Orchestra vs. Symphony vs. Philharmonic (What’s the Difference?)

In this article, you are going to learn the differences between Orchestras, symphonies, and Philharmonic.

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

How an orchestra, symphony, philharmonic differ is described as follows:

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 (symphony) to be played by an orchestra 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

Philharmonic is a type of orchestra that means “appreciation of music”.

The words philharmonic and symphony are used interchangeably to describe an orchestra, although 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, although the word symphony has different meanings.

Philharmonic is one type of orchestra, but the term philharmonic is used just once.

Used alone, the word orchestra means a musical ensemble. In other words, an orchestra is a group of musicians.

The types of the orchestra are: chamber orchestra and symphony orchestra and/or philharmonic orchestra.

Chamber Orchestra

A chamber orchestra is performed 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, and sometimes a piano.

The chamber musicians number 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, and 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. In addition, the musicians in the chamber orchestra tend to work together more which may cause more of a dependence on each other in the group.

The smaller group also has a greater intimacy in both size and scope of the music, 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 the chamber orchestra play are written specifically for smaller groups of musicians.

Because they are not played in large orchestras, they are lesser-known even though they were written by some of the leading classical music composers such as Bach, Brahms, and Dvorak.

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, a composer named 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.

Symphony Orchestra

The word orchestra is a Latin word for physical space as opposed to a collection of bodies. The word symphony means sounding together.

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 being jazz compositions.

The term consonance is blended sounds that sound good together.

Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque Periods, the symphony would come to describe all different styles of music, and also 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 the 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 is 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” was started in 1813 to mean “loving harmony”, and describe a large, multi-instrument ensemble.

Another term used with philharmonic quite frequently was an “appreciation of music”.

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

The term philharmonic came 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.

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, West Germany; the Vienna Philharmonic, in Vienna, Austria; the New York Philharmonic, in New York, NY.

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 all the 4 sections a symphony orchestra does: the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion, and the 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.

In a chamber orchestra, there tends to be a greater diversity of instruments with the instrument having the most in terms of numbers being the violin.

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

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

Also of note, due to 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 instruments, in total.

In the woodwind section there are 2-4 flutes, including piccolos; 2-4 oboes (including 1 French horn); 2-4 B flat clarinets, 2-4 bassoons (1 contrabassoon).

The brass section features, 4-8 horns; 3-6 trumpets (2-3 of which are cornets); 3-6 tenor trombones, and 1-2 tubas.

In the percussion section, there are typically 4-5 timpanis (kettle drums) and a sampling of the following: snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, xylophone, triangle, sleigh bells, drum kit, etc.

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 which 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, what is known as a concertmaster, or leader of the 1st violin section plays a role in leading the musicians.

The name symphony usually refers to a more generic name as opposed to philharmonic which has more of a proper heading.

As mentioned previously, symphonies can play other compositions as opposed to a philharmonic who does 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, and cello; the woodwinds: clarinet, flute, piccolo, bassoon, and sometimes saxophone.

The brass section has a trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, and Euphonium, and lastly, the percussion section has the drum, cymbal, timpani, chimes, triangle, etc.

A philharmonic orchestra functions as a more formal organization, with the existence of societies and the like 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 also has other meanings. As stated above, a symphony is 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 resulted in the orchestra, symphony, and the philharmonic as being the staple by which classical music is composed, performed, and enjoyed by people today.

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