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A COMPLETE GUIDE TO DIFFERENT TYPES OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC

Ever felt daunted by orchestral music? If you’ve never formally studied it, it can be hard to know where to start. What’s the difference between a symphony and a concerto? Who sings an aria? How many members are there in a chamber group?

W’re also keen to remind you that were a production music catalogue with orchestral music of every style imaginable – including action orchestral, horror orchestral, romantic orchestral and more. All of our high-quality orchestral tracks – composed by some of the best musicians in the world – are ready to be licensed for use worldwide, and can be used in anything from a podcast to an advertisement to a blockbuster. Without further ado, lets get on with the guide. 

Different Types Of Orchestral Music: Your Guide

  • What Is Orchestral Music
  • Different Types of Orchestral Music/ Types of Symphony Genres
    • Classical Orchestra
    • Orchestral Pop
    • Orchestral Hip Hop
    • Electronic Orchestra
    • Orchestral Jazz
  • The Top Types of Orchestral Music
    • Overture
    • Symphonic Poem
    • Symphony
    • Concerto
    • Ballet
    • Opera
      • Types of Opera
    • Chamber Music
      • Types of Chamber music

What Is Orchestral Music?

Simply put, orchestral music is music created by an ensemble of instruments called – you guessed it – an orchestra. Instruments from different families come together to form the orchestra, which means you can expect to hear the sounds of string instruments, percussion instruments, brass instruments and woodwind instruments in an effective orchestral piece. 

Typically, an orchestra usually consists of around 70-100 musicians, and these orchestras are often called symphony or philharmonic orchestras. The term philharmonic is made up of two Greek words: Philos which means to loveand harmonikos which means harmony

If an orchestra consists of less than 50 musicians, the correct term for this type of orchestra is a chamber orchestra. In French, chamber means room, which makes sense considering an orchestra of this size would fit comfortably inside one room. 

Is Orchestra a Genre?

Although bands are commonly associated with rock music, you would not call a band a genre. The same goes for an orchestra: although orchestras are commonly associated with classical music, it is not appropriate to categorise orchestra as a genre. Also, like a band, an orchestra can embrace a wide variety of genres. Discover just five of those genres below. 

Different Types of Orchestral Music / Types of Symphony Genres

  • Classical Orchestra
  • Orchestral Pop
  • Orchestral Hip Hop
  • Electronic Orchestra
  • Orchestral Jazz

Classical Orchestra

As mentioned above, the most recognised genre of orchestral music is classical orchestra music. Classical music follows traditional forms of making music. Strictly speaking, classical music describes music composed during the Classical period of 1750-1820. The most famous composers of this time were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. 

Orchestral Pop

Orchestral pop is, quite simply, pop music thats performed by an orchestra. Personally, the sub-genre reminds us of the most recent James Bond theme tunes – including Adeles Skyfall, Sam Smiths Writing on the Wall and Billie Eilishs No Time to Die; but if youre not a fan of the spy franchise, you may be more familiar with pop songs such as Clean Bandits Rather Be and Ariana Grandes ghostin.

Orchestral Hip Hop

When hip hop rhythms are created by an orchestra, the song can be categorised as orchestral hip hop. The sub-genre has been growing ever since the 90s, and has blessed us with anthems such as Coolio and L.V.’s Gangsta's Paradise and Kanye Wests Flashing Lights.

Electronic Orchestra

The electronic orchestra genre consists of compositions that are either performed by an orchestra and later manipulated electronically, or combine orchestral instruments with electronic instruments. One of the best examples of electronic orchestra music is Daft Punks score for Disneys Tron Legacy that was created with an 85-piece orchestra and electronic instruments. 

Orchestral Jazz

The genesis of orchestral jazz dates back to New York Citys 1920s jazz scene. This structured style of jazz is created when an orchestra embraces the rhythms of New Orleans jazz whilst sticking to their European practices. This genre is comparable to the sounds of another sub-genre of jazz, big band jazz. 

The Top Types of Orchestral Music

Now that we’ve covered the basics, We’re going to look at the top types of orchestral music, including:

  • Overture
  • Symphonic Poem
  • Symphony
  • Concerto
  • Ballet
  • Opera
  • Chamber Music

For an instant overview, check out our ultimate classcal playlist, which features a range of the best orchestral pieces by celebrated composers.

The Overture

In the earliest days of music being performed, the overture signalled when the audience should take their seats (much as the bell being rung in the concert hall does today). Now, the overture is usually a musical work’s orchestral introduction – the word comes from the French, ouverture, or ‘opening’.

The overture originated in 17th Century opera as a sung prologue – or a short instrumental flourish. Jean-Baptiste Lully was the first major to use a full-scale overture, in works such as his opera Thésée. The form he used was then imitated not only by opera composers such as Henry Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), but also in oratorios – such as Handel’s Messiah.  

