If you’ve landed on this page, there’s a good chance you’re thinking of attending the symphony for the first time – welcome!
Now this may come as a surprise, but we don’t actually think you have to know much of anything about classical music to enjoy it. Is the music better when you know fancy words like pizzicato (it’s not just a pizza joint!) or cadenza? Nope. Great music is great music, and we believe it speaks for itself.
That said, we get questions all the time from folks looking to boost their confidence and concert-going prowess. This Symphony 101 has been compiled with you in mind, and we hope some or all of it helps makes your concert experience as comfortable and fun as possible.
Note: This section addresses musical and concert-related questions. For guidance on what to wear, our policy on kids, where to sit in the hall, etc., visit Your PCSO Experience.
Common terms and definitions
In broad terms, classical music is art music that is written down as it is composed, with roots in Western Europe that go back centuries. Because so much of it was written before electricity was a thing, classical music is most often composed for and performed using analog instruments (though this is no longer always the case).
The traditions of classical music were historically shaped by a Eurocentric male-dominant worldview. Access to it was often reserved exclusively for the affluent. This is why most of the composers you’re likely to have heard of (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) are long-dead, Germanic white guys, who earned their livings by writing music commissioned by, and according to the tastes of, wealthy patrons.
Now, is much of that music still considered “great”? Absolutely! But it’s a little narrow in scope, wouldn’t you agree? Thankfully, the world of classical music is expanding to not only recognize the historic contributions made by women and people of color (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence B. Price, and Toru Takemitsu, to name a few), but also to include marginalized and under-represented voices. Portland Columbia Symphony is proud to highlight composers and pieces like these throughout the season.
A symphony orchestra is a large-scale classical music ensemble that combines instruments from the string, woodwind, brass, and percussion families, usually consisting of at least 40 musicians. A smaller-scale version is called a chamber orchestra. There are currently 62 members of PCSO.
These are just a few of the different forms used for musical compositions. Up until fairly recently, pieces were generally composed within certain formal parameters; knowing the form in advance provides tons of clues about what you might hear (from instruments involved to the length of the piece), so it’s handy that composers often include them in the piece’s title!
The definitions of some of these forms have changed over centuries; here we’re describing them only as you’re most likely to hear them in the concert hall today.
Symphony – A piece for symphony orchestra, generally written in four distinct movements. It gets more interesting, as each movement also has their own traditional form (for example, in the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, the second movement is often slow, and the third movement is often dance-like). While members of the orchestra will play solos within the piece, symphonies feature the orchestra as a whole, rather than a soloist standing in front of an orchestra that accompanies them.
Concerto – Usually written in three movements, concertos contrast an instrumental soloist with an accompanying orchestra. Often concertos are written for specific performers, highlighting that particular musicians’ unique skills and virtuosity. When the orchestra stops playing and the soloist plays an extended, flashy passage by his- or herself, this section is called the cadenza. In a concerto, the soloist performs in front of the orchestra. It is not unusual for the soloist to perform the whole piece from memory!
Overture – There are two kinds of overtures: those that are performed prior to the curtain rising before a staged opera or ballet, and those that are composed as a stand-alone piece. The former – the original – ties together various musical themes from throughout the production; for this reason, it is usually composed after the opera/ballet is completed. More recently, composers began writing overtures independent of staged productions. With both frequently performed in the concert hall, the overture is often the first piece you’ll hear at a symphony concert.
Suite – A collection of (relatively) short pieces played in a particular order. In the very-old days of Bach and Handel, suites featured different dances (the minuet, the gigue, etc.). Later, composers like Tchaikovsky and Bizet would extract selections from their ballets or operas and combine this music into a stand-alone suite, allowing symphony orchestras to perform the repertoire without sets, dancers, or vocalists.
Tempo simply refers to the speed or pace at which the performers play the music. Tempos are indicated by the composer at the top of the music, to varying degrees of specification. Often in Italian, some composers use subjective, qualitative descriptions – “slowly, with great expression,” e.g. – while others provide exact tempo markings in terms of how many beats per minute there should be.
For those of us who aren’t mathematically inclined, practice tools called metronomes provide steady, audible beats at adjustable speeds to help performers pick the correct tempo. If you want to start developing your inner metronome, note that your standard Sousa march (think: Stars and Stripes Forever) is performed at 120 beats per minute. Notoriously, Beethoven’s tempo markings are often ignored completely, as it is commonly believed that his metronome was broken.
Oh, and about those Italian words… When you see Allegro on the program page, it simply means fast. Vivace and Presto mean very fast. Andante means kind of slow, while Lento and Largo mean very slow. How fast or slow a piece is actually performed is determined by the conductor, with consideration given to both his or her artistic interpretation and the specific strengths and needs of the ensemble.
Meet the instruments
The first several rows of instruments are occupied by violins, violas, cellos, and basses (sometimes called double basses). It is easy to see why we call this group of instruments the “string family” – usually made of spruce and/or maple wood, each of these instruments look pretty much exactly like the other, with the chief visual difference among them being their size.
