top of page

Ensembles and Orchestras


Early religious music

The earliest musical instruments date from prehistoric times. In the classical Greek and Roman cultures, more sophisticated instruments took form; yet their development in the West stagnated after the fall of the Roman Empire. The early Christian church strongly discouraged the use of instruments in religious music, owing to their pagan associations, and consequently the system of chant used by the church, known as plainchant, made no provision for them.

But the situation began to change with the advent of polyphony in church music. Polyphony, which combined several separate lines of music rather than using the single line of plainchant, became prevalent from around the twelfth century.

To achieve richer textures, composers gradually introduced organs, doubling plainchant lines. As more complex forms developed, the long, held notes of the vocal bass line almost certainly were doubled at times by string or wind instruments. Many surviving manuscripts also show textless polyphonic introductions or interludes that could have been played by an unspecified combination of instruments without voices.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, extensive use of instruments in church music, at least on ceremonial occasions, became standard. A chronicler of the time reports the use of trumpets, vielles (a precursor of the violin), and other instruments during the consecration of Florence Cathedral in 1436.   

In 1569, Massimo Troiano reported that the musical accompaniment at a Bavarian court marriage included eight trombones, eight viols, eight flutes, a harpsichord, and a large lute.















Secular music in the Middle Ages

In secular music, too, composers gradually introduced instruments to augment existing vocal forms. The troubadours of twelfth- and thirteenth-century southern France were accompanied in their love songs by jongleurs on vielles, citterns (an early guitar), or harps. These versatile entertainers could usually play several instruments as well as act and perform acrobatics. They found their way into court life as menestrels (minstrels) and increased their status by organizing themselves into guilds.

The courts had the necessary resources to organize and support larger groups, referred to as “high” or “low” ensembles, so called not on the basis of pitch but on their generally “loud” or “soft” nature. High ensembles, including pipes, shawms (a forerunner of the oboe), and various percussion instruments, accompanied hunting, warfare, and certain kinds of dance. Low ensembles, using harps, lutes, recorders, psalteries, small organs, bells, and cymbals, accompanied the festivities of the nobility in dances or interludes to other entertainments.

Dance music was largely improvisatory, requiring little more than characteristic rhythms and meters. Consequently the leading composers of the day concerned themselves mainly with vocal forms. But instruments figured prominently in accompaniments to the secular songs that later developed into the chansons (three-part songs) of Machaut and the Burgundian School in the fifteenth century; the popularity of the chanson ensured its place among the earliest printed musical editions. The first fully printed music book was the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton (Hundred Pieces of Harmony Music), published in Venice in 1501 by Ottaviano dei Petrucci. Most of the collection’s chansons have no text, probably because their performance was wholly instrumental.

The High Renaissance

At the start of the sixteenth century, composers still did not specify the combination of instruments required to play a piece; this began with the aesthetic developments of the High Renaissance.

In both sacred and secular music, the various lines in a polyphonic piece had hitherto served distinct functions - supplying melody, bass line, or accompaniment. It was therefore an asset to have an psaltery, a harp, and a flute, for example — as there was little difference among most instruments in terms of their pitch range. But with the new Renaissance ideals of clarity and balance came polyphonic music, particularly by Josquin Desprez, in which all lines or parts were equally important. This prompted the development of different-sized versions of the same instrument. By varying the size of such instruments such as lutes, viols, and recorders, it was possible to make up ensembles of standardized timbre and extended range of pitch.

In England in the seventeenth century, these single-family ensembles of three to eight instruments became known as “whole consorts”, as opposed to the “broken consorts” that retained the older mix of different types. Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons (1599) was written for a broken consort of treble lute, pandora (a large lute-like instrument), cittern, bass viol, flute, recorder, and treble viol.

The growing body of exclusively instrumental music reflected the growing status of instruments. But such compositions as the new keyboard toccata (a form that could not be sung), though written for a particular type of instrument, still avoided more specific instrumentation indications. It is generally accepted that such indications were first made in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae of 1597, which were written expressly for various combinations of cornetts, trombones, and violins.

