Picture of Nicole Martín Medina

Nicole Martín Medina

Gestora Cultural – Abogada/MBA

Why do the musicians in an orchestra sit the way they do?

The science behind the seating chart

of a symphony orchestra

La colocación de los asientos de una orquesta sinfónica
Photo: Sabrina Ceballos, OFGC, subscription concert 13, Season 2022/2023, AAK


We all know that a symphony orchestra is an organization with a strict hierarchy in which a musical director leads the musicians in such a way that the music maintains cohesion and life and evokes our deepest feelings. In most cases, we can say that an orchestra is not exactly an example of a democratic structure but rather a system with rigid rules and norms.

The symphony orchestra’s seating arrangement is the foundation for the smooth operation of this system, down to the smallest details, when it steps onto the stage or into the orchestra pit. It is noteworthy that the placement of the musicians and their instruments is not based on a hierarchy of importance or notions of superiority and subordination, but rather on spatial constraints and rationales of tonal logic. Naturally, the musicians are not provided the opportunity to select their position independently; it is predetermined and determined by the composition to be performed.

In the 18th century, an orchestra consisted of about 40 instrumentalists. Over the centuries, however, orchestras have evolved. In the 19th century, there were 60 instruments, and by the 20th century, there were up to 110.

At first, orchestras were solely comprised of strings, a few woodwinds, and percussion. As the development of wind instruments and percussion progressed, their size and volume increased. Eventually, the flutes transitioned from the woodwinds to the brass, and as a result, their volume increased, too. Gradually, the incorporation of instruments such as trumpets, which have their origins in military music, took place. In order to maintain the overall tonal balance, the number of strings had to be increased automatically.

The number of musicians per section and/or string group is determined by the composition and is influenced by the musical score or the conductor. Initially, the determination of the number of string instruments is made, typically 14/12/10/8/6. This determines whether there should be 12 or 14 violins, and then two are always subtracted for the other strings, namely violins II, violas, cellos, and basses. Then, the number of wind players is determined, usually a pair or two in each group. Lastly, the percussionists are added.

All of them must be correctly positioned within the orchestra, which in practice forms a large semicircle.

Today’s orchestra requires the integration of up to a hundred musical devices and performers with varying amplitude and pitch. Is that something that is so complicated? Yes, it is.

If one were to imagine a vast mixing console containing numerous controls, it is evident that meticulous placement of each chair and music stand, coupled with a thorough understanding of acoustics, classical music, and technical concerns, is of utmost importance. Moreover, a symphony orchestra is not typically amplified or technologically enhanced, nor does it employ a mixing console.

In a simplified form, it can be stated that the instruments with greater sonically sensitive characteristics are situated further forward, in close proximity to the conductor, whereas the instruments with piercingly loud characteristics are situated at the rear.

In addition to this, it is important that the conductor remain visible to everyone and that everyone can hear each other well.

If only it were that simple!

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is a science behind the arrangement of an orchestra.

A spectator is presented with a semicircle or a kind of semicircle of chairs, musicians, and instruments made up of several rings or rows. In these rings, or rows, the musicians are arranged in sectors or rows. Gaetano Donizetti, an Italian composer, introduced the idea of arranging musicians in sections around a semicircle in the 19th century. The French composer Hector Berlioz altered the arrangement of the instruments to enhance their harmony.

It is important to consider a biological fact: it turns out that our two ears do not process sounds the same way. Each ear amplifies certain sounds better than others and sends their vibrations to the appropriate part of the brain for processing.

It can be asserted that the right ear is more adept at processing musical sounds, whereas the left ear is more adept at processing speech sounds. In a similar manner, our right ear exhibits greater sensitivity to high-pitched sounds compared to our left ear. When we hear two sets of sounds, each for one ear, we have the impression that the high tones are reproduced in the right ear and the low tones are reproduced in the left ear.

Is that something that makes you curious?

If you have any doubts, you can listen to the following video by Diana Deutsch, who has done several studies with auditory illusions that prove this pattern and the fact that musicians on stage usually hear high notes more from the right side. She mentions an advantage of the right ear.


I highly recommend two very interesting articles in English about the advantages of the right ear:


Considering the preceding, I now believe it’s entirely logical to place the top instruments and vocals on the right and the bottom ones on the left of the semicircle (as seen from the musicians’ position, not from the audience). To put it differently, the acoustic questions are not addressed from the audiences needs or the conductor but rather for the performers.

Aren’t those interesting?

