The Evolution of the Orchestra

Symphony orchestra on stage, violins, cello and flute performing.
Symphony orchestra on stage, violins, cello and flute performing.

An orchestra as an entity combines the beautiful sounds of strings, winds, brass, and percussion instruments to create a lovely and rich sound for anyone to enjoy. Since the very beginnings of its origin, it has grown and developed to become the group of instruments that we know today. It was not always large and sweeping, but instead smaller and less diverse. The history and evolution of the orchestra is quite an interesting story.

When instruments and sheet music were first on the scene, there were very few instruments to choose from. Music was not written for specific instruments in mind. Music was written for whatever instruments happened to show up to the group. Additionally, when the orchestra began, there was no such thing as an orchestra’s conductor. People in the audience actually got up and conducted the group of instrumentalists.

By the Baroque Era, there were many different string instruments; violin, viola, cello, and bass. The harpsichord and organ also became popular at this time. If nobody stepped up to conduct, the harpsichord player or organist would “lead” the group.

As time went on, many more aspects of the orchestra evolved. Composers now wrote specific parts for each instrument. This gave songs depth the likes of which had never been seen – or, more accurately, heard – before. Listeners found this new way of writing music far more interesting and exciting.

Certain instruments, like the string section, started gaining prominence and others fell to background sounds. By the late 1800s, conductors were finally needed for the orchestra because it had grown so large. The different sections needed to be directed in order to follow along with the music and come in when they were needed.

The interesting thing to see over time was the addition of new instruments as they were invented and became popular. Brass and wind instruments were slowly added to the strings and keys to help create that full, well-rounded sound of the orchestra that we know and love today.

It’s remarkable to realize that no matter what kind of music you enjoy – a large, sweeping orchestra, the dulcet tones of a small band, or the exhilarating atmosphere of a contemporary rock band – all instrumental music as we know today had its humble origins in just a few instruments conducted by audience members.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the love that people experience while listening to music made by talented artists. That’s the gift that we give people when we play.