Lully’s form became known as the ‘French overture’. Alessandro Scarlatti was the originator of the ‘Italian overture’; it’s in three sections from quick, to slow, and back to quick, and served as a model for the earliest, three movement, symphonies.

Later operatic overtures helped to prepare the audience for the play’s plot; merging the music into the opening act, instead of closing before the curtain rises was a technique that Wagner used in his later operas, such as Tristan und Isolde.

Concert overtures became established in the 19th century as independent, one-movement works, the first of which is generally regarded as Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826); his overture The Hebrides – also known as Fingal’s Cave – is another celebrated example of the form.

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The Symphonic Poem

In the 1850s, the concert overture began to be overtaken by the symphonic poem. This was a form devised by Franz Liszt in works that began as overtures. As a form, it was taken up by more ‘progressive’ composers, such as Camille Saint-Saens, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg.

The Czech composer Smetana was one of the great proponents of the symphonic poem. His set of six, published under the title of Ma Vlast is agreed to be his best. Composed between 1872 and 1879, the cycle presents selected episodes and ideas from Czech history.

symphonic poem

Symphony

Loosely, a ‘symphony orchestra’ is a large group of string, brass, woodwind and percussion players – so a work written for this kind of ensemble is known as a symphony. These large-scale orchestral works are intended to be played in concert halls and are usually in four movements.

The standard classical form is:

  • First movement – allegro (brisk and lively) in sonata form
  • Second movement – slower and more lyrical
  • Third movement – an energetic minuet (a dance)
  • Fourth movement – allegro – a rollicking finale, to show off the orchestra’s prowess

orchestra in studio 2 abbey road studios audio network

The sonata form

The sonata has two musical themes, or melodies – the first, usually loud and forceful; the second, quiet and lyrical. The first theme is introduced and then the softer second theme comes in – as this section’s purpose is to expose the two melodies, it’s known as the ‘exposition’.

The ‘development’ follows – the composer varies and makes musical associations between the two themes.

Finally, the main themes are restated in a slightly different form in the ‘recapitulation’ section.

For great examples of piano sonatas, listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, or Mozart’s Sonata in C, or explore the fantastic symphonic collection.

sonata form flicr

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Concerto

The concerto features a solo instrument – such the piano, violin, flute or cello - and an orchestra, showcasing what they can do both independently and together. Concertos have three movements – fast, slow, fast.

For an introduction to concertos, listen to the stately baroque of Bach’s Brandenburg 4, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.

Finally, the main themes are restated in a slightly different form in the ‘recapitulation’ section.

concerto picture flickr

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Ballet

For dramatic orchestral music, look no further than the best ballet scores. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1876) was a game-changer in terms of ballet music, as it marked the first time an exclusively symphonic composer had composed a ballet score. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is another ballet that you might know as much for its music as its dance moves. A suite is usually a selection of short movements taken from a ballet - what would the festive period be without a performance of The Nutcracker Suite?

ballerinas on stage

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Opera

If you’re looking for intense orchestral music, then opera has plenty to choose from. The difference between an opera and a musical is that operas are generally entirely sung, while musicals combine singing with spoken dialogue. Most agree that Monteverdi was the ‘founding father’ of opera, and his L’Orfeo (c1607) ranks as the first great opera. For dramatic intensity, look to Verdi’s Rigoletto or perhaps his most performed work, La Traviata, which contains all the elements of operatic drama: a beautiful, fallen-woman heroine, grand party scenes, a troubled father and a deathbed scene.

Opera songs are known as arias, many of which have been used over the years commercially and in films.

Popular Operas

'O Mio Babbino Caro', Giani Scicci, Puccini

O Mio Babbino Caro(Oh My Dear Papa) is a emotional soprano aria from Puccini’s Giani Scicci sung by young protagonist Lauretta, who is begging her Father to help her get married to the lover of her life, Rinuccio. This piece has earned wide acclaim for its emotional effect, just see for yourself this two-year old getting emotional whilst listening to Puccini:

‘La donna è mobile’, Rigoletto, Verdi

‘La donna è mobile’, from one of Verdi’s most popular operas, Rigoletto. This canzone is often thought to be the centrepiece of the opera, occurring at a turning point in a much-loved story of deceit, love lust and desire. Musical themes established in the short ‘La donna è mobile’ repeat throughout the opera, driving the tale forward.

‘Habanera,Carmen, George Bizets

Habanera from Carmen – also known as ‘Love is a Rebellious Bird’ is an aria sung by the lovestruck femme fatale title character. Carmen sings how ‘Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame’.

