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Over the years orchestras have added various new instruments to their set and I'm thinking that there are quite many modern interesting instruments that might be included in an orchestra set.

Have there been any such inclusions of modern instruments lately or is the set not changing for a long time already?

Edit: By orchestra I mean any kind of orchestra even a a very large one. By modern instrument I mean any instrument that was created (invented, introduced) after the 19th century.

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    I agree – it's a bit sad how little the standard orchestra has changed since the 19th century. I would particularly find a Theremin section highly interesting (that's not even a very modern instrument anymore). – leftaroundabout Jan 15 '17 at 10:59
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    Sure, vacuum cleaners and rifles. – Clarinetist Jan 16 '17 at 0:37
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    and DJ turntables – Robin Hartland Jan 16 '17 at 1:53
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    Peter Schickele has scored some rather innovative, if not unique, instruments in his rôle as PDQ Bach. The Horn & Hardart; the Left Handed Sewer flute; the use of just the oboe reeds themselves, sans oboe. My favorite 'instrument' was a collection of ear-shattering air-horns. – IconDaemon Jan 16 '17 at 2:05
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    There are series of temporary orchestra setups, PVC IV is a non-standard orchestral piece in which three sets of PVC pipe "organs" complete the traditional instruments. – user3819867 Jan 16 '17 at 14:46

10 Answers 10

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The biggest thing to understand about an Orchestra is that they operate "at a loss".

To have a successful orchestra, you need to be able to have donors, ticket sales, and subscriptions.

Donors make up the most of the monetary substance. Subscriptions come in second, and ticket sales dead last.

On the other end (money out), you need to pay staff, musicians, and such for time to practice, perform, and hone their skills. Being a professional orchestra level musician is a life style more then anything else.

So now you have a large money in, large money out "business" that makes no money itself. Most orchestras struggle just to "survive", but even "thriving", can mean just breaking even.

So, the question becomes, what do you need to be able to play the most varied selection of music? Would you donate $10,000 to an orchestra that couldn't play "Beethoven's 5"? How about one that couldn't play Opening theme from Star-Wars? What about something like Vivaldi's Four Seasons?

Ok so now you have a pretty set list of players you need to pay. You have your strings, your percussion, your brass, and you wood-winds.

Now, be need a Trumpet player. Guess what there's a lot of those so we can afford 4 trumpets at around $70k each. The better ones more, the less skilled less, but averaging around $70k.

We should have some french horns. Hmm there staring around $100k on the low end. Arrg. Ok let's get 1.

Now lets get an oboe player. Lots of those again, They start around $62k. Lets get 4.

You know what. I want to play a piece from Zelda, Link's awakening. I need an ocarina player. Hmm, well theres only 3 of those in the whole world, and the only one that wants a full time gig wants $1,200k a year. Hmmm, let's re-write the ocarina part for clarinet. WOOT $36k a year. Still only need one, but wow was that better then $1,200k.

And so on.

Most pieces call for a similar set of instruments. Pieces that call for "special" instruments can be arranged to not need them. Thus I don't have to pay for a full year just to play 1 piece.

If this year's schedule calls for 30 different pieces, and they all have the same instrumentation, that's great. If 29 pieces have the same instrumentation, and 1 piece needs something special, then maybe I should rethink that one piece.

In the real world, most pieces have mostly the same instrumentation. It's generally close enough to pay for the 4th trumpet to just play the 3rd part with the 3rd instrument on the 4 pieces that only have 3 parts. But an odd/new instrument that's only around for one piece? What are they supposed to do the rest of the time?

This is even more true if the piece the new instrument plays is part of a concert that is only given once or twice a year.

Including this player in the orchestra becomes a waste of money. Better to just contract them out for that one performance. However doing so could be very expensive.

So while an orchestra may not actively avoid having new instruments. It also doesn't make a lot of sense to have a player on the books that isn't going to perform in many pieces. Better to have them as a "guest" then a "member".

That said, most orchestras are more then willing to have "new" instruments that are replacements for old ones. But an electric violin, doesn't sound the same as an "acoustic" one. Sound is everything in music, so....

Would you want to listen to a MIDI keyboard over a Grand Piano?

No, totally new instruments simply wouldn't get enough playtime to be worth the cost, while new version of old instruments are more accepted, they also don't sound the same, and that's important. Combined, it means that orchestra companies tend to favor the same (rigid) set of instruments.