In one of these compositions, the Sonata plan’ e forte, Gabrieli also explored for the first time the possible contrasts between “soft” and “loud” groupings of instruments in a single ensemble. More often these two options were still confined to separate ensembles performing in differing circumstances. The louder, high ensembles had become open-air ensembles of town musicians playing horns, sackbutts, shawms, and early violins during public festivities, while the low ensembles had developed into a variety of chamber ensembles consisting of softer, more intimate flutes, viols and other instruments, for the entertainment of wealthy patrons.

The Baroque era

Monteverdi’s opera Lafavola d’Orfeo of 1607 (an example of socially exclusive entertainment) signalled the Baroque period’s departure from the harmony of the Renaissance in favour of a richer, more sophisticated form of expression. Novel use of instrumentation became crucial, and in Orfeo the term “orchestra” began to acquire its modern meaning. The orchestra had its roots in the sixteenth-century intermedio (a musical interlude, an important part of Renaissance court entertainment). Intermedi involved harpsichords, viols, trombones, tenor recorders, cornetts, flutes, and lutes, among others. Monteverdi’s innovations were the addition of violins to lead a body of bowed stringed instruments (with viols), and the careful selection of instruments for particular dramatic effects. In the Underworld scenes, for example, he used the mellow, sombre timbres of a small organ, sackbutts, and cornetts.

After Orfeo composers downgraded the operatic orchestra to provide an unassuming background to increasing vocal virtuosity, mainly using strings rather than wind instruments. The louder, more expressive violin gradually superseded the viol, and the leading seventeenth-century orchestra, established by Jean-Baptiste Lully, actually went under the name “Les vingt-quatrc violons du Roi” (the King’s 24 violins). By 1700 it included a wind section of flutes, oboes, and horns, as well as the lower-pitched members of the violin family.


The developing orchestra soon gained a role in religious music as well, accompanying the opera-related genres of oratorio, Passion, and cantata, notably in the works of Schiitz, Purcell, Handel, and Bach. Handel’s opera orchestras were limited by the size of orchestra pits in London theatres, but in his oratorios — effectively sacred operas for concert performance — the orchestra took its place on the stage and expanded to 15 violins, five violas, three cellos, three double basses, various wind instruments, and kettledrums. Such an ensemble was, however, still a rarity, and composers wrote for a variety of forces, depending upon the resources available to them.

In all these operatic genres, composers used their instrumental forces sparingly and restricted the full orchestra to instrumental overtures or sinfonias, and to large chorus numbers. During solo arias, a small group of strings and perhaps a few solo wind instruments accompanied the singers; instrumentation was even further reduced in the recitatives to a bass-dominated accompaniment known as the basso continuo. This consisted of one or two bass instruments (lute, theorbo, gamba or, later on, cello, double bass, or bassoon) and a keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ) to fill out the harmony.

The continuo was an important element in the growing number of purely instrumental forms. In both chamber and orchestral music, it provided the consistent foundation of a bass line and harmony. In chamber music, it provided the third part in the trio sonata format (the first two being solo violins or wind instruments), which therefore often, somewhat confusingly, comprised four instruments in all.

Some of the new instrumental forms developed from dance music, and the names of the various dances persisted long after they had evolved into purely concert works. Gigues, sara-bandes, minuets, courantes, bourrees, and gavottes were arranged into suites and could be scored for orchestra (Handel’s Water music and Bach’s Orchestral suites), for keyboard instruments (works by Couperin and Rameau), or even for a solo melody instrument (notably for cello and violin by Bach).

But instruments really began to come into their own in concertos, where increasing technical skill was required. Gabrieli’s experiments with contrasting groups of instruments were furthered in 1620 in works that juxtaposed a solo or concertino group with the full orchestra or ripieno ensemble. These developed into the concerto grosso works of Corelli and Handel, reaching a high point in Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Vivaldi and others reduced the concertino group to a single instrument (most commonly the violin, but also cello, harpsichord, trumpet, flute, oboe, bassoon, or others) and the virtuoso solo concerto was born.