Types of Opera

Opera Seria

Opera Seria is an Italian term that literally translates into serious opera; naturally, this refers to the weighty, humourless type of operas that were popular during the 1700s such as Mozarts Idomeneo and Vivaldis L'Olimpiade. Apart from being serious, an Opera Seria is defined by its lack of spoken dialogue, emphasis on grand vocals and tragic or heroic narrative.

Opera Buffa

Opera Buffa is the Italian term for funny opera, a type of opera thats also known as comic opera. An Opera Buffa is usually more grounded than an Opera Seria and therefore features relatable characters and an everyday plot. Examples include Menottis Amelia Goes to the Ball, Bizets Don Procopio and Ristoris Calandro.

Opera Semiseria

As you may have suspected, Opera Semiseria is the Italian phrase for semi-serious opera. It is a midway point between an Opera Seria and Opera Buffa that became popular during the 1800s; it combines emotion with humour to keep an audience entertained. Famous examples of Opera Semiseria include Donizettis Linda di Chamounix, Bellinis Adelson e Salvini and Paers Leonora

Opera Comique

French opera style Opera Comique alternates between spoken dialogue and musical numbers – much like a modern-day musical. This type of opera shares its name with a Parisian theatre which was founded under the reign of Louis XIV in 1714. Although its name seems to suggest that this type of opera is always comedic, some of the most famous operas are in fact tales of tragedy – take Bizets Carmen, for example. 

Grand Opera

A Grand Opera is a spectacular type of opera of four or five acts that originates from the 1800s. Often revolving around a historic event or a dramatic tale, a grand opera is comparable to an Opera Seria as it takes on a serious tone and features no spoken dialogue. Early examples of Grand Opera include Aubers La Muette de Portici, Halévys La Juive and Donizettis Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal.

Chamber Music

Chamber music is composed for smaller ensembles of instruments – as it was originally intended to be played in a ‘chamber’ at home. The standard arrangement of instruments for chamber music include the string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello) and a woodwind ensemble, often accompanied by a piano or harpsichord.

The small number of musicians gives chamber music its characteristic intimacy and subtlety. Explore different chamber music moods with a peaceful Lullaby from Brahms, Mozart’s thoughtful Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Romanze, or have some fun with Saint-Saëns’ Donkeys as the quartet make asses of themselves as part of the Carnival of the Animals.

Types of Chamber Music

Historical Chamber

Historical Chamber Music is inspired by the era in which chamber orchestras had their inception – during the medieval period. Often, a chamber orchestra would be accompanied by a folk singer who would sing over the rustic rhythms created by the musicians. Our collection of historical chamber tracks includes Ian Hughes’ Courtesans, Royal Consent and Gloriana, all of which you can find over on our Orchestral, Small Ensemble, Historical page.

Elegant Chamber

Elegant Chamber Music is thoughtful and soothing: it combines the transportive sounds of the worlds most angelic instruments and vocals to create a touching composition. Frequently optimistic, music of this style is used in media projects to cause the listener to reflect on the narrative. Our collection of Elegant Chamber Music features eight beautiful tracks composed by Gallant, Meegan, Tobin and Kelly, including New World, Butterfly Dream and Lullaby for Dolly.

Light, Playful Chamber

Chamber orchestras are ideal for performing light, playful compositions that are suitable for use in fairytales, comedies, romances and other jocund genres. The sprightly rhythms of this style of Chamber Music evokes images of mythical creatures, friendly beings, sweet animals and enchanted settings. Our collection of Robert Bruces Light, Playful Chamber Ensembles includes pieces named Applause, Applause, Clockwork and Ladies in Waiting

Classical Chamber

Chamber orchestras are ideal for performing light, playful compositions that are suitable for use in fairytales, comedies, romances and other jocund genres. The sprightly rhythms of this style of Chamber Music evokes images of mythical creatures, friendly beings, sweet animals and enchanted settings. Our collection of Robert Bruces Light, Playful Chamber Ensembles includes pieces named Applause, Applause, Clockwork and Ladies in Waiting

How to license the best orchestral music

Looking to license orchestral music? This can sometimes be a challenge because of sound recording copyright.

Audio Network, however, has a huge variety of specially recorded orchestral music, from chamber music to full symphony orchestras, which is simple and fast to license. The breadth of classical music means that you can find the perfect track for any sort of content:

  • Epic orchestral music – with everything from thrilling action featuring urgent strings and soaring brass to majestic and poignant memorials, go epic to create blockbusters and superhero soundtracks or trailers.
  • Dramatic orchestral music, with high-octane percussion, heroic brass and triumphant choirs is ideal for soundtracking those huge, edge-of-the-seat moments to wow your audience on both the small and big screen
  • Intense orchestral music comes into its own when you’re building the atmosphere and tension for horror movies.

Or check out Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, as it was used to spine-tingling effect in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

This page was originally published 10/06/2020 and was updated 26/07/2021



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