The Symphony’s Origins in the Overture

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The word “symphony” conjures up images of classical music and grandiose concert halls. But the origins of this word are actually quite humble.

The word “symphony”

The word “symphony” is derived from the Greek word symphōnia, meaning “agreement or concord of sound”, a word that comes, in turn, from symphōnía, meaning “concert of instruments”. The word “overture” has the same origin, coming from the Latin word apertus, meaning “open”.


The word “symphony” derives from the Greek word συμφωνία (suffonya), meaning agreement or concord of sound. In late medieval theory, the word was used to refer to a consonance where different voices sounded together in perfect harmony, in contrast to a discord. Symphony as a technical term for art music did not appear until the early 17th century. In Greek συμφωνία originally meant “harmony”, “concord of sounