General Question

elbanditoroso's avatar

Why do orchestras sit the way they do?

Asked by elbanditoroso (14552 points ) December 23rd, 2013

I was reading a book the other day that noted that symphony orchestras almost always are arranged with the violins to the left of the conductor, violas next to them, cello and string bass on the far right. Brass and winds generally sit directly in front of the conductor, and percussion is splayed in the far rear of the orchestra.

I can certainly see why percussion is in the back – they have their big equipment (kettle drum, tympani, bass drum, gong, etc.).

But why violins to the left and cellos to the right? What would be the downside of flutes to the left and violins to the center?

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6 Answers

Seek's avatar

Well, for one, it would seriously frak up the conductor’s muscle memory.

They do have to know where everyone is sitting.

gailcalled's avatar

Trtriaditionallly, in western music, the strings have gotten the best lines, including the solos. The first violins are the teachers’ pets within the string sections (don’t forget the second violins also). The first violinist is the concertmaster, gives the A pitch and is the conductor’s consigliere.

All the strings are in front, other than the basses. The string players outnumber the other instrumentalists.

dxs's avatar

I would have thought that it had something to do with sound since so much goes into building designs to create the best sound effects, but it’s just the conductor’s preference. Even in my high school band the band director had a standard set up: flutes in the front right, clarinets front left, etc., and of course us percussionists were still shoved to the back, but he didn’t really care where.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@dxs – i sort of figured that the conductor might block the string sound, so that’s why they are closer to the audience.

thorninmud's avatar

Low frequencies are less easily absorbed than higher frequencies, so sticking the bass and percussion in the back makes sense. They’ll suffer less from having to traverse the whole orchestra before getting to the audience.

Also, having the louder instruments farther from the conductor (e.g. brass behind woodwinds) gives him a more balanced reading of the whole sound picture.

wildpotato's avatar

There’s actually a lot of seating arrangements. The general pattern of strings-winds-brass-percussion is generally for the reason thorn mentions, though there are some quieter instruments that are often positioned toward the back, such as the bassoons and the French horns (but they are actually louder in the back because their bells point towards the rear wall).

Alternate positioning depends on how many of which instruments you have in your group or that you need for a particular piece. Players in the front center are usually soloists, but not all soloists sit in the center – like, harps usually sit off to one side just behind the violins.

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