Symphonic bands and orchestras have much in common: both are large ensembles of fine musicians playing complex music and feature many of the same percussion, brass and woodwind instruments. Yet in spite of their superficial similarities, they are also very different in size, composition, musical style and raison d'être.
Whereas orchestras have two or three of each wind and brass instrument in addition to the strings, the composition of symphonic bands can be more flexible. According to "The Harvard Dictionary of Music," a standard 20th-century American high school symphonic band has 40 to 50 players playing music written for: 3 to 4 players playing 2 flute parts, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 12 players playing 3 clarinet parts, 1 bass clarinet, 4 saxophones, 4 horns, 6 players playing 3 trumpets or coronets, 3 trombones, 1 baritone, 3 players on 1 tuba part and 3 to 4 percussionists.
Whereas bands put their emphasis on wind instruments -- usually to the exclusion of any string instruments except occasionally a guitar -- the focus of orchestral music is on the strings, as string musicians make up over half the orchestra. Each orchestra has two sections of violins and one section each of violas, cellos and double basses and sometimes a harpist. Differences are also found in the sections they have in common; for example, while the woodwind sections of symphonic bands will have saxophones, orchestras rarely do
The differences between symphonic bands and orchestras are a result of their having evolved to serve different purposes. The development of the modern orchestra can be traced back to the simultaneous developments of opera and royal court string orchestras in the 17th century. Bands, on the other hand, developed largely from military bands of drums and trumpets and small groups of performing musicians. European exposure to the elite Turkish Janissary bands -- featuring cymbals, kettledrums, double-reeded shawms and trumpets -- during wars with the Ottomans in the 18th century had a major musical and structural influence on Western European music.
The purposes of orchestras and symphonic bands remain very different to this day. Whereas orchestras play almost exclusively in large concert halls to large, seated groups of people, bands often march at parades, sporting events and other festive gatherings -- unlike orchestras, they are not always the main attraction. The music played is also different; although they sometimes play modified orchestral music, bands have their own repertoire, and also tend to play popular songs more than orchestras.
- "The Harvard Dictionary of Music"; Don Michael Randel; 2003
- "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians"; Vol. 2; Ed. Stanley Sadie
- "Connexions"; Orchestral Instruments; Catherine Schmidt-Jones; 2006
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