Both the definitions imply a group of musicians playing a piece together. If i am inferring it wrong, kindly clarify the difference. enter image description here


4 Answers 4


An orchestra, at least in Western culture, usually has a fairly specific selection of instruments from which the orchestra is comprised ("orchestral instruments"). In contrast, an ensemble can be any collection of instruments, voices, dancers. An orchestra is always an ensemble, but not all ensembles are orchestras.

The specific instruments 'required' in an orchestra changed over time. In the Baroque period, it was common to have a string section (violins, violas, celli, basses), a couple of wind instruments (oboes, horns were common) and perhaps even a harpsichord. This changed through the Classical period, and by the Romantic period there were vast swathes of brass and woodwind instruments and a much larger string section. There was also more variety in percussion instruments.

A "wind orchestra" is an orchestra entirely comprised of wind instruments; a "chamber orchestra" is a smaller version of an orchestra but generally comprising of similar instruments to a full-size orchestra, except where impractical or unbalancing in terms of volume.

  • Welcome! Great first answer! Commented May 10, 2018 at 16:55
  • Well, sort of -- Duke Ellington lead a jazz orchestra in the terminology of his time. Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:56

An orchestra will refer to a specific set of instruments, as Beth mentioned. There is usually a qualifying descriptor in front of it. A symphony orchestra refers to the group we normally associate with classical symphonies and tone poems. There are non-classical orchestras, too, like Big Band Orchestras and Gamelan Orchestras. Both refer to specific sets of instruments that play those kinds of music.

  • And everyone's favourite, ukulele orchestras... Commented May 10, 2018 at 21:02
  • 'Big Band Orchestra' isn't an accepted term. Just 'Big Band'.
    – Laurence
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 21:20
  • 1
    This is new information to me. I based my answer on the Count Basie Orchestra, and I don't believe he was the only one to call his group an orchestra instead of a Big Band. Please explain why Big Band Orchestra is not an accepted term.
    – Heather S.
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 21:37
  • @LaurencePayne you are misleading here. Big Band ensembles often were called Orchestras back in their heyday. Just not both names together. Commented May 11, 2018 at 11:57

To the best of my knowledge, no vocal ensemble has ever been called an orchestra (pleading for experts to correct me here :-) ). Similarly, it's common for a combined performance to be "orchestra and chorus" rather than just "orchestra," so while "vocal ensemble" is a common term, as well as "instrumental ensemble," I think 'orchestra' is pretty much limited to instrumental groups.

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    I pretty much agree with your terminology and definition and as an opinion would not classify "Electric Light Orchestra" an orchestra, but an ensemble instead. Commented May 11, 2018 at 14:30
  • @skinnypeacock and thus the difference between a category and a name :-) . Commented May 11, 2018 at 14:36

We (sort of) know what a Symphony Orchestra is. Apart from that, as previous answers have demonstrated, the term is pretty much up for grabs. We might be fairly confident in saying that (unless used ironically) 'Orchestra' implies a sizeable group of players. But not necessarily THAT big.

'Ensemble' is an even looser term.

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