Baroque orchestra


2 Flutes

2 Oboes

2 Bassoons


2 Natural horns

2 Natural trumpets


Timpani (e.g., Handel's Messiah)

Keyboards and other chord-playing instruments selected by the ensemble leader


Pipe organ




Violin I (8–10)

Violin II (4–6)

Viola (4–6)

Violoncello (4–6)

Double bass (and/or bass violones or other low-pitched bowed strings) (2–4)

The Classical era

During the eighteenth century, the orchestra was gradually standardized, although its total size, and the composition of the wind section, still varied according to available resources. In 1756, the Mannheim court orchestra, the leading ensemble of the day, consisted of 20 violins, four each of violas, cellos, and double basses, two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons and timpani, four horns, and a trumpet.

This kind of ensemble became the standard accompanying group for operas, oratorios, and concertos, but it found its ideal expression in the symphony. Developed initially by Haydn front the earlier orchestral sinfonias, and later by Mozart and Beethoven, this was the largest instrumental form so far, a showpiece for colouristic orchestral effects. The continuo gradually disappeared (and the harpsichord with it) as the distinction between solo and accompaniment blurred. The functions of melody and harmony were spread among various instruments as composers searched for novel timbres and sonorities. In pursuit of these goals larger and more versatile orchestras came into being. The chamber orchestra thus grew into the symphony orchestra. Haydn began writing symphonies for the Esterhazy court orchestra, which in 1766 numbered only 17 players; by the 1790s he was writing for a London orchestra of more than 50. Mozart added clarinets to the symphonic configuration, while Beethoven added trombones, piccolo, contra-bassoon, and various percussion instruments. Orchestras that had once been directed from the harpsichord, or by the first violinist, began from about 1800 to need specialist, baton-wielding conductors.

The demise of the continuo combination coincided roughly with the arrival of the piano. As well as possessing the ability shared by all keyboard instruments to render a number of parts simultaneously, the piano had a much stronger, more flexible, and therefore more expressive sound than the harpsichord. It soon became the most popular solo instrument in both concertos and sonatas. In trio sonatas it not only replaced the harpsichord but also took over much of the melodic role. Composers even wrote sonatas for the solo piano with the accompaniment of a violin or cello. Mozart’s and Beethoven’s solo keyboard sonatas were probably all written for the new instrument, and their violin and cello sonatas included pianos very much as equal partners.

The increasing use of a variety of instruments for supplying melody and accompaniment meant that the harpsichord in a trio sonata configuration could be replaced by a viola to form a string quartet of two violins, viola, and cello. This combination proved immensely successful and became the vehicle for some of the greatest music of Haydn and Beethoven, while Mozart seemed equally inspired by the addition of another viola to form a string quintet. Piano trios (with violin and cello), wind octets, and single wind instruments with strings were also popular, but the string quartet reigned supreme and has held a special attraction for composers ever since.

Classical orchestra


2 Western concert flutes

2 Oboes

2 Clarinets (B♭, C, or A)

2 Bassoons


2 Natural horns

2 Natural trumpets


2 Timpani (performed by one timpanist)

Harpsichord or pipe organ (until the late 18th century, by which time it was gradually phased out of the orchestra)


12 Violins I

10 Violins II

8 Violas

8 Violoncellos

6 Double basses

The Romantic era

The symphony orchestra

The orchestra for which Beethoven wrote is recognizable as a relative of the modern-day symphony orchestra, but there were still further changes in store.


The Romantic era ushered in a desire for an even greater range of expression.

New forms such as the symphonic poem, with its inclusion of elements inspired by literature, gave freer rein to the composer’s imagination.

Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique set the tone, creating brilliant orchestral effects with harps, enlarged brass and percussion sections and the shrill E flat clarinet to depict a Ball, the March to the Scaffold, and a Witches’ Sabbath. In his 1844 Treatise on Instrumentation Berlioz listed a “finest orchestra”, consisting of 21 first violins, 20 second violins, 18 violas, 8 first cellos, 7 second cellos, 10 double basses, 4 harps, 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 basset horn or bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, 4 timpani, 1 bass drum, and a pair of cymbals. This closely approximates to the modern symphony orchestra, though such an orchestra was rare in Berlioz’s day.

Most of Berlioz’s aspirations for the orchestra were realized later in the nineteenth century, particularly with the growth of public concerts, giving composers and impresarios greater influence over the assembled instrumental forces than under their previous aristocratic or church patronage. Around this time many of today’s famous orchestras were founded, including the Berlin Philharmonic (1882), the Chicago Symphony (1891), and the London Symphony Orchestra (1904). With them the specialist conductor was firmly established, not only coordinating large numbers of performers, but playing a crucial role in the artistic interpretation of the music.

Composers such as Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss continued to write for ever larger forces. Mahler scored his Eighth symphony (1907) for a combined woodwind and brass section of 45 players plus timpani, bells, mandolin, organ, piano, and celeste, as well as the normal strings, a huge chorus and eight solo singers. Debussy and Ravel achieved breathtaking and subtle effects through virtuoso orchestrations for a slightly more modest ensemble, to which Ravel added saxophones in some of his larger works.

During the twentieth century professional orchestras have developed into virtuoso ensembles, particularly with the advent of high-definition recorded sound. Bartok, Lutoslawski, Carter, and others have written “concertos for orchestra”, recognizing the solo capabilities of instruments and their players throughout the orchestra. Ever new possibilities for the symphony orchestra were signalled in Messiaen’s massive Turangaltla symphony of 1948, which added a solo piano, vibraphone, glockenspiel, celeste, the electronic ondes martenot, and Indonesian gamelan gongs to an already inflated orchestra.

Romantic orchestra


1–2 Piccolo

3–4 Western concert flutes

3–4 Oboes, of which some may double on (Cor anglais)

3–4 Clarinets in  B♭ or A, of which some may double on

(1–2 E♭ Clarinet; D Clarinet) and (Bass clarinet)

3–4 Bassoons



4–8 French, German, or Vienna horns (more rarely natural horns)

3–6 Trumpets in F, C, B♭

3–4 Trombones

1–2 Tubas

(0–4 Wagner tubas – 2 Tenors, 2 Bass, usually doubled by horn players)



Celesta 2 or more Harps


4 or more Timpani

Snare drum

Bass drum







Tubular bells


16 Violins 1

14 Violins 2

12 Violas

12 Cellos

10 Double basses

Chamber ensembles

The works of the Classical period were (and still are) frequently performed, and chamber orchestras were formed parallel to the symphony orchestras with the aim of specializing in such repertoire. They also found a role in more recent works, such as Stravinsky’s neoclassical compositions. Composers such as Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Tippett explored more deeply the rich resonances of stringed instruments in works for string orchestra.

The range of instruments used in smaller chamber ensembles continued to grow during the nineteenth century, with compositions for anything from one to more than ten players. A wealth of solo piano music was written by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and many others, and sonatas for other instruments still called for a more or less equal piano part. The more successful larger groups continued to feature a core of strings, particularly in Brahms’s majestic trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets for strings alone, or with piano.

All these combinations live on into the present, though none more robustly than the string quartet. Bartok gave the combination new impetus in the earlier part of this century, and notable contributions followed, in particular from Shostakovich and Carter.

The twentieth-century ensemble

Generally speaking, the twentieth century has witnessed the development of an “anything goes” approach to scoring for chamber groups, as well as a narrowing of the gap between chamber and orchestral music. The dividing line is now hard to draw. Part of the impetus came from a desire to achieve a clearer definition of the individual timbres of the instruments, as opposed to overblown orchestral effects.

