What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, Symphony, and Philharmonic?

If you’re like me, feeling cultured feels good. There are few sensations as pleasant as learning something new, or exploring a different place, or doing something that expands your world even a miniscule amount. Also: being able to talk about feeling cultured feels good. Part of the fun of doing culture-y stuff is telling people about it, whether it’s excitedly or earnestly or just to show people how very cultured you are.

You know what doesn’t feel good? Trying show people that you’re cultured, and being WRONG. Nope, I think that’s a feeling we’d all like to avoid. And with that, let’s learn the real difference between an orchestra, symphony, and philharmonic.

An orchestra is a large group of musicians that usually includes the four major sections of Western instruments: strings, brass, winds, and percussion.

symphony is a large-scale piece of music that typically contains three to four movements.

symphony orchestra is an orchestra that’s big enough and has enough of a variety of instruments (usually 18 to 25!) to play a symphony. When an orchestra is called a “symphony,” it’s just shorthand for “symphony orchestra.”For example, when people call the CSO the “Cleveland Symphony,” they’re dropping the “orchestra” at the end—but it’s there. So: you are not going to see the “symphony,” you’re going to see the “symphony orchestra.” 

philharmonic—or, really, a philharmonic orchestra—is the same thing as a symphony orchestra. The label is used to differentiate between two music groups in a city, so that you don’t get the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra confused. But the term “philharmonic orchestra,” unlike “symphony orchestra,” is always part of a proper name—so I’d say I was in a symphony orchestra in high school, not in a philharmonic orchestra. (Unless I was actually in like, the New York Philharmonic in high school, which I was not.)

And with that, may I suggest Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (particularly the second movement)? Because we can now resume talking about how cultured we are.

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