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  • Ken Hay

About Orchestras

Updated: May 6, 2022

© 2021 Ken Hay

I make no claims to expertise or knowledge about music in any way, shape or form. What follows are my own thoughts, observations and references jotted down randomly then collated as follows.

Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Orchestra - what’s the difference? I had often wondered about that but never felt inclined to investigate – until I started to write this. Then I did investigate and found myself seeking further answers – for instance – what is an orchestra. Let’s begin at the end – what is an orchestra? Without citation or explanation I am going to give one explanation only - an orchestra is a group of musicians who play music together. Put another way it is a band! That, of course, gives you a licence to describe The Beatles and Rolling Stones as orchestras. If you choose, wander off into history and the opinions of everyone and his dog. Go for it - but I’m not going with you.

Similarly with Symphonic and Philharmonic. One reference I stumbled over based its definition on the word structure. ‘Symph’ and ‘Phil’ both relate to “liking” or “love of”. Symphonic means love of phonics or sounds or, more precisely – music. Philharmonic means love of harmonics. So there.

And some of the great composers of music – Beethoven for example, included the word “Symphony” when naming some of their immortal works. Beethoven’s Symphony Number Six, aka “Pastoral”; Mozart named one of his numerous, monumental works – Jupiter Symphony’. But, as far as I determined, no composer named or included in the title of a work – Philharmony.

Cards on the table - I love music - and hate noise. Much modern “music” is, to me, simply noise. The screeching, screaming noises made by far too many young singers, accompanied by head-banging instrumental noises are just not music. It is simply a raucous noise.

That’s that off my chest. My musical preferences are for classical, orchestral music with a very limited amount of opera, a great deal of solo instrumental music – especially piano; country and western; jazz; hit tunes of the 1950’s – 70’s and a continuum of isolated tunes right up to today. It includes songs performed by such greats as Roy Orbison, Johny Cash, Kingston Trio, Simon and Garfunkel, Willy Nelson, The Platters, Right eous Brothers, Sissel Kyrkjeboe and many more.

If pressured to state my most favoured piece of music I would have to say, The Chorus of The Hebrew Slaves, and specifically the performance by the Metropolitan Opera, (?) New York, 2001 conducted by James Levine. Composed by the great Guiseppe Verdi, (If he had been born in Australia he would, probably, have been known as Joe Green.) Among Verdi’s other prodigious works are the operas La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and Aida. Known as Nabucco and also as Va Pensiero, The Chorus,- was Verdi’s first great successful opera. The music lives on today. Look for it on YouTube, Google or in the music shops.

I watch a lot of YouTube with music being one of the most-watched items. The choices are unlimited. I mostly enjoy and look for Flash(?) Crash(?) Mob performances closely followed by orchestral presentations and I am not beyond watching the various “… Got Talent”. Shows. I find it interesting, and enjoy, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir even though I am agnostic – their music is beautiful and performed with passion. Then there is good coverage of some of my other interests – woodwork, naval and military history, current politics, air crash investigations and so on.

But I set out, here, to write about The Orchestra. The inspiration came from watching, on You Tube, Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, 23 July 2012. (The derivation of that orchestra’s name is interesting). It was, to say the very least, an enthralling experience. I have watched it a few more times since – a redeeming feature of modern communication – we can watch/listen to the same performance repeatedly. I have also seen Barenboim conduct an orchestra while simultaneously playing the piano. It may have been the aforementioned concert – I forget now. He is classical music personified.

When I started to watch the big orchestras on YouTube I was reminded of a time far and away back in the 1950s when an orchestra visited my school and, apart from playing some classical music, they went through a process of showing us each instrument and what it sounded like. Regrettably, at that very early stage of my life, and denied any method of for-seeing the future, I accepted the then current, schoolboy, philosophy that music was “Sissy”. My mother wanted me to learn to play the violin. I was appalled! No way mum! And it never happened - much to my current chagrin.

Four or five years ago, seeking a renewed socialisation following the death of my wife, I joined an organisation that claimed to meet the needs of retired people.

Not long after I joined, one of the ladies, who ran the singing sub-group, persuaded me to join that sub-group. I came to enjoy it very much. I took an interest in how music was written and, to further that, I purchased a keyboard and enrolled in music classes. That led me into learning how to read music – very simple music - but I gained a rudimental understanding of how little squiggles with attached tails, arranged upon five horizontal lines can convey all the information an orchestra, or an individual, needs to make music. And enabled me to bash out very simple pieces of music. I eventually came to realise that Sydney Opera House solo performances were not entirely realistic, gave up the lessons and engaged in others of my interests. Now and then I will tap out a tune on the keyboard.

