[ awr-kuh-struh ]
/ ˈɔr kə strə /
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a group of performers on various musical instruments, including especially stringed instruments of the viol class, clarinets and flutes, cornets and trombones, drums, and cymbals, for playing music, as symphonies, operas, popular music, or other compositions.
(in a modern theater)
  1. the space reserved for the musicians, usually the front part of the main floor (orchestra pit ).
  2. the entire main-floor space for spectators.
  3. the parquet.
(in the ancient Greek theater) the circular space in front of the stage, allotted to the chorus.
(in the Roman theater) a similar space reserved for persons of distinction.
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Origin of orchestra

1590–1600; <Latin orchēstra<Greek orchḗstra the space on which the chorus danced, derivative of orcheîsthai to dance
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What’s the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic?

In popular use, orchestra, symphony, and philharmonic are often used interchangeably to refer to a large group of musicians assembled to play music, especially classical music.

The most common (and general) term is orchestra. Most large orchestras include many different instruments and classes of instruments, including strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

The word symphony primarily refers to a complex, multipart musical composition (like Beethoven’s fifth symphony), but it’s also a short way of referring to a symphony orchestra—a large orchestra, the kind that performs symphonies. (Smaller orchestras—those with about 25 people—are often called chamber orchestras). As a noun, the word philharmonic can refer to a symphony orchestra or to the organization that sponsors it (sometimes called a philharmonic society, in which philharmonic is used as an adjective). The word orchestra most commonly refers to the group of musicians, but it can also refer to the space reserved for them, usually the front part of the main floor (sometimes called the orchestra pit).

Both symphony and philharmonic are sometimes used in the names of orchestras, as in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Here’s an example of orchestra, symphony, and philharmonic used correctly in a sentence.

Example: I’ve attended performances of this symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

Want to learn more? Read the full breakdown of the difference between orchestra, symphony, and philharmonic.

Quiz yourself on symphony vs. orchestra vs. philharmonic!

Should orchestra, symphony, or philharmonic be used in the following sentence?

Mozart composed this _____ in 1786.

How to use orchestra in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for orchestra

/ (ˈɔːkɪstrə) /

a large group of musicians, esp one whose members play a variety of different instrumentsSee also symphony orchestra, string orchestra, chamber orchestra
a group of musicians, each playing the same type of instrumenta balalaika orchestra
Also called: orchestra pit the space reserved for musicians in a theatre, immediately in front of or under the stage
mainly US and Canadian the stalls in a theatre
(in the ancient Greek theatre) the semicircular space in front of the stage

Derived forms of orchestra

orchestral (ɔːˈkɛstrəl), adjectiveorchestrally, adverb

Word Origin for orchestra

C17: via Latin from Greek: the space in the theatre reserved for the chorus, from orkheisthai to dance
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for orchestra


A group of musicians who play together on a variety of instruments, which usually come from all four instrument families — brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds. A typical symphony orchestra is made up of more than ninety musicians. Most orchestras, unlike chamber music groups, have more than one musician playing each musical part.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.