However, we proceed.


Semicircle 1 – The Strings

The strings are placed in the first ring or row of the semicircle. There are four string instruments: violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. They form a separate section and determine, depending on whether it is the traditional German-European or modern American system.


  1. German-European or antiphonic order

From the audience’s perspective, the strings are arranged in the following order: first violins, double basses, cellos, violas, and second violins.

  1. American seating chart

The so-called American formation is arranged from left to right as follows: first violins, second violins, violas, double basses, and cellos. The first and second violins are thus arranged in blocks next to each other.


The German-European division facilitates the interaction between the first and second violins, which is essential to many compositions. The German division can be more concise and identifiable if the composer intended this interactive effect. It is also ideal for stereo recordings that require a tonal effect between the first and second violins.

The American set-up, however, mixes the timbres much better, if this is desired by the respective composition. The American setup has prevailed over its opponent because it creates a more homogeneous tonal balance.

Nonetheless, prior to commencing the arrangement of the chairs, it is imperative to take into account the available space on the stage or in the orchestra pit. This is because it is necessary to consider the range of movement of each musician, i.e., the space he or she needs to play the concerto in question with physical expressiveness. This issue is particularly acute for cellists when the second violins or violas are situated on the far right, as per the German order. Indeed, it can be observed repeatedly in the daily professional lives of these musicians that they engage in disputes with their colleagues regarding centimeters. There is never enough room for everything.

Nicole Martín Medina - Why do the musicians in an orchestra sit the way they do?
Image: American seating chart - Source:


Semicircle 2 – The woodwind instruments

The second half of the woodwind instruments is being placed after the first semicircle of string instruments has been set up.

The accompanying instruments are generally placed first (to the left of the audience), for example, piano and harp, then the woodwind instruments: first, clarinets and flutes, and finally, bassoons and oboes. Then the horns follow, and to the right of the horns—and thus behind the cellos—the double basses.

Although the horns are quite loud, you can see them in the second semicircle, since they are even quieter than their other brass colleagues.

You may have noticed in the previous section that the semicircle’s boundaries are fluid and adapt to any pattern. The harp, for instance, presents a distinct challenge. It is evident that the harp does not fit in any particular location or group, but it must have a place. Since the harp plays in the same range as the string instruments, it is placed directly behind the violins (in first and/or second place, depending on the order chosen) and in the second semicircle.

It’s worth noting that the harp is often positioned on a ledge to make it more audible and to provide a clear view.


Semicircle 3 – Brass instruments

Besides the woodwinds and horns, there are the brass instruments, which are known to be among the loudest instruments. Generally, trumpets come first, followed by trombones and tubas.

A trumpet can produce a sound pressure three hundred times greater than that of a violin. It is easy to understand what a problem it is for the musicians sitting in front of them. That is one of the reasons why wind players frequently occupy pedestals. It is imperative that they are visible and easily identifiable, yet simultaneously, they must not obstruct the auditory perception of the musicians seated in front of them. Shielding panels are sometimes used to protect the musicians’ ears in the second row.


Semicircle 4 – The percussion section

The percussion instruments always hold a prominent position in the orchestra, situated in the background, in a central position. This is because they set the rhythm and tempo for the whole group, and all soloists and tutti can adjust to them in this position. However, there are other reasons for this position.

Percussionists are not usually confined to one instrument and therefore require a considerable amount of space to set up a wide variety of percussion instruments, to use them as needed, and, above all, to be able to play them. Furthermore, they are nearly equivalent to the volume of brass instruments, sometimes even exceeding them, and therefore must be placed behind them.

After all the instruments have been assigned their respective positions, it is imperative to rectify the sound of the ensemble, taking into account the orchestra, stage, or particular piece.

When playing together, there is a general issue: in the back rows, everyone’s sound blurs, the treble can disappear, or the middle notes of the sound spectrum are lost. The issue, which is even more pronounced when the choir is seated in front of the orchestra, is usually resolved by a single technical device: monitors.

In the end, the sole remaining task is to assign the director a position on the stage in the center of the semicircle constituted by the four rows.

The curtain goes up, let’s start the performance.


And, by the way, who is responsible for the proper setup? That is the responsibility of the orchestra’s stage manager, who deserves his own blog post.

Make sure you don’t miss it.

Coming soon on Nico’s blog: The orchestra stage manager.


Nicole Martín Medina

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

August 2023


       (Originally in Spanish/Translation DeepL/Revision NMM)


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