Back to the orchestra. There is much to learn from watching an orchestra at work. Discipline that enables a hundred or so people, each with a musical instrument, to strike notes in perfect unison. The conductor - who controls the whole shooting match - most often with a skinny little wand – his/her baton and communication with the orchestra. The arrangement of the various instruments, e.g. the violins front and left of the conductor, cellos to the right, woodwinds in the middle progressing, from the conductor’s right, from bassoon through the clarinet, oboes and piccolo, then the brass instruments behind them – trumpets, trombones, tubas, French horns etc. Behind them are arranged the percussion instruments – drums of various nature, some times a xylophone – or five as in a Danse Macabre version performed at Polish Nationwide Music Schools Symphonic Orchestras Competition 2014. See and hear it on YouTube -

Sitting, staring, at my computer screen – which glared back at me - and thinking about orchestras and the music they make, my feeble mind drifted into the world of physics. Physics has never been one of my strong points – too much maths and, ever since I learned a bit about genetics, I came to realize that I am homozygous for the recessive maths gene – if there is such a gene. And similarly - in respect of genetics genes. However, I reasoned that when any musical instrument works - be it trumpet, guitar, drum, xylophone, harp, piano etc - it has to be causing the air molecules around it to vibrate. But the musician wants it to cause a sound particular to the note being played. The air molecules must vibrate with a particular frequency therefore, every musical note must have its particular frequency of vibration. In turn, the vibrating air molecules act upon the eardrums causing them to vibrate at that same frequency. Those vibrations of the eardrums finish up converted into sensory nerve signals deep in the brain and the listener hears a sound.

Of course, any given note played on a given instrument will be perceived, by the human ear, as different from the same note played on a different instrument. For example – and I hope this assumption is technically correct – middle C played on the piano will sound quite different to middle C played on the clarinet. In the course of major orchestral works, the clarinet may have a solo role – one of Mozart’s last compositions was his Clarinet Concerto in 1791. It is still played today. Listening to and watching Sharon Kam – one of the world’s leading clarinet soloists – the notes of the clarinet come through loud and clear, easily identified from the notes of the numerous instruments of the orchestra playing in the background. My lurid imagination tells me composers of such music must take into consideration how the various instruments and the notes they produce will interact and be interpreted as music and not noise.

To put this to the test I searched on the internet via Duck Duck Go – I detest Google and avoid it whenever possible – and Lo and Behold before my eyes appeared Lutherie Information Web site for builders of stringed musical instruments complete with a “Table of Musical Notes and their Frequencies and Wavelengths”. It gives the frequency of middle C as 261.626 Hz and a wavelength of 1.301 meters, (presumably piano), the lowest note of violin 195.998 Hz at 1.736m and the tuning reference note 440Hz at 0.773m. So there. A whole lot of information useless to the average person who just wants to sit back and soak up Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata without bothering with the physics behind it all. But the people who make musical instruments do know and use this science in the pursuit of their vocations. [Further, just for the record, “Lutherie” is defined as – the art, craft and science of stringed musical instrument building and repair.]

But, the vibrating violin string or the vibrating lips of a trumpeter don’t cause just one molecule of air to vibrate – there are millions and the vibration is transferred from one molecule to adjacent molecules and so on ad infinitum. And their motion takes a wave form in, basically, a spherical three dimensions. Consider, now, the orchestra in full “flight” – 1812 Overture with the canons roaring, the concert hall full of smoke and every instrument contributing. Countless billions of molecules vibrating in all directions with and against each other but they appear not to cancel out each other. Absolute chaos, but, out of the chaos comes music – powerful, pit-of-the-stomach, heart thumping music.

(I was fortunate enough to witness such a performance in the Royal Albert Hall, London in about 1971. Three military bands took the place of an orchestra.)

So much for a very light brushing over of the science. Now for the human side. My observations tell me classical musicians are a polyglot bunch. Few are the orchestras, of my limited experience, that did not contain a mix of Caucasian and Asian members with a fair mix of females and males. Afro members appear to be few and far between.

The members of an orchestra presenting a “high society”, or very formal, concert will be formally dressed. Ladies in black evening gowns. Men in black dinner suits with white shirt and bow ties. Put 100 or so such musicians, closely arranged, on the concert hall stage and throw in 5,272 concert goers, (as in The Royal Albert Hall), then get the musicians into a frenzy of physical and mental exercise while they work through three or four movements of powerful music. One must wonder at just how cosy it all gets but I suppose they are used to it.

