The Difference Between a Wind Ensemble, Wind Orchestra, and Symphonic Band

When most people think about a traditional wind ensemble, wind orchestra, or symphonic band, the first thought that comes to mind is usually a military band. But, the difference between a wind ensemble, wind orchestra, and symphonic band is a little more complicated than simply saying they are variations on the military band.

These ensembles are capable of playing highly nuanced music and are often used in film scores, concert settings, and outdoor events. The wind ensemble, wind orchestra, and symphonic band are made up of brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. However, a wind ensemble generally is going to have fewer instruments than a symphonic band and a wind orchestra typically has string instruments included.

Wind ensembles and wind orchestras tend to play more advanced literature and may include extra instruments, like the cello, typically not found in a band setup. Each ensemble serves its own purpose but provides a different overall effect due to differences in density and timbre. Typically, a wind ensemble is a lighter version of a symphonic band and can be thought of as a soloist ensemble.

In both the wind ensemble and the wind orchestra, individual sections are out in the open and each player's part is more transparent to the audience. Wind ensembles and wind orchestras are perfect for lighter, more technically difficult works while a symphonic band works well for marches, majestic works, and music compositions that require a great deal of instrumental power.

The Wind Orchestra

It’s not quite a wind ensemble and it’s not a symphonic band. The wind orchestra is more of a concept than an actual ensemble. In a wind orchestra, the style of playing is the most important element. Wind orchestras may have a small string section; however, it is much more than string instruments that make this ensemble a wind orchestra.

The manner of playing in a wind orchestra is supposed to be different than that of a wind ensemble and symphonic band. Wind orchestra members are instructed to let the sound travel further and play in a style that mimics the continuous and flexible sound of the orchestra. Because of this, a good wind orchestra can create a unique sound where the tail ends of each note last just a little longer than with a traditional wind band.

The articulations and phrasing are smoother and instrumentalists attempt to imitate the variety of articulations available in the orchestra. A casual observer to a wind orchestra rehearsal may notice that the conductor asks the ensemble to play a piece with an up-bow or down-bow type of sound to get the right feel in specific sections.

Woodwind Section

The woodwind section consists of piccolos, flutes, clarinets, oboes, saxophones, and bassoons. Each one of these instruments creates its own unique timbre. In a wind ensemble or symphonic band, these instruments typically take on the melody or play the more virtuosic background parts since there are typically no string instruments.

Woodwind instruments have the capability of playing softer than any other instrument but their dynamic range is not as wide as a brass instrument. Because of this, the composer must take care to orchestrate the woodwind section in a way that allows for the individual section colors to come through. A composer wouldn’t want to bury the flutes and clarinets in a sea of trumpets. One way around this is to have one section play the melody, while another section takes on the harmony parts.

Brass Section

The brass section is the most powerful section of the wind ensemble and symphonic band. The brass section contains a collection of trumpets (sometimes cornets), trombones, euphoniums, French horns, and tubas. While there is generally a similar orchestration to what you might find in an orchestra, a wind ensemble or symphonic band has many more players.

It’s not uncommon to find six or more trumpet players, four French horns, three trombones, two euphoniums, and two tuba players in a wind ensemble. Symphonic bands have additional members as well. The wind ensemble is all about color, while the symphonic band focuses on sheer power. Because of this, the wind ensemble and less frequently, the symphonic band, brings in less common instruments like the Flugelhorn to play solo parts. Composers must blend the brass section equally with the woodwind section to get a full, robust, and balanced sound.

Percussion Section

The percussion section in a wind ensemble or symphonic band is typically very large compared to an orchestra. The wind ensemble and symphonic band will often have four timpani, bass drums, xylophones, vibraphones, marimbas, and various artillery drums to counteract the massive symphonic forces. When writing for the percussion section, composers can be somewhat flexible in the notation.

There are many experimental percussion instruments in the percussion section that don’t have a standard method of notation. Because of this, composers are encouraged to use traditional percussion notation techniques, and when in doubt, write in the part specifically how they want the percussionist to play a particular section.

Composing Band Music

When writing for a band, composers need to have a solid understanding of how each instrument group in the ensemble works together. Each section can be combined with other sections to get new sounds. Combining a Euphonium with a Bassoon provides you with a sound that is almost string-like in nature. It’s a great combination of dark and brooding sections that need to have a bit of melody.

A basic orchestration course can help composers to learn to orchestrate more effectively, and while many of the same principles apply to the orchestration of an orchestra, there are some wind ensemble and symphonic band-specific methods of orchestrating that a composer needs to learn about. One of the best ways to learn to orchestrate involves getting an ensemble to run through your piece. However, this can be difficult for composers not affiliated with a university or college.

Sampling Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band Music

A suitable alternative is not the use of sampled sounds. Sampled sounds can help a composer that already knows how to orchestrate effectively, but for young composers that have little experience, sampled sounds give an unrealistic expectation of what to expect. Without a real understanding of how the wind band sections fit together, it’s not really possible to write a realistic sampled band demo without understanding the relationship between the instrument sections.

Even the best, most balanced samplers don’t provide the overtones that a real ensemble provides. Something that sounds clean coming from a sampler may sound muddy and unintelligible when played by a real concert band.


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