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    Alas, you're right. I wonder how it might change if classical musicians (except soloists) wouldn't as much focus on perfecting one instrument plus learning a little piano&vocals on the side, and instead everybody learned two different orchestra-suited instruments. In particular, if every string player could also play some modern instrument, orchestras would be much more flexible. – leftaroundabout Jan 15 '17 at 14:16
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    Only three ocarina players in the whole world! Wow. I used to know a man who was really good on the ocarina but he died a couple of years ago unfortunately. I do have one but I'm not really very good at playing it - but for that sort of money maybe I'll start trying a bit harder. – JimM Jan 15 '17 at 22:41
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    Great points in general, but I think ocarina is a pretty poor example. Hiring a decent ocarina player is going to be much much cheaper than a french horn player. There are no real embouchure requirements to play the ocarina, if you really wanted to include an ocarina in an orchestral performance you could find someone of a good enough level pretty cheaply. Hell, just take the most open minded woodwind player and give him/her a few months to learn to double up à la James Galyway in the LOTR soundtrack on whistle – Some_Guy Jan 16 '17 at 9:48
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    "Pieces that call for "special" instruments can be arranged to not need them." Only really for amateur performance, because if the piece is written for that instrument then it usually won't sound the same on another instrument. So players of those instruments are hired on an as-needed basis. The James Bond theme is a perfect example of this - it simply will not sound "right" without that electric guitar. "Better to just contract them out for that one performance. However doing so could be very expensive." You're wrong - that's exactly how it's done, because it's cheaper. – Graham Jan 16 '17 at 11:57
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    This answer would really benefit from sources for any part of it. It certainly sounds reasonable, but that's not good enough for me to take it at face value. – Matthew Read Jan 18 '17 at 19:29
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coteyr has already accounted for why it's hard to add permanent new instruments to an orchestra in general. Let me give a slightly different perspective on short-term additions to the orchestra:

As opposed to the United States, orchestra financing is very different in Europe. Once again, orchestras operate "at a loss", but instead of being financed through donations, they are usually financed through taxes. This implies that they just like their American counterparts have to fill their concerts as it's hard to argue why to keep an orchestra if nobody is listening, but they often have a bit more room to wiggle. For instance, there is often some money to hire additional musicians just for an evening even if they are not soloists.

This way, you can actually include new instruments in an orchestra and it is routinely being done for contemporary music: I've personally seen wide arrays of modern instruments and objects used as instruments (such as a saw), most of them percussion instruments (not the saw), added to an orchestra for particular presentations. It's possible and it is being done.

Why are they not added to the permanent staff? Well, coteyr already argued that it's too expensive. I just want to add here some statistics: It only makes sense to add a permanent member to your staff if that person will play a considerable amount of your performances. Let's put the bar really low and say we want to have more than 10% of the performances.

Now, let's have a look at what orchestras play: There are extensive statistics out there: https://bachtrack.com/classical-music-statistics-2015 If you have a look at the infographics, you'll find out that nowhere does the amount of contemporary music played in the 2015th season reach 10%. More than 2/3 of all pieces played by an average orchestra in the Western world are more than one hundred years old. The amount of 20th century music seems large, but remember that it includes people like Sibelius, Strauß and Shostakovich. In other words: The pieces played by your average orchestra are dominated by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

Since the current orchestra already contains all instruments to play pieces from 100 years ago, this means that your new addition to the orchestra will never play even 10% of the time even if all contemporary music used it.

Maybe, in a hundred years time, orchestras will play enough pieces that need some new instrument such as a saxophone, but it will take quite long. Even then, there will only ever be slight changes to the orchestra, which will continue to be dominated by strings:

The reason is that at least in Central Europe, compositions are usually payed for by orchestras or orechstra-affiliated institutions. And even if they aren't you need to have an orchestra to play the piece. As I said, it's often possible to add some new instruments to the orchestra, but when you have to pay upwards of five professional musicians for the evening in addition to the orchestra, it gets expensive. This is why - at least in Central Europe - most new compositions either work with (parts of) a classical orchestra and few additions or compose for very small ensembles. Clearly, this limits the possibilities to change the composition of the orchestra.

That doesn't means that other type of music - even for larger ensembles - doesn't exist and that there aren't orchestras to play them. There is for instance a German ensemble that gives performances with instruments invented by Harry Partch only. Those smaller ensembles are often much more likely to experiment with different instruments, so you should listen to them if you like experiments in this direction.

  • I was thinking of the Harry Partch instruments as a good example of a specialized performing group other than a traditional orchestra, who might visit as guest performers -- though with Partch's 23-note scale, it's unlikely that the orchestra could play with them. – keshlam Jan 15 '17 at 19:13
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An "orchestra" tends to consist of permanent players covering a broad enough repertoire to keep enough of audience and sponsors interested in keeping the orchestra running. As a result, the vast majority of the played pieces has to involve most of the players. In contrast to smaller ensembles, many pieces are played in the available readily orchestrated version without significant adaption.