Contrast that with the attire of, perhaps, the same orchestras, at informal occasions – especially the Crash/Flash Mob “concerts” in shopping centres, railway stations, town squares etc - loose shirts, slacks or even shorts, day job clothes – ladies and men but nothing that would impede their mastery of the instruments. And the music is always good, even without the acoustic refinements of the concert hall, and the crowds always express their appreciation vigorously.

Observing the musicians during a concert is interesting. Some are working vigorously at their instrument while others sit gazing into space awaiting their cue. Percussionists and piccolo players seem to do a lot of that. But they suddenly spring into action at precisely the right moment. Very few musicians seem to pay the slightest attention to the conductor. Occasionally, one or two might cast a furtive glance in his/her direction. (I recall reading, many years ago, an apocryphal yarn about a classical musician returning home after a concert. Wife: “How was the concert, Darling?” Husband: “OK”. Wife: “Who was conducting?” Husband: “Dunno. Never looked.”) More about conductors later.

My stereotypical drummer is a big, burly, bloke who can belt the bejasus out of a huge drum. This is born of experience of Navy and military bands. Not so in the modern orchestra. They have “percussion instruments” which, are huge for some presentations, but most commonly I see an array of three or four, what I call kettle drums for want of enlightenment, but research tells me they are “tympani”. Add a cymbal or two, a snare drum here or there, (I understand it is usually a snare drum used to introduce and carry Ravel’s Bolero), and other percussion instruments. Sitting, stoically behind the array, awaiting the call for involvement, will be a male or female percussionist. And there is no doubting they are a skilful lot. Usually wielding two drum sticks they belt away at the drums with finesse and, often as not, mute a note on one drum with one hand while tapping another drum. Cymbals, triangles, castanets, tambourines, xylophones, maracas and others are all included in their instruments. It surprised me to learn that the piano is considered a percussion instrument. When I think about it I should not have been surprised – tapping a key on the piano keyboard results in a hammer striking a string in the bowels of the instrument. Percussionists amaze me.

Enter the woodwinds – bassoon, clarinet, oboe, flute and piccolo and – believe it or not – English horn which is neither a horn nor English but is very similar, musically, to the oboe and resembles an elongated oboe. The bassoon and oboe, to me, seem odd. They are rather large – especially the bassoon – and they both have mouth pieces that appear to be a bit narrower than a drinking straw (remember them?). Watching them being played makes me breathless. The players huff and puff and put in a very strenuous looking effort to make them produce music. In contrast, the clarinet has a much larger, wider mouth piece and seems to take much less physical effort to play. These instruments appear unique in that they are pointed very much downwards when played.

Bassoons literally stand out – they are large, made of wood, with two lengths of wooden tube joined at the lower end to form a U-turn. Straightened out, the instrument would be about two meters long. And they, also, have a very narrow mouthpiece.

The flutes also stand out – they are held sideways, in the line of the mouth, held by both hands and the instrument lip sits just outside the lower lip of the player who blows across the opening. Pitch is changed by operating keys along the body of the instrument.

The longer the woodwind the lower the pitch. The very short piccolo has the highest pitch.

And now for the brass instruments. Let’s welcome them with a fanfare – “a short, loud tune played on trumpets to announce a special event.” (Collins English Dictionary). In fact, there is a special trumpet – much longer than the ordinary – used especially for this purpose. Oddly enough it is called a fanfare trumpet. It incorporates attachment points upon which herald banners may be suspended just to add to the overall, overawing impression.

Be that as it may, the conventional brass instruments, in the numerical order of the numbers most often found in orchestras. Tuba – really needs no introduction and usually only one in an orchestra. It is the largest brass instrument and, “… anchors the harmony of the whole orchestra with its deep, rich sound.” (Pro Music Straightened out the tuba’s tube would extend to three to six meters! As with woodwinds, the longer the tube the lower they sound.

Secondly, there are usually three trombones – one Bass and two tenor. The very familiar long instrument with a long insertion the player pumps in and out as he plays.

Next are four French horns. These strange instruments have their bell pointing away from the audience and the player inserts their right hand (usually) into the bell while playing. History has it that it was invented for use in hunting in old time France. The horn was hung over a rider’s right shoulder and would send sound signals to following riders – hence the backwards-facing bell. His hand was inserted into the bell simply to steady it. Nowadays, the hand is an integral part of the music system used to modify the notes produced by the horn.

And two, three or four trumpets. Sometimes a saxophone.

So much for the instruments. The next, and perhaps the most, interesting component of an orchestra is the conductor. To all intents and purposes he is in charge of and controls the whole shebang. (Shebang meaning everything involved in what is under consideration. [Miriam-Webster] but it nowadays has a specific meaning in computer language – but we will not go there.)

