What is a symphony?

A symphony is a large scale piece written for a full orchestra. They can be quite powerful and are meant to be heard in a concert hall or large space.

A symphony is usually made up of a number of separate sections (movements), typically 4.

One of these movements will usually take the sonata form, most often the first movement.

Who/what plays a symphony?

Symphonies are generally played by larger orchestras — symphony or philharmonic orchestras. The number of instruments can vary depending on the composition.

How long is a symphony?

Because a symphony is made up of many movements they are generally quite long. The first movement itself can last half an hour. Average length perhaps between 45minutes and an 1hour 15minutes.

Famous symphony composers

All the famous composers wrote symphonies.  The symphony was the big piece, the one where you got to show off everything, including how clever you were. Justifiably so too,  imagine writing music not just for one instrument but for up to 100 different musicians all working together to make one dynamic, flowing piece of music.



Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op.125

Quite a well known symphony composed by Beethoven in his later years when he was profoundly deaf. Known for its dramatic and powerful form. The final movement is given over to the human voice, with a full chorus of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.



Symphony No. 2 ‘Ressurection” 1st Movement (Allegro)

All of Mahler’s symphonies are epic and unique works. Symphony No. 2 focuses on the theme of the human condition, from birth through to death.


Here is a much simplified guide to how a symphony might be structured. You may notice it is essentially the same as a sonata form, a symphony is basically a sonata written for a large orchestra.

  • Movement 1 – Sonata Form – Often fast
  • Movement 2 – Slow
  • Movement 3 – in ¾ time (3 beats to the bar) known as Minuet – a dance.
  • Movement 4 – Fast


Symphonies as well know them began to be composed in the late 18th early 19th Centuries. Which is known as the Classical Era in music history.

As time went on symphonies grew in length and orchestras in size. This led composers to spend considerable amount of time working on ways to join their movements together to create a balanced work.


*Featured image via Mathias Miranda, flickr

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