As a result, you need core competency in standard instruments for every player, with "stranger" instruments being additional elements of certain players' skill sets.

There are certain half-standard instruments like saxophones and saxhorns and euphoniums and the ophicleides primarily known as instruments used in Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique these days.

There are other instruments like the natural corno da caccia which have mostly single-piece use these days (like in the "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" bass aria of the Bach B minor mass) even though their repertoire was far wider at their own time.

Other instruments like the cornett or zink (instruments of the brass instrument class but built from hard wood and keratine) are only played by specialist ensembles even though their sound quality is a lot more pliable and pleasant than that of the modern brass instruments having replaced it.

But in a large orchestra, it is important to cover a lot of ground in sound qualities, and in particular cover the spectrum the composers anticipated.

So as a result, the "money skills" of orchestra players tend to constitute a mainline orchestra, with other instruments being left to hired soloists or played as secondary instruments. However, since those secondary instruments are also secondary in hiring decisions, they more often than not are only supported by single players or pairs rather than whole sections.

  • So orchestras avoid having new instruments in their sets? – SovereignSun Jan 15 '17 at 9:44
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    They avoid new instruments unless part of the purpose of the piece is to feature that instrument -- and then it's usually a case of bringing in a guest performer or finding someone already present who can double on the new one rather than expanding the orchestra. – keshlam Jan 15 '17 at 19:10
  • Saying that cornetts sound more pliable and pleasant than their modern brass counterparts is opinion not fact. I disagree. – Brian THOMAS Jan 16 '17 at 13:32
  • How is the natural horn useful only for the Bach quoniam? Every piece for horn that's more than roughly 150 years old was written for natural horn. All of these pieces can also be played on a modern valved horn. Or are you talking about the fact that the quoniam is the only movement in the mass that uses the horn? If so, I don't understand how that is relevant to the discussion, as it affects the budget for one concert program only, not for the the organization as a whole. – phoog Jan 16 '17 at 14:00
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Ennio Morricone was the first thing that sprang to my mind. He included many new instruments to his orchestral compositions, such as the whistle, harmonica, electric guitar, and so on. Maybe the movie industry is the way to look for these orchestra settings with new interesting instruments. They probably also have the budgets.

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    Film composition is definitely an area where orchestral sounds are combined with many newer sounds in composition and recording, even if the resultant pieces aren't often encountered in performance. – topo morto Jan 15 '17 at 21:00
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    I agree with the idea of film composition. I think people here are being pretty narrow in their definition of orchestra, reducing it almost exclusively to full time orchestras that play in opera houses and the sort. – xerotolerant Jan 15 '17 at 23:30
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    I think you're right! I remember seeing a concert by Yanni, there were such instruments I didn't realise they ever existed. And to take into account yhe works by Matt Uelman or some other famous OST's composers who write ochestration along with some outcast instruments. Those pieces some really good, interesting and challenging in a way for an orchestra. – SovereignSun Jan 16 '17 at 6:09
  • Arguably, the idea of "orchestra" as "huge band" is the heart of the issue here. – bright-star Jan 19 '17 at 1:15
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The make-up of the orchestra is dictated by the pieces they want to play and therefore by the composer.

If a composer wants to highlight a brilliant new keyboard instrument that allows you to play in any key without retuning he may be moved to write "The Well Tempered Clavier". It all starts with the composer. The composer writes the music that needs a particular set of instruments and the composer will know that he/she has access to strings, woodwind, brass & percussion so can include them without issue. Anything more exotic needs to be considered carefully.

So, the drivers here are:

  1. An unknown Composer wanting to maximise the chance of their music getting played by not making it unduly expensive/complicated for an orchestra to do so.

  2. The orchestra wanting to play music that people want to pay to hear. There is leeway in a program to sandwich something unknown with a couple of popular pieces but if the new piece needs a lot of unusual instruments as well, that's two strikes and it's less likely to happen.

In order for new instruments to be added permanently to an orchestra, a big enough composer needs to start writing wildly popular music that demands this extra new instrument. So we have two issues here - there aren't any composers working today popular enough to achieve this sort of critical mass. No Mozarts, No Beethovens, No Berlioz'. Also, what credible new instruments could be added into an orchestra that have been invented in the last hundred years and will still be around in a hundred? Zappa (probably the nearest an artist working in the classical field got to "critical mass" since the death of Stravinsky) wrote for the Synclavier 25 years ago - they're already in the "Vintage synth" category and getting hard to find and keep maintained.