Stravinsky largely abandoned traditional combinations and geared his choice of instruments precisely to the particular colours and effects thathe sought. In Ragtime (1918) he used an ensemble of 11 contrasted instruments including a cimbalom; he scored the Ebony concerto (1946) for jazz band with solo clarinet; and in Les noces (1923) he created an ensemble of four pianos and percussion for an impersonal and mechanical counterpart to the chorus and solo singers.


Folk, non-Western, and jazz instruments, particularly percussion, were early additions to the twentieth-century ensemble. From Africa came a variety of drums and other unpitched instruments, and the marimba — a deeper version of the xylophone — which contributed to the development of the vibraphone. From Indonesia came the gamelan gongs used by Messiaen and others.

Since World War II, most composers, especially the avant-garde, have experimented with a variety of non-traditional instrumental combinations. Boulez scored his Eclat (1965) for piano, celeste, harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, mandolin, guitar, cimbalom, tubular bells, alto flute, cor anglais, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello. In an age of such choice, no single work can be described as typical, but this example gives some indication of the possibilities. To perform this repertoire various groups have been formed, with a variable personnel from which the necessary combinations can be drawn.

Electronic music and beyond

Around the middle of the century, composers began to explore the possibilities of electronic instruments such as the ondes martenot, the electric organ, and later, tape machines, synthesizers, modulators, amplifiers, oscillators, and computers. Stockhausen and others worked in electronic studios and became composer-engineer-performers, synthesizing and modifying sounds in performance or for recordings. Such resources have also been combined with natural instruments to produce sounds that may be electronically modified.

John Cage, more than anyone else, opened the door to using as a musical instrument just about any object capable of producing a sound, or even nothing at all. He began with the “prepared piano”, inserting various items among its strings to produce a theoretically unlimited range of sounds, and later moved on to radios, food processors, plant materials, and fire.


The “original instrument” revival

With the inventive spirit in the realms of modern music thriving, more attention has turned in recent years to the ways in which the music of previous ages was originally performed. Research has led to the rediscovery, restoration, and reconstruction of so-called “period” instruments, and the formation of a number of specialist ensembles, using as near to the original forces as can be determined. Coincidental or not, it is interesting to reflect that this stage in music history of apparently limitless possibilities for new instruments is also a time of vigorously renewed interest in old ones.

Modern orchestra


2–4 Western concert flutes (1 doubling piccolo)

2–4 Oboes (1 doubling cor Anglais)

2–4 Clarinets (1-2 doubling bass clarinet and/or E♭ Clarinet)

2–4 Bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon)

1 contrabassoon

(1 or more Saxophones of various types)


4–8 German (usually double) horns in F/B♭ (in France: French horns; in Vienna: Vienna horns)

3–6 Trumpets in B♭, C

3–6 Trombones (1–2 bass trombones)

1–2 Tubas

(1 or more Baritone horns/euphoniums)

(1 or more Wagner tubas)


1 Piano

1 Celesta

(Pipe organ in some works)

1–2 Harps


16 Violins 1

14 Violins 2

12 Violas

10 Cellos

8 Double basses


4-5 Timpani (played by one timpanist)

Snare drum

Tenor drum

Bass drum




Wood block





Tubular bells


Drum kit (in some works)

Other percussion instruments, including ethnic or world music instruments specified by composers


As required by the compositions in the program, various electric instruments or electronic instruments may be used in the orchestra. These performers are not typically permanent orchestra members. They are typically freelancers hired on contract for one or more concerts. Instruments may include:


Electric guitar

Electric bass


Other electronic musical instruments

Non-musical instruments such as a typewriter or reel-to-reel tape player

Instruments of the Orchestra
1 - Stringed instruments
2 - Woodwind instruments
3 - Brass instruments
4 - Percussion instruments

Beethoven - Symphony No 3 in E flat Major, op 55 "Eroica"

bottom of page