If you’re interested in music in general, you may want to learn the different forms in which music can be played or performed.
This will help you to understand the theory of music better and perhaps even inspire you to create your own music!
One of the most-used terms in music theory is ‘ensemble’. If you don’t know what a music ensemble is, you’ve come to the right place because we’re going to explain this term in depth.
By the end of this article, you will not only know what a music ensemble is but also the different types of music ensembles.
What Is A Music Ensemble?
The main question we get asked when it comes to music ensembles is quite simply ‘what is a music ensemble?’
‘Ensemble’ is a French word that translates directly to ‘together’ in English.
So, a ‘music ensemble’ literally means ‘music together’. This should give you some clue as to what a music ensemble is.
Yep, you guessed it.
A music ensemble is a group of musicians playing a piece of music together.
A music ensemble can be purely vocal (singing with no musical accompaniment – better known as acapella), purely instrumental, or a combination of both.
The Different Types Of Music Ensembles
Any group of musicians playing or performing a piece of music, whether instrumental, vocal, or both, can be considered an ensemble.
However, if you want to get into the theory behind music ensembles, there are many different types.
Generally speaking, music ensembles can be broken down into two main categories: large ensembles and small ensembles.
The types of large ensembles are as follows:
A concert band is a band led by a conductor at a specific location.
Many instruments can be involved in a concert band, but the typical instruments you’d see in this kind of ensemble include saxophones, trumpets, trombones, oboes, tubas, clarinets, euphoniums, flutes, and percussion instruments like various types of drums.
Sometimes, a concert band will also include a keyboard, a cello, a harp, or a bass, but these instruments are less commonly seen in concert bands than in other types of ensembles.
The jazz band is a very popular form of large ensemble. Of course, a jazz band will play jazz music, but apart from the type of music played, this large ensemble is defined by its sections.
The main section of a jazz band is the rhythm section, which usually consists of a guitar, a piano, a tuba, and some percussion.
Layered on top of the rhythm section, you also have the melodic section, where you have your trombones, trumpets, and various kinds of saxophones.
A marching band is technically a variation of the concert band, but it sets itself apart by the fact that a marching band ensemble plays on its feet and the group is usually led by a drum major (you will usually see the drum major holding a baton).
The chamber orchestra is one of the largest ensembles we’ll be discussing in today’s article.
A chamber orchestra exclusively plays a kind of classical music known as chamber music and may consist of up to 40 musicians.
A famous example of chamber music played by a chamber orchestra is Johannes Brahms’ Quintet in B Minor.
The instruments you’ll tend to find in a chamber orchestra include oboes, bassoons, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, cellos, violas, violins, and percussion. There will also usually be a keyboard.
Symphony (Philharmonic) Orchestra
The final large ensemble we’ll be discussing today is the symphony orchestra, which is a term often used interchangeably with the philharmonic orchestra, although there is actually a difference between the two.
Both symphony orchestras and philharmonic orchestras can perform larger pieces of music comprising up to 4 movements.
The instruments played in these orchestras include stringed instruments such as violins, cellos, violas, and bass viols, wind instruments like oboes, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, horns, tubas and bassoons, and some percussion, a keyboard, saxophones, and a harp.
There are also numerous types of small ensembles in the music world, including (in reverse order of size):
The largest of the small ensembles, an octet is a musical group (vocal, instrumental, or both) comprising 8 musicians. This may be for the purposes of playing a piece written for 8 instruments.
An example of a piece of music written for an octet is Octet for Strings in E Flat Major by Mendelssohn, although this piece is sometimes played by more than 8 musicians today.
Whereas an octet is composed of exactly 8 musicians, a septet has 7 musicians. Because of this, a septet will typically play music written for 7 instruments, with Septet in E-Flat Major by Beethoven being a good example.
Since a septet has 7 musicians, you can probably guess that a sextet is composed of 6 musicians and, therefore, 6 instruments.
Sextets are often made up of stringed instruments because it’s not uncommon for string music compositions to be written for 6. So, for example, a sextet might comprise two violas, two violins, and two cellos.
In a quintet, there are 5 musicians and 5 instruments. If you’ve ever heard Piano Quintet in A Major, this is a great example, especially since it features 5 different kinds of instruments: a violin, a cello, a viola, a bass, and a piano.
An ensemble made up of four musicians or four instruments are known as a quartet, and this is one of the most well-known types of ensemble for classical music.
Like sextets, quartets are commonly made up of stringed instruments (typically a cello and a viola along with a pair of violins).
One of the smaller ensembles is the trio, which comprises 3 musicians or 3 instruments.
A common example of a classical music trio is a string trio because this arrangement can feature the 3 main classical stringed instruments: the cello, the viola, and the violin.
Although a duet is a piece of music performed by only 2 musicians, it can still be considered an ensemble.
Vocal duets are fairly common, but even more common is the piano duet, which may involve a vocalist and a pianist or two pianists (also known as the piano of four hands).
A duet is the smallest type of ensemble there is because, of course, one musician would be known as a soloist.
Make your own ensemble
Don’t be afraid to push your music out of the confines of pre-existing ensembles.
You can have as many or as few musicians as you can imagine and they can be playing whatever you want.
Remember the ensemble is just playing a piece of music together.
As you have now learned from the content of this article, ensembles come in many sizes, ranging from large chamber orchestras of 40 musicians to smaller arrangements like the string quartet.
Large ensembles are the kinds of larger orchestras and bands, such as concert bands and philharmonic orchestras, that you might see performing in theaters, concert halls, or on foot in the case of marching bands.
On the other hand, smaller ensembles range from octets (8 musicians) to duets (2 musicians).
The wide variety of different musical ensembles makes the performance of any kind of musical composition possible, which is why the different ensemble types are such an important aspect of music theory.