The Differences Between the Words “Symphony”, “Orchestra”, “Philharmonic”, and “Chamber” in Music

A symphony is an extensive instrumental work written for an orchestra. An orchestra is a large group of musicians who play together. Philharmonic translates to “music lover,” and is similar to an orchestra. A chamber is a small ensemble of musicians that can fit in a small performance space.

These four music terms are often confused, but they each have unique meanings. It’s essential to understand the differences between them so that you can better understand and appreciate the music written for each type of ensemble. So let’s take a closer look at each one.


A symphony is a composition for an orchestra, typically in four movements. The word “symphony” is derived from the Greek words συμφωνία (sumphōnia), “a sounding together,” and σύνολον (synolon), “whole.”

The word “symphony” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, and it is often used to describe classical music works that are larger in scale than a chamber work. It is a lengthy composition, typically lasting between 30 and 45 minutes.

A well-known example of a symphony is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the most popular and well-known classical music compositions ever written. The typical order of symphonic movements is fast-slow-fast-slow, but many exceptions exist.

The four movements can be divided into two groups: the first two (fast and slow) are typically lyrical, and the last two (fast and slow) are more dramatic generally. A symphony orchestra typically consists of about 100 musicians, but there can be as many as 200.

The title symphony orchestra is given to the most established, prestigious, and well-funded orchestras in a given city or state. Some of the most famous symphony orchestras in the world include the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 


An orchestra is a large musical ensemble that typically contains strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments. The word “orchestra” is derived from the Greek word ὀρχήστρα (orchestra), “a place for dancing.”

The first orchestra in the modern sense was formed in Florence, Italy, in the early 1600s. Orchestras are divided into four sections: the string section, the brass section, the woodwind section, and the percussion section.

These sections are divided into two groups: the first two sections (strings and brass) are usually louder and more explosive. In contrast, the last two sections (woodwinds and percussion) are quieter and more subtle. The string section is the largest, followed by the brass and woodwind sections. Finally, the percussion section is the smallest.

A typical orchestra contains about 100 musicians, but there can be as many as 200. Orchestras with fewer than 50 musicians are called chamber orchestras, while the full-size orchestras with up to 100 musicians are called symphony orchestras. 


The word “philharmonic” is derived from the Greek words φίλος (phílos), meaning “lover,” and ἁρμόνιον (harmónon), meaning “harmony.” Philharmonic also describes a large musical ensemble of different instruments. 

In the 1800s, the term was used by many music societies that music lovers funded. The members of these societies paid monthly dues that went into organizing concerts. Philharmonic orchestras perform classical music compositions that are larger in scale than chamber music compositions.

A well-known example of a philharmonic is the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the most famous orchestras in the world. One of the earliest is the Norwegian Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1765. The Vienna and New York philharmonic orchestras are two of the most famous philharmonics globally, both founded in 1842. 


Chamber music is a type of music written for a small group of musicians who may all play strings.  A chamber has a small ensemble that typically fits in a relatively small performance space.

The word “chamber” is derived from the Latin word camera, meaning “a room.” The music composition is typically more intimate and less explosive than a symphony or an orchestra, and it often plays without a conductor. The chamber orchestra is the smallest type of orchestra, consisting of about 50 musicians or less.

The most common instruments used in chamber music are the violin, viola, cello, and piano. However, other instruments can also be used, such as the flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. A chamber orchestra typically contains fewer string players than a symphony or philharmonic orchestra.

A chamber orchestra typically has about 20 to 30 string players, while a symphony orchestra typically has 30 to 40 string players.

The first chamber music compositions were written in the 1700s. Chamber music is typically used to perform classical compositions, but it can also perform jazz and folk music compositions.


The four music terms symphony, orchestra, philharmonic, and chamber are often confused and used incorrectly. Symphony is a lengthy instrumental work written for an orchestra. An orchestra is a large group of musicians who perform together. Philharmonic can be used interchangeably with a symphony. A chamber orchestra is the smallest type of orchestra, typically with up to 50 musicians.

All four share a pretty similar meaning or at least one that is in the general area of music. It’s no surprise that many people get them wrong, hopefully, now you know each term better.