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An orchestra is any large combination of musicians, usually grouped by instrument families. The term originated from the Greek orkhēstrā which came from orkheisthai, "to dance." It was the space in the ancient theater where a chorus of dancers performed. The term is now applied loosely today to refer to any group of instruments, such as in the case of a string orchestra, a mandolin orchestra, a jazz orchestra, a flute orchestra, and so on. Most of these are often referred to by different names so as to prevent confusion. This article deals solely with the strictest application of the term, which involves an ensemble comprised of a body of strings to which woodwinds, brass, and percussion are added in varying degrees.

Size of the orchestra

When composing for an orchestra, it is vital to understand its complement. Complement refers to the quantity of particular instruments available. For instance, a small community orchestra may have a small woodwind complement; a English horn may not be available. Contrarily, Gustav Mahler wrote works that entails massive complements of brass, including 8 to 16 horns to balance possibly around 130 string players. Because of the sheer difficulty in gathering and rehearsing so many musicians (Mahler included a massive choir of over 800 as well), the learning composers should stray away from the desire to compose music for such massive orchestral forces.

  • When composing for a real live orchestra, it is always a good idea to ask the conductor about its instrumentation

The largest standard symphony orchestra should comprise of (in score order):

Professional or Collegiate Large Orchestra
Woodwinds 3 Flutes (usually only the third flautist may double on piccolo or another auxiliary instrument)
3 Oboes (usually only the third oboist may double on English horn)
3 Clarinets (usually only the third clarinetist may double on Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, or a saxophone)
3 Bassoons (usually only the third bassoonist may double on contrabassoon)
Brass 4 Horns
3 Trumpets
3 Trombones (only the third trombonist will play bass trombone when necessary)
1 Tuba
Percussion Timpani (will usually have access to four drums)
2 or 3 other
(xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel, vibes, chimes, crotales, snare, tom-toms, bass drum, cymbals, accessory)
Other (harp, celesta, piano, sometimes organ)
Solo Instrument(s),
or group(s).
Soloists are only put here in score order if the work is a concerto or similar form.
Strings Violin I (which may comprise of 16 to 24 players)
Violin II (14 to 20 players)
Viola (12 to 16 players)

Cello (8 to 12 players)

Bass (4 to 8 players)