Is There A Difference Between A “Symphony,” “Orchestra,” And “Philharmonic”?

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If you want to see some live classical music, you could go to the New York Philharmonic, for instance, or the Chicago Symphony.

Are they the same? Are they different? Why is English so confusing? OK, we are going to stop playing the world’s smallest violin and get to the base—er, bass—of it.

First, what is an orchestra?

An
orchestra
 is “a group of performers on various musical instruments for playing music, as symphonies, operas, popular music, or other compositions.”

An orchestra especially includes stringed instruments of the viol class, clarinets and flutes, cornets and trombones, drums, and cymbals.

It can be a
chamber orchestra
, which is a small orchestra of around 25 musicians, often playing strings and performing in, historically, palace chambers for royalty. A
symphony orchestra
is large, sometimes topping 100 members, and is organized to play symphonies (in concert halls).

Rooted in a Greek word meaning “to dance,” orchestra originally referred to the semicircular area in front of a stage where the chorus danced in theater performances. English adopted the world in the 16th century, though it took on its “large group of musicians” sense in the 1700s.

What is a symphony?

Symphony comes from Greek roots that literally meaning “sounding together, harmony of sound.” It was borrowed into English as early as the 1200s.
In classical music, a symphony is a type of elaborate, multipart composition in classical music. Think Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. or Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. A symphony orchestra, as we saw, is outfitted to play such pieces of music.

Many cities are home to symphony orchestras, often called symphonies or orchestras for short, e.g., I’m going to the symphony/orchestrathe San Francisco Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra.

Some leading symphony orchestras called as such in the US include:

  • Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
  • Dallas Symphony Orchestra
  • National Symphony Orchestra (in DC)

What is a philharmonic?

The word 
philharmonic
literally means “music-loving.” The English word is modeled on French or Italian forms ultimately based on the Greek roots phílos (“loving, dear”) and harmonía (“music, agreement, joint”).

Philharmonic is found in English by the 1740s, used of largely of organizations dedicated to their love of music, e.g., philharmonic society.

The term largely survives today in the names of orchestras, notably:

  • Berlin Philharmonic
  • London Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • New York Philharmonic

Some cities boast multiple orchestras, so philharmonic and symphony can help distinguish the two. New York has the New York Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic; London has the same situation.

So, a symphony and a philharmonic are the same thing. They are orchestras that can play symphonies. Now that’s music to our ears.

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