Unsurprisingly, “string” instruments produce sound via vibrating strings, across which a bow (made of horse hair) is drawn. The smallest instrument of the family is the violin; there are about twice as many violins as violas and cellos, and they always sit to the left of the conductor. The rest of the strings’ configuration can change from orchestra to orchestra, but at PCSO, the violas, which are just a bit bigger and a bit lower in pitch than the violin, sit in the middle, and the cellos (bigger and lower still) are on the right. The large double basses, the lowest of the string instruments, play their instruments standing or sitting on stools behind the cellos.
Instruments that create sound by blowing air into a reed or mouthpiece are called wind instruments. Wind instruments are divided into two groups: the woodwinds and the brass.
Woodwinds generally sit behind the strings in the center of the orchestra, and include the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, as well as other instruments you might see from time to time like the saxophone. Woodwinds aren’t always made of wood the way the name suggests, but they differ from brass instruments because their mouthpieces are placed between the lips, whereas brass mouthpieces are placed on the outside of the lips.
So why is the flute a woodwind, you ask? Because the flute used to be played in a vertical position, and it utilized a mouthpiece. It turns out that recorder you played in elementary school was actually an old-school (albeit plastic) flute!
Brass instruments include the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba, and they are known for producing copious amounts of sound. (We protect our musicians’ hearing by using sound shields – these are large sheets of clear plastic that redirect sound away from the people sitting immediately near you!) Brass instruments use metal mouthpieces that are shaped like cups. They are placed over the lips, which then buzz into the mouthpiece to produce overtones.
To produce different pitches, most brass instruments, including the trumpet, French horn, and tuba, use valves to adjust the length of the tubing, but the trombone uses a slide. Of all the brass instruments, the tuba is the biggest and lowest in pitch. Though it varies from piece to piece, most of the time the brass instruments comprise the back row of the orchestra.
Instruments that sound when struck, plucked, scraped, beat, or shook comprise our percussion section. There are dozens of percussion instruments, including drums, gongs, bells, chimes, anvils, timpani, and cymbals, as well as the piano – its strings are struck by hammers – and the harp – its strings are plucked. The oldest instruments in the world (besides the human voice) are percussion instruments, and just about every culture on Earth has developed its own kinds. Some percussion instruments, like the timpani and bells, are tuned, while others, like the snare drum and bass drum, are untuned.
When writing for timpani, composers usually include four differently pitched drums. At PCSO, the timpani is situated near the double basses. The percussion crew is usually opposite the timpani, on the left side of the orchestra behind the violins, outer winds, and French horns.
As the leader and decision maker for all aspects artistic (including overall interpretation, tempo, dynamics, and style), the conductor has a big job! In addition to representing and conveying all the musical ideas of the music physically for the orchestra, the conductor is responsible for keeping the group coordinated and playing together, as well as for rehearsing the ensemble before the performances. More importantly, the conductor, who must know the music inside and out, is responsible for creating inspired performances and getting the very best out of each individual musician on stage.
In almost every kind of live music, including jazz, rock, pop, country, gospel, and R&B, you clap when you like what you hear. But the current classical music tradition is to hold our applause until the end.
The very end.
Not even in between movements.
It wasn’t always this way. People used to chatter all the way through music, they clapped and hollered and let the orchestra know they loved it (or not).
And while PCSO generally rejects any tradition that could potentially alienate a concert-goer, some folks feel that applause interrupts the continuity of a piece and disturbs the focus of performers and spectators alike.
So please – veterans, be kind to our first-time concert-goers! If they clap, it means they liked it! And first-timers, feel free to clap if you love what you hear, but be aware that it may be disruptive to listeners around you. Instead, wait until the conductor lowers their baton and visibly relaxes, indicating that the piece has come to a close. If you’re nervous about making a faux-pas and you don’t know when the end – the very end – of the piece is, just wait until other people start clapping, then join in!
If you want to be prepared for the end of an unfamiliar piece, one way is to check our program notes for its approximate duration and note the time. You can also note from the program page how many movements are in each piece, which helps with keeping track of how many movements have passed. If you can see the sheet music of the string instruments, sometimes the final page will include blank white space, which could be a clue that the end is approaching. It can also be very intuitive at times – but then you have composers like Mahler, who frequently employ deceptive resolutions and false endings that turn huge musical corners just as you think you’re crossing the finish line!
If you can, waiting for a break in the music (either between movements or after the end of a piece) to exit and enter the concert hall will mitigate distractions for the listeners around you.
No – please don’t make yourself suffer! At the end of the performance, no one in the room will remember if an occasional cough or sneeze occurred during the music. If your coughing or sneezing becomes uncontrollable, you are welcome to excuse yourself and step outside at any point in the concert.
It goes without saying . . . if you’re sick, please do not put others at risk of contracting a virus. Give us a call (503-234-4077), and we’ll help you exchange your ticket into a different performance.