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What Is the Difference Between a Band and an Orchestra?

Updated on September 3, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

40 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and educator. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

What is the Difference Between a Band and an Orchestra?

One of my big pet peeve‘s is when talking to a person about music and they refer to a band as an orchestra or call an orchestra or band. I don’t know whether this is because they hear both of them as one or they just generalize them as one. To further illustrate this, I attended a fantastic concert a few months ago and after the performance as I was walking to my car I overheard a person remark: “That was a fine performance by that orchestra”, when in fact that orchestra that she had just heard was the President’s Own Marine Band out of Washington D.C.

In any event, it is my goal in this article to outline and explain the many differences in these two performance mediums so that the reader will not have to ask the question “What is the difference between a band and orchestra?“

Characteristics of the Concert Band

As a youth growing up in a very musical family I was exposed to orchestras as well as bands, in fact I played I several concert bands and orchestras throughout high school and college. So, I am quite familiar with the differences from a players perspective.

The medium for performance known as a band actually takes on different names according to the size of the group. For instance, the Concert Band usually numbers between 50 and 65 musicians. A Symphonic Band (Symphony Band, Wind Symphony) will number between 65 and 110 and a Wind Ensemble being a specialty group has a set number of 45.

The “Band”, be it Concert, Symphonic or Wind Ensemble will feature an enlarged woodwind section consisting of oboe, flute, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, along with a balanced brass section of trumpet, horn in f, trombone, baritone/euphonium, and tuba, and a complete percussion section.

The sections within themselves produce a wonderful blend of instrumental sounds to echo the timbre of a vocal choir featuring the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. The brass section is by itself a brass band. The woodwind section is by itself a full ensemble capable of performing music written exclusively for them. The percussion section is another example of a group of instruments that can perform separately.

University of Michigan Symphony Band - Festive Overture, Dimitre Shostakovich

Let's Talk Timbre!

To get the most out of listening to a music composition we must have our brain and ears ready for the five basic elements of music. They are: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Form, and Timbre.The element called Timbre (tam-ber) refers to the tone color and has a great deal to do with what we hear and how we hear it.

Timbre tells us all of the things about sound (musical or not) that does not have anything to do with its pitch, volume, or length. The soft sounds of the woodwinds. The loud harsh dissonances of the brasses when called for. Then as the composer mixes or blends the woodwinds and brass together produce yet another tonal color or “timbre”.
Keep in mind that our ears are an incredible part of the human body and when we put them in front of a symphony orchestra or a symphonic band they are able to distinguish between the different instruments on stage. Now, that is true only if our brain knows what those instruments are.Some people may not recognize an English Horn, Contra Bassoon, or a Viola, but as the brain learns the sounds of the instruments our recall is quicker.

Military Concert Band

View of entire set up from above.
View of entire set up from above. | Source

Instrumentation for a Symphonic Band

The instrumentation of a band basically means what instruments make up the total body of the ensemble. Below, is a list of the instruments and numbers of them for a typical symphonic band:

2 - Oboe

2 - Piccolo

8 - Flute

15 - Bb Clarinet

2 - Alto Clarinet

4 - Bass Clarinet

3 - Bassoon

4 - Alto Saxophone

4 - Tenor Saxophone

2 - Baritone Saxophone

10 - Trumpet

6 - Horn in F

8 - Trombone

2 - Baritone Horn

3 - Euphonium

6 - Tuba

4 - Percussionists

1 - Timpani

Characteristics of the Orchestra

Much like the “band”, the orchestra is comprised of woodwinds, brass, percussion, and the most important - a string section made up of the violin, viola, cello, bass. The orchestra also has the distinction of being called by different titles according to the size of the ensemble also. For example, the string orchestra is a group made up of the four stringed instruments mentioned earlier. A chamber orchestra is a very small group suitable for a small venue. A symphony orchestra is a large orchestra comprised of up to 100+ players featuring the great symphony composers.

Unlike the band, the orchestra has a large string section which produces those great lyrical sounds along with their ability to perform extremely fast and ferocious passages. The woodwinds are usually one or two players on a part and fully capable of balancing off the large string section. The brass section much like the woodwinds are one per part meaning three trumpets and three trombones - 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Up to 6 Horns (depending on the composer), and one tuba.The percussion is usually a battery of four to cover all parts plus one timpanist.


London Symphony Orchestra

Source

The Conductor

For either the band or the orchestra, the composer relies on the conductor to interpret his or her music according to the way It was written. Therefore, any conductor must have the skills to do such a task. Interpreting a composers music requires much much more than just waving a stick in front of a group of musicians.

Conductors must spend countless hours reading, studying, interpreting, and planning so that little time is wasted in rehearsals to meet the goal of perfecting the music to be performed. A thorough knowledge of each and every instrument in front of them, music history, theory, form and analysis are all requirements for a conductor to complete his task.

The great sounds that emerge from a symphony orchestra or a symphonic band are the result of a competent and highly respected conductor. The video examples that I provided with this article are examples of very professional and gifted conductors.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 4th mvmt Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Conductor

Instrumentation for an Orchestra

The instrumentation for the orchestra is quite a bit different than that of the symphonic band. Below, is a list of the instruments with numbers for the modern symphony orchestra. Again, depending on the composer in the piece of music being performed may increase or decrease the number of instruments on stage for a performance.

String Section

14 -1st Violins

14 - 2nd Violins

12 – Violas

8 – Cellos

9 - Double Basses

Woodwind Section

2 - Flutes

2 - Oboes

2 - Clarinets

2 - Bassoons

Brass Section

3 - Trumpets

4 - 6 Horns

3 - Trombones

1 - Tuba

Percussion Section

4 - Players to cover parts

1 - Timpanist

1 - Piano

1 - Harp

Famous Composers

Below is a list of some of the more popular composers for both types of groups. Keep in mind the difference between "composer" and "arranger". Original music is written by a composer and an arranger is one who takes original music arranges it by changing the Rhythm, Harmony, Form, and Timbre. The Melody usually stays in its original state.

Famous Concert / Symphonic Band Composers

  • John Philip Sousa
  • Frank Ticheli
  • Gustav Holst
  • Percy Grainger
  • Robert Russell Bennett
  • Vincent Persichetti
  • Alfred Reed
  • William Schuman
  • Clifton Williams
  • James Curnow
  • Ralph Vaughn Williams
  • Gunther Schuller
  • Philip Sparke

Famous Orchestral Composers

  • Franz Joseph Haydn
  • Peter I. Tchaikovsky
  • Gustav Mahler
  • Giuseppe Verdi
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Richard Wagner
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Felix Mendelssohn
  • Dmitri Shostakovich
  • Antonín Dvorak
  • Hector Berlioz
  • Bedrich Smetana
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  • Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Jean Sibelius

Please take this poll.

Which performance medium would you attend in concert.

See results

In Closing!

I hope that this article was helpful to you in answering the question about “What is the difference between a band and an orchestra?“ And, if you listened to the video examples your ears would definitely hear the differences. The examples I chose to show how exciting the music can be for either medium for performance.

Please leave me a comment or like this artidle. Thank you.

© 2018 Reginald Thomas

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