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Topic: Orchestral seating

  1. #1

    Orchestral seating

    New problem. Looking at pictures from Google with that argument: "orchestral seating" and listening to older recordings give you this impression.

    Older recordings

    • Violins1 - from near left to further left;
    • Violins2 - left from the violins1;
    • Violas - right, but almost in the middle;
    • Celli - right, at the same spot right as the violins1 are left;
    • Contrabasses - far right, almost in the "corner"

    For the woods, it seems always this one:

    • Flutes left and Piccolo right from the flutes;
    • On the same row but at the right side all Oboes;
    • Behind the flutes we find the Clarinets;
    • Behind the Oboes we see the Bassoons (not always);

    For the brass section it is rather variable. But the most I've heard is:

    • Horns somewhere in the middle but slightly to the left;
    • Trumpets one row further down, but at the right;
    • Trombones right from the trumpets;
    • Tubas far right, near the contrabasses, so in the corner (analogy);


    • Timpani sometimes in the middle, but also at the left;
    • Bass drum at the far left;
    • The rest of the percussion, like Tubular Bells, Triangle, etc. also at the left;
    • Harps and piano at the left, while the Celesta is left from the middle

    Modern recordings:

    • Violins1 left;
    • Violas left, but closer to the conductor;
    • Contrabasses far left;
    • Violins2 right;
    • Celli right, but closer to the conductor than violins2;
    • Woods the same as mentioned above;
    • Horns left and Trumpets right at the same row;
    • Trombones and Tubas from the middle;
    • Percussion also as close to the middle as possible

    Harp, Piano, Celesta, Tubular Bells at the left while the Triangle is as close as possible to the middle

    Can you comment on these changes? There are several other possibilities mentioned on the Internet, but the one above is what I noticed from recent recordings (recording date not earlier than 1995).


  2. #2

    Re: Orchestral seating

    Just my impression and understanding, but the modern version (post 1995) would be the sound of an orchestra as heard on a digital recording (CD). The lower instruments need to be closer to the center of the mix for clarity sake. I am not a real engineer but I would think that DPDan could give you a better reason.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong


  3. #3

    Re: Orchestral seating


    The modern setup you detail is a variation on an antiphonal setup, where one of the primary benefits is being able to see and hear the counterpoint between Violins 1 and 2. I think it's more common for the cello section to be in an inner-left position for this setup, but theoretically you could put any string section in most any position.

    Other than that, I don't really have any idea why modern recordings would use this...although I can see why for a recording, it would make sense to have the counterpoint positioned more nearly in each speaker, having the lower strings supporting from the middle.
    Maybe I should have come up with a more original username.
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  4. #4

    Re: Orchestral seating

    The most common seating I've seen for strings is from left to right: Violins I, Violins II, Violas, and Celli around the conductor, like in a string quartet, and the Basses a bit more to the back on the right. In period orchestras the seating can be quite different. The other instruments vary more. I've seen the woodwinds in one or two rows, but usually away from the brass, although sometimes together with the horns on the left.

    The actual set-up is also determined by the limitations of the concert hall. If you want to put a large orchestra on a small stage, you've got to make it more square. A Large wind section seems to get divided over two or three rows, a small one in a single. And some orchestras have a long-standing (sitting?) tradition, so they'll sit the way they did in 1870 or the way Mahler seated them in 1904.

  5. #5

    Re: Orchestral seating

    from a sample library point of view, placing your 2nd violins to the right isn't a problem, however don't think of it as a "normal" placement for "real" musicians.

    Doing so in real life actually places the 2nd violins at a MAJOR disadvantage as the entire section of musicians will have their instruments basically pointing in the "wrong" direction for good sound production as far as the audience is concerned. (placed to the right of the conductor actually has them focusing sound towards the REAR of the stage)

    This is also one of the main reasons the violas are so centrally placed, facing the front... it gives an advantage to the violas who are already at a disadvantage in the sound production department. (the viola does not project quite as well as the violins or even the celli)
    Last edited by qccowboy; 10-22-2009 at 12:56 PM. Reason: silly error

  6. #6

    Re: Orchestral seating

    I've been wondering about orchestral seating too as of late. In a lot of period baroque recordings I have, there's an inconsistency of seating positions between different albums. Sometimes I'll hear the standard positioning with the violins on the left, violas near the middle and cellos and the double bass on the right. In other recordings, there will be this same set up except it'll have the double bass in the center back. Then there's the one that I'm more biased towards and that's with first violins on the left, second violins on the right, violas more towards the center (sometimes on the right behind the second violins) and then have two cellos in the back, one center left and one center right, and the double bass is directly behind the cellos in the center. I can't seem to find any historical information about the positioning of instruments for this time period though that might explain these differences.

  7. #7

    Re: Orchestral seating

    Here you can see it for yourself.

    The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman cond.)

    Orkest van de 18e eeuw (Orchestra of the 18th Century, Frans Brüggen, cond.)

    Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment (Roger Norrington, cond.), they have a blog!

    Or a modern orchestra

    The Concertgebouw Orchestra (Mariss Jansons, cond.)

    Google a bit!

  8. #8

    Re: Orchestral seating

    Oh, I've collected several images of different orchestras to see the instrument positions. I'm just wondering the reasoning behind these positions. Like, is there some ancient music treatise they've uncovered that discusses orchestra seating? This is what I can't seem to any sufficient information on. I've only found one drawing of orchestra instrument positions from that time period on the internet and I think it was an exception to standard orchestra positioning of that period.

  9. #9

    Re: Orchestral seating

    Not that I'm in anyway an expert on this subject, but I do know that some orchestras have actually started moving their contrabasses to the back row. This would leave violin I, II, violas, and cellos in the front in reading order. Brass would be in front of the basses and woods in front of them. Percussion of course, would be in the dark recesses of the abyssal curtains where we like to be!
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  10. #10

    Re: Orchestral seating

    And I see from those photos that wisdom prevailed in that there are no banjos or accordions to be seen.


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