmonic orchestras are:

  • The Los Angeles Philharmonic, in Los Angeles, CA
  • The Berlin Philharmonic, in Berlin, Germany
  • The Vienna Philharmonic, in Vienna, Austria
  • The New York Philharmonic, in New York, NY

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Instruments Used In Orchestras

There are differences in the instruments used in each type of orchestra. The types of instruments played in each are as follows.

Instruments In Chamber Orchestra

As noted earlier, a chamber orchestra has the four sections a symphony orchestra does: woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings.

In addition, a chamber orchestra can also have a piano.

Common woodwind instruments used in a chamber orchestra are the clarinet, the oboe, the bassoon, the flute, and the piccolo.

The brass section may contain trumpets, trombones, and French horns, and the percussion section is comprised of drums, kettle drums, and cymbals.

Strings are also included, with the violin, the viola, the cello, and the bass taking part.

In a chamber orchestra, there tends to be a greater diversity of instruments, with violins tending to have the most in terms of numbers.

Sometimes a violin section can outnumber the entire brass section, because the orchestral pieces are arranged mostly for strings.

Since up to one-half of the orchestra can consist of violins, the chamber orchestra may or may not contain a tuba or a bassoon.

Also of note, based on the composition of the music being performed, the number of musicians may change from performance to performance.

Instruments In Symphony Orchestra

The instruments in a modern classical symphony orchestra number around 100 in total.

In the woodwind section, there are:

The brass section features:

  • 4-8 horns
  • 3-6 trumpets (2-3 of which are cornets)
  • 3-6 tenor trombones
  • 1-2 tubas

In the percussion section, there are typically 4-5 timpanis (kettle drums), and a sampling of at least the following:

  • Snare drum
  • Bass drum
  • Cymbals
  • Tambourine
  • Xylophone
  • Triangle
  • Sleigh bells
  • Drum kit

The string section, which is typically the largest consists of:

  • 16 1st violins
  • 14 2nd violins
  • 12 violas
  • 10 cellos
  • 8 double basses
  • 1-2 harps

As you can see by the number of instruments listed in the string section, it tends to be the largest section in the orchestra, and can be double or even triple the size of the other sections of the orchestra.

The strings tend to provide the melody for the piece, while the other sections provide harmony.

In addition to a conductor, a concertmaster, or leader of the 1st violin section, also plays a role in leading the musicians.

The name “symphony” is usually a more generic name, as opposed to “philharmonic,” which has more of an exact connotation.

As mentioned previously, symphonies can play other compositions beyond those typically taken on by philharmonics, which do not function like symphonies in this role.

Instruments In Philharmonic Orchestra

The instruments in a philharmonic orchestra are essentially the same as what’s in a symphony orchestra.

A philharmonic orchestra has string instruments:

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Bass
  • Cello
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woodwind instruments:

  • Clarinet
  • Flute
  • Piccolo
  • Bassoon
  • Sometimes saxophone

brass instruments:

  • Trumpet
  • Trombone
  • Tuba
  • French horn
  • Euphonium

and, lastly, percussion instruments including at least the following:

  • Drum
  • Cymbal
  • Timpani
  • Chimes
  • Triangle

A philharmonic orchestra functions as a more formal organization, with the existence of societies as the benefactors of the cultural aspect and money-making abilities of the orchestra.

Charitable performances under the auspices of the society in charge of the orchestra made the philharmonic orchestra what its name says it is: “loving harmony” and the “appreciation of music.” How sweet it is!


In sum, the noun “symphony” has varying meanings. As stated above, a symphony should be most commonly understood as a musical composition.

It is also defined as a “consonance of sounds,” which means sounds that compliment one another and sound good together.

A symphony differs from other musical genres, such as the opera. The theater, opera, and symphony orchestra were paired together in the late 18th century to entertain Europe’s wealthy and upper class.

The result of such pairings has brought about the orchestra, symphony, and the philharmonic as some of the staples of organization by which classical music is composed, performed, and enjoyed by people today.


What is an orchestra?

An orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians who perform classical music together. An orchestra typically consists of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments.

What is a symphony?

A symphony is a large-scale musical composition for orchestra, usually in four movements. The term “symphony” is often used interchangeably with “orchestra,” but a symphony specifically refers to a classical music composition.

What is a philharmonic?

A philharmonic is a type of orchestra that is dedicated to performing orchestral works and typically performs in a concert hall. A philharmonic orchestra is often considered a higher level of ensemble than a traditional orchestra.

What is the difference between an orchestra and a philharmonic?

An orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians that performs classical music, while a philharmonic is a type of orchestra that is dedicated to performing orchestral works. A philharmonic is often considered a higher level of ensemble than a traditional orchestra.

Is a philharmonic the same as a symphony orchestra?

No, a philharmonic and a symphony orchestra are not the same. A philharmonic is a type of orchestra that is dedicated to performing orchestral works, while a symphony orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians that performs classical music, including symphonies.

What instruments are typically included in an orchestra?

An orchestra typically consists of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments. The exact instruments included in an orchestra can vary, but the core instruments are strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

What is the difference between a symphony and an orchestral piece?

A symphony is a large-scale musical composition for orchestra, while an orchestral piece is a piece of music written for an orchestra to perform. A symphony is a specific type of orchestral piece.

What is the difference between a philharmonic and a symphony?

A philharmonic is a type of orchestra that is dedicated to performing orchestral works, while a symphony is a large-scale musical composition for orchestra. A philharmonic orchestra may perform symphonies, but a symphony is not the same as a philharmonic.

How many musicians are typically in an orchestra?

The number of musicians in an orchestra can vary, but a typical orchestra has between 80-100 musicians.

What is the difference between a symphony orchestra and a chamber orchestra?

A symphony orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians that performs classical music, including symphonies. A chamber orchestra is a smaller ensemble of musicians, typically between 20-50, that performs classical music in a more intimate setting.

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