What Is a Symphony?

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman performs Brahms's First Piano Concerto with conductor Sir Simon Rattle leading the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) at Barbican Centre on July 2, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman performs Brahms's First Piano Concerto with conductor Sir Simon Rattle leading the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) at Barbican Centre on July 2, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Photo by Amy T. Zielinski/Redferns via Getty Images

A symphony is an extended work for orchestra typically consisting of 3 to 4 movements that flourished during the classical and romantic periods of western classical music. Simple right? The actual term "symphony" is derived from the Greek words "syn" (‘together’) and "phone" (‘sounding’), which perfectly describes what you're hearing when you listen to Beethoven's famous symphonies.

The symphony as we know it today evolved from the 18th-century opera sinfonia, a style of music comprised of a fast movement, slow movement, and dance-like movement that was used in operas, suites, cantatas, and oratorios as a prelude, interlude, or postlude. Given their purpose, most sinfonias were composed with brevity in mind. Where one sinfonia can be performed in ten minutes or less, a classical symphony can take well beyond thirty minutes to perform in its entirety.

What Is a Movement?

A movement is a self-contained work separated by silence within a larger work. Usually, each movement is distinguishable by its tempo, key, rhythmical patterns, and harmonization. Movements aren't just a symphonic thing, they exist in a variety of classical music forms including concertos, sonatas, chamber music, and more.

Classical Symphonies vs. Romantic Symphonies

Generally speaking, the classical symphony follows form and structure very meticulously, whereas the romantic symphony does not. Often, romantic symphonies have larger orchestrations and a larger variety of instrumentation. You could say that romantic period symphonies are “larger than life”; they are much more expressive in terms of harmonization, rhythmic patterns, and dynamics.

For example, Haydn's well-known "Surprise" Symphony, typically performed by 50 or so instrumentalists in less than thirty minutes, sounds absolutely tame when compared to Mahler's Symphony No. 9, which is typically performed by an orchestra twice the size of Haydn's, lasting nearly an hour and a half.

The Difference Among an Orchestra, a Symphony Orchestra, and a Philharmonic

  • Orchestra is a generic term applied to a group of musicians made up of ten or more instrumentalists. There are chamber orchestras (a group of 50 or fewer musicians that play in smaller venues and recital halls), brass orchestras (groups of musicians who play trumpets, trombones, tubas, horns, etc.), symphony orchestras, and more.
  • Symphony Orchestra is a generic term applied to a large group of instrumentalists that can perform a complete symphony. A chamber orchestra is not a symphony orchestra since there are not enough instrumentalists to perform all the parts in the symphony. 
  • Philharmonic Orchestra is a proper name for a symphony orchestra. It is used to distinguish the identities of symphony orchestras if two or more exist within the same city (i.e. London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra). Philharmonic orchestras play the exact same music as symphony orchestras.

Interesting Facts About the Symphony

  • The Largest Symphony Orchestra: In 2013, as part of the 2013 Queensland Music Festival held in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the Queensland Music Festival Artistic Director, James Morrison, conducted the World's Biggest Orchestra. He led 7,224 musicians in a performance of "Waltzing Matilda," "Ode to Joy," and "We Will Rock You," breaking the Guinness World Record for largest orchestra.
  • The Longest Symphony Ever Composed: Another Guinness record breaker is Richard Rodgers' and Russell Robert Bennett's 13-hour-long symphony, Victory at Sea. It was composed as a soundtrack to NBC's 26-episode World War II wartime documentary that aired from 1952 to 1953.
  • The Oldest Symphony Orchestra: According to the Royal Danish Orchestra, they are the oldest symphony orchestra still in operation today, with origins tracing all the way back to 1448, when a group of musicians served King Christian I as the Royal Court Trumpet Corps. Their 550+ years of history shows an " unbroken string of diverse court orchestras."

Notable Symphonic Composers

Though there are hundreds of classical and romantic period composers who wrote symphonies, there are few that shine brighter than all the rest. These composers include: