How Orchestras are Arranged for a Performance

Even if we’ve never seen an orchestra performing in person, we’re familiar with how the musicians all sit together, but is there a reason for this? Why do the different musicians sit in those particular seats for a performance?

A Full Symphony

A full symphony orchestra might comprise between 75 and 90 musicians. The string section is the largest one in orchestras and usually includes fourteen first violins, twelve second violins, eight cellos, and eight double basses, and ten violas. The woodwind section has a piccolo, an English horn, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, and one contrabassoon. The percussion musicians play bass and side drum, timpani or kettledrums, as well as the cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle. The brass section features four French horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba. There may also sometimes be one or two harps in the orchestra.

Seating Arrangements

The seating arrangements of an orchestra have developed over time but it’s not all about tradition. It may appear that everyone is simply seated in a group to play their instruments together, but the positioning is crucial if the orchestra’s going to get the acoustics just right. The louder instruments, such as those in the percussion section, are generally placed at the back while the softer-sounding ones, such as the strings, are located at the front.  Here is a look at how things are arranged.

Although there is no single standard arrangement for positioning in a modern orchestra, the percussion section is almost always positioned at the back, while the first violins are to the left of the conductor. The higher pitched strings are on the left and the pitch decreases as you move across the front of the orchestra, with the lower pitched strings, such as the double bass, on the right.

Conductor’s Choice

However, there are sometimes variations. The composer might have left instructions regarding which instruments are to be used during a performance. The conductor might also have his or her views on the interpretation of a specific piece of music. This might lead to the use of more, less, or simply different instruments than would normally appear in the orchestra.

The reason for this is largely based on the requirements of the orchestra’s musicians rather than being for the benefit of the audience members. Our right ear is better able to pick up higher tones so as we face the orchestra, the higher pitched instruments being on our left is hardly designed to fully enhance our enjoyment of the performance. However, since the right ear is better for hearing higher pitches, the musicians playing those instruments need to be seated in the best position to hear higher tones coming from their right. In this way they can hear each other more clearly and therefore play together effectively.