The role of the conductor? Rather than get lost trying to define this myself I defer to the expertise of two conductors – David Pogue and Scott Speck – in, of all things “”Classical Music For Dummies.” Specifically,

Suffice it to repeat here a summary: “ The conductor is responsible for determining the speed, the instrumental balance, the volume levels, the note length, the phrasing and the dramatic pacing of any piece of music the orchestra plays. These combined ideas are called the interpretation.”

As if that was not enough of the demands of the conductor he/she must know the music intimately. Goodness knows how many times the entire musical composition must be listened to before it is familiar enough for the conductor to meet those demands. Of course, the same can be said of any of the musicians, but especially the soloists. I believe that most, if not all, conductors graduated from being accomplished musicians.

Last night I watched, on You Tube, a young, lady pianist, Rosalia Gomez Lasheras, perform Beethoven: Piano Concerto N0. 5 in E-flat Major “Emperor”. Joseph Bastion conductor. Duisburger Philharmoniker.

It lasted 40 beautiful minutes with a couple of short breaks. The pianist had no sheet music, the conductor did as did the musicians, but she played without hesitation. How many thousand key strikes she made I have no idea but make them she did and, as far as my limited musical knowledge permits, not one note was missed or misplaced. She seemed to utilise every key on the piano – her hands and fingers danced across them relentlessly and I recall thinking, at one stage, they were tarantulous (my neologism = spidery).

People talk of computers having astronomical memory abilities. I believe that many conductors, solo orchestral performers and musicians, are somehow aligned with the computers. I suspect that throughout their lives they must be immersed in music to the exclusion of a lot of other life experiences. How much repetition of all four movements of a piano concerto by, say, Beethoven must the conductor or solo pianist endure before he/she can conduct or play it without fault? That is not to belittle the achievements of the musicians. They must go through the same process but, at least in the concert, they have the privilege of sheet music in front of them.

I was pleasantly surprised and fascinated, last night, to watch Danial Barenboim, at the BBC Proms 2014 “conduct” Ravel’s Bolero with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. For most of the performance, he stood, motionless, on the podium looking at the orchestra and leaving them to their own devices. A measure of the mutual confidence and expertise of orchestra and conductor. Late in the performance, he could not help but join in with his characteristic vigour leading the musicians to the famous, crashing crescendo then – silence – until the crowd expressed its appreciation with a noisy, standing ovation.

Another prominent, young, conductor is Gustavo Dudamel. Venezuelan, born in 1981 of musical parents, his CV is phenomenal – see it in Wikipedia. He became a violinist before beginning to study musical composition and later – conducting. The first time I saw him was, of course, on Youtube, and his most prominent feature, before the music started, was his flouncing, great, mop of curly, black hair! His conducting style is dynamic and invariably accompanied by a big smile. To me it portrays his love of music and conducting.

Extremely worthy of mention among the conductors is Australian born, (?) now British Jessica Cottis. I have never seen her conduct, not even on Youtube, but my attention was drawn by an article in The Australian a couple of weeks ago. It described how, at age two, she would sit on her mother’s lap at the piano and play with the keys. That developed into a distinguished, world acclaimed conductor. She got into conducting after a wrist injury shattered her organist career. Her achievements are phenomenal, she is in demand around the world, and she is only 41. Her web site is simply inspirational for every wannabe musician and really worth looking at for anybody else.

Mention of a wrist injury draws out the long redundant medico in me and prompts me to mention something that invariably crosses my mind when watching the orchestras – Repetitive Strain Injury – especially, but not exclusively, among the string instrument musicians and solo pianists. The left hand of every string musician must be at high risk given it is held with wrist and fingers flexed and the forearm rotated to the maximum. Then the fingers must rapidly press the strings and “vibrato” on them. Every tendon in the forearms, hands and fingers of concert pianists must also be at very high risk.

Now, since writing that last paragraph I got onto the computer and researched this subject. Lo and behold – my suspicions are borne out by numerous items and websites. Prominent among the issues is RSI of the left wrist/fingers in string instrumentalists. Even more, medicine for musicians is currently being established as a medical speciality and epidemiological studies consistently support an increased prevalence of medical problems among musicians.

Any budding bandy or expert musician with an interest in this subject might care to have a look at Musicians and Injuries - (This is an odd looking web address but it worked on my computers.)

Finally, I have mentioned three conductors by name. There are, of course, many more each with his/her own style and persona. Each must go through the same rigorous process to reach the podium, in the first place, and then to learn the prodigious amount of music necessary to become established as a prominent conductor.

And on that note (ho ho) I shall close my little literary jaunt into the world of orchestras.

Ken Hay – Musica Illiteratum

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