Wondering Out Loud


Author: Ed Cohen

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a symphony or a philharmonic?

Today, very little.

Orchestras — sometimes called symphony orchestras — and philharmonics both perform symphonies, those elaborate instrumental compositions in three or more movements. Technically, “philharmonic” can refer to any musical organization. The word comes from the French philharmonique, meaning “loving harmony.”

In classical Greek theater, the orchestra wasn’t a band of musical accompanyists but the ground level of the amphitheater. The orchestra as a form of musical group evolved around 1600 A.D. and for the first few centuries was defined by certain characteristics. For instance, it had to have more stringed instruments than brass and percussion.

Nowadays the Atlanta Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic — they’re all essentially the same. The differences derive mainly from the musicians, director and historic character of the group, not the term they put at the end of their name.

Sources: Samuel Sanchez ’98, assistant director of bands
Daniel Stowe, Glee Club director;
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Notre Dame Magazine, summer 2002

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.