I don't think I have ever seen an orchestra where there wasn't someone conducting.

Has there ever been such an example of an orchestra?

Edit: By conductor, I mean the guy swinging the baton:

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  • If an orchestra is "led" by a concertmaster or soloist (e.g., when performing a concerto), does that count as having a conductor or not, in terms of your question? See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conductorless_orchestra Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 14:51
  • 2
    I think if you read this question in a charitable manner the OP means an orchestra that has no person acting specifically as conductor.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:31
  • Guidot's answer speaks to my uncertainty about what the asker considers to be a "conductor", and since there are many aspects to a conductor's job, it's not even clear what is meant by "acting specifically as a conductor". That being said, regardless of what one thinks of as a "conductor", it seems like some orchestras do not have any one person performing any of those tasks, as I quote in my answer. So while I still think the question isn't 100% clear, it doesn't actually have to be 100% clear to be answerable. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 16:43
  • @ToddWilcox Neil is correct; I updated my question to specify what I meant Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:24
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    Not all conductors use a baton (says the wise-ass pedant). And there's a short story somewhere about a conductor who uses his tail. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:51

4 Answers 4


It looks like yes, regardless of your answer to my comment.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conductorless_orchestra

The East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) was envisioned in 2001, when a group of young string players sought to form a conductorless chamber orchestra, based upon democratic principles. The members are soloists, orchestral musicians, and chamber musicians all mainly trained at Marlboro Music School and Festival. ECCO is a string orchestra made up of 17 instrumentalists.

The Advent Chamber Orchestra started in 2003 when Roxana Pavel and Elias Goldstein worked together in chamber music ensembles. The ensemble functioned primarily as a chamber music collaborative until 2005 performed their first concert as the Advent Chamber Orchestra. The ensemble is generally led by concertmaster and music director Roxana Pavel Goldstein, but artistic decisions are achieved democratically.

A Far Cry, formed in early 2007, is a Boston based chamber orchestra made up of 18 string players. A Far Cry describes itself as self-conducted, and operates with rotating leadership and no conductor. All artistic decisions are made by vote, and the orchestra members handle all the artistic management and promotion of the ensemble. A Far Cry has close ties to the New England Conservatory (NEC) as well as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where it is ensemble-in-residence.

The orchestra Spira Mirabilis, formed in 2007, is a European classical orchestra functioning without a conductor.

The Lyra Vivace Chamber Orchestra, founded in 2010, is a musician-run collective based in Augusta, GA and the SouthEastern United States. Lyra Vivace is an ensemble of www.InPraiseofMusic.org, a resource of and for professional musicians.

Arizona Chamber Orchestra is the most recently formed conductorless ensemble. Based in Phoenix, the Arizona Chamber Orchestra presents its inaugural season in 2011 with a nucleus of 15 string players, performing throughout Arizona.

Ars Nova Chamber Orchestra, formed in late 2010, is a Washington, D.C.-based chamber orchestra made up of 29 musicians. It is self-conducted, and operates with rotating leadership in all sections. Ars Nova's artistic decisions are guided by the musicians, and they all participate in marketing and administering the ensemble. The ensemble's members include D.C.-based musicians, and musicians based in other parts of the United States.

And those are just the contemporary examples.

  • 1
    regardless of your answer to my comment. I didn't answer your comment until now :P Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:25
  • 1
    Right, I meant that regardless of whatever your answer might be to my comment. Probably I should have just deleted my comment after I discovered it didn't matter. Oh well. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:44
  • I was going to mention A Far Cry :-). Further, IIRC on occasion Bernstein would leave the podium empty to play a piano concerto with the NY Phil. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 19:50
  • Actually, those are just the examples of groups that were founded in the 21st century. Orpheus, a pioneer in the field, is mentioned under "1970s" because it was founded in 1972, but it is alive and well.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 18:50

Unfortunately neither term is strictly defined.

Orchestra may be anything from a string ensemble (starting at about 12 people), to a late-romantic crowd (easily exceeding 60 instrumentalists).

Conductor may be 1) the name for the person, swinging the baton 2) the person having the concept for interpretation and rehearsing it with the colleagues

Smaller, professional players may have no type-1 conductor, to form a coherent interpretation for lacking type-2 conductor they must be very synchronized.

As soon as soloists (as in solo concerto, or vocal soloists as in an opera) are involved, or a full orchestra is playing I don't believe in existence of an orchestra without type-1 conductor. The area the players need, the remoteness of far players, speed of sound delays, free capacity of mind to detect and correct any sort of delay wherever...

  • I updated the question to specify what kind of conductor I refer to Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 17:28

Yes it is sometimes the case with smaller baroque and ancient music type orchestras although other eras of music also had it sporadically. Often it is chamber music with only strings.

I know the Irish choir group Anuna sometimes have a small conductorless string ensemble. Something which fits it with the type of music they perform. IF the video is anything to go by it looks like the lead of the 1st violins takes on the role of conductor.

You can read more about it here.

  • Video link is dead.
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 5:52

Taking the question at its most literal: yes, there have been many conductor-less orchestras. The conductor, in the sense of the person in front of the orchestra with a skinny baton, is a relatively recent innovation.

Wikipedia offers a history of conducting, which includes this statement:

By the early 19th century (ca. 1820), it became the norm to have a dedicated conductor, who did not also play an instrument during the performance.

In the general sense, conductors of some sort go back at least to the middle ages (see Wikipedia), but the modern conception of the conductor can be traced to, roughly, 1820.

A 2018 article in the South China Morning Post also offers some brief history.

It was 1820 when the word “conductor” appeared on a concert programme for the very first time, according to the book A History of Orchestral Conducting.

Brittanica has a brief and useful history of conducting, which, among other things, contains this tidbit.

Conducting became a specialized form of musical activity only in the early 19th century. As early as the 15th century, performances by the Sistine Choir in the Vatican were kept together by slapping a roll of paper (or in other cases, a lengthy pole, or baton) to maintain an audible beat. This practice continued until it became an actual intrusion on the performance and was of necessity abandoned.

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