I just got an orchestral library called Iconica by Steinberg which has ensembles, sections and players. The "players" samples are individual instruments but there are also ensembles and sections... These are both general terms in orchestration and I would like to know what's the difference between the two?

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    I’m voting to close this question because it's all explained in detail on the Steinberg website.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 21:02
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    Aaron, my question has nothing to do with Steinberg. I only mentioned it in case it would be helpful but this is a general question about orchestras and i doubt Steinberg are in the business of educating wannabe composers such as myself, about the difference between a section and an ensemble. However, if Steinberg do explain it and I have missed that somehow, then please do send me the link to it. Also, please see Andy's response, it is not related to Steinberg and exactly what I was hoping for. Ensemble and section are terms not reserved for steinberg but to groups of musicians in general.
    – user35708
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 8:56
  • Then rewrite your question so that it's clear. Right now, it reads like you're asking bout Steinberg — which even Andy acknowledges. And, Steinberg's use of the term "ensemble" is different from the general meanings of those terms. Just go to their website and look up what instruments comprise the various sections and ensembles.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


Answering outside the context of the Steinberg library, focusing on general usage:

"Ensemble" is a very broad, generic word suitable for any time multiple people make music together. A symphony orchestra is an ensemble; so is a string quartet, a barbershop quartet, a rock band, and a marching band.

"Section", especially when talking about a symphony orchestra, is more specialized, but still has multiple uses. Sometimes you hear about "sections of the orchestra," a somewhat taxonomic usage, as if there are families or phyla of instruments: "the strings section," "the woodwinds section," etc.

"Section" is also used for smaller distinctions: Within "the strings" there's "the first violin section," "the second violin section," etc. These "sections" often just amount to different instruments ("the flute section," "the trumpet section"), though as mentioned, the violins are split into two, and a variety of percussion instruments might be lumped together as "the percussion section."


In addition to @Andy Bonner's general answer to the terms ensembles and sections, most virtual libraries for orchestras use the terms as follows:

  • Individual instruments/players means that the samples provide a single instrument, such as a violin, or a bassoon. You use these for solos, and for arrangement parts where you want detailed control over the instrument performance.

  • Sections mean that the samples provide a group of musicians that play the same instrument and work together in a typical orchestra arrangement, such as "violins 1" and "violins 2" or "trumpets". You use these for the "standard" parts of an arrangements, such as counterpart phrases.

  • Ensembles mean that the samples provide several sections and/or individual players that play together, such as "high strings" = violins 1, violins 2, and violas. You use these for simple arrangements such as pop backgrounds, or when the orchestra plays highly unisono or tutti, such as a long crescendo at the end.

  • Some libraries additionally split the sections into further smaller groups and call these desks, such as the "violins 1", "violins 2", "violins 3", "violins 4". Use these for highly polyphonous parts when your strings need to play more than the 5 concurrent notes that the sections would allow for. This can be found for example in Vienna Symphonic Libraries' Dimension Strings.

These terms are not standardized though, and I have seen different and even contradictory usages. To be safe, when somebody or something talks about an "ensemble" or "section", ask what they mean exactly.

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