  • I'm talking only abput classical music and classical orchestras. What about orchestras that play soundtracks? – SovereignSun Jan 17 '17 at 17:54
  • The Synclavier is hardly a new instrument on its own right, it's just a particular kind of sample-playing keyboard. But there have been “credible” instruments invented in the last 100 years, the most relevant being perhaps electric guitar, theremin, and daxophone. The former two will quite certainly still be around in 100 years, and electric guitar has achieved a critical mass – there are so many players that expense/complication can hardly be a concern for somebody writing a new piece. In fact I suspect the success of electric guitar in Rock has rather hindered its orchestral adaption. – leftaroundabout Jan 17 '17 at 22:21
  • @SovereignSun sorry I was unclear. I should have made the point that I was referring ONLY to Zappa's later classical pieces. – mcottle Jan 17 '17 at 22:37
  • Edited to make myself clearer re Zappa. – mcottle Jan 17 '17 at 22:42
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I think for a while, saxophone which is a woodwind instrument has been under consideration to be added to the orchestra, normally brass was being used but a few here and there have incorporated sad. You know orchestra music is rigid. It has fixed rules. Then I also watch a school orchestra include two rock guitar soloist in their performance of " carol of the bells "

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    Saxophone can be added to the orchestra any time you have a need for a saxophone. Go down to your local AFM union hall and you'll find any number of sax players who can play whatever you need played. Now, you need some way to get an orchestra including saxophone (or kalimba, or Uzbeki Kalashnophone, or whatever) to sustain its funding. This is the hard trick. – Jon Kiparsky Jan 16 '17 at 6:24
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The most recent addition in the non-percussion area looks like the Saxophone, invented in 1840, but not introduced into orchestral music until the 1930s by the likes of Ravel, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and others.

In the percussion section, the Drum Kit was not introduced into the orchestral section until about the same time, although its history goes back into the 19th century. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, for one, regularly uses a Drum Kit -- and a bass guitar sits near it when used!

And the Marimba, although an old instrument in Africa and South America, did not have a chromatic form suitable for orchestral use until the turn of the 20th century.

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Umm there are many highly voted questions here that really are not answering the OP's questions which was

Have there been any such inclusions of modern instruments lately or is the set not changing for a long time already?

The answer to that is yes. The standard orchestra is basically set, and those are good reasons for why the orchestras slow to extend their instruments however there is at least one modern instrument that has made it in. I present to you the Steelpan.

The steelpan basically had its style and construction established in the mid 20th century. In my country there are orchestras that play nothing else employing at least a thousand people seasonally and hundreds full time. There are people who study steel pan full time at local and regional universities. See UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra. People also come to Trinidad and Tobago from all over the world to play every year in Panorama.

I can't find recordings of classical stuff on youtube but I have personally been to multiple classically oriented performances. Here is a guy playing bach.

The steelpan and other instruments might not be a part of the standard orchestra but to simply say nothing other than the european stuff gets played in orchestras simply is not true. I'll look for examples of american and other orchestras using steel pan as part of their percussion stuff. Again not standard but not completely absent either.

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You could look at it this way.

If you run a full-time orchestra then what you do is perform concerts. Most orchestras will perform a wide range of repertoire and the majority of that will require just the standard range of instruments within the four groups.

For any other "unusual" requirements you will hire professionals on a one-off basis because for the majority of what you play they are not needed. So when you need a zither or an Ondes Martenot you hire one in just for that performance. Until a time comes when there is so much repertoire calling for these instruments that you need one at almost every concert they will remain on the sidelines I think.

  • I suppose some orchestras thus may have a fulltime synth keyboard player or a guitar player in their orchestra set. Can't they? – SovereignSun Jan 17 '17 at 17:24
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    Guitar player I doubt. How much orchestral music requires a guitar - a very small percentage I think. Synth player similar but they might be more likely to have one because it would fall under the percussion section I think and they might well have a competent player in the section – JimM Jan 18 '17 at 18:31
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Orchestras can and will vary their instrumentation as needed to play the music they choose to play or are asked by their management to play. If you want a relatively common example, you can regularly see pop and rock bands hiring well known orchestras for special occasion concerts. For a less trivial example, see Wynton Marsalis' symphonies for orchestra plus jazz combo.

The reason the symphony orchestra instrumentation remains so standardized is simply that orchestras are able to sell tickets and satisfy their donors most effectively by sticking to the standard orchestral repertoire which has not changed appreciably in the last hundred years or so, and this repertoire relies, for the most part, on the standard instrumentation.

protected by Dom Jan 17 '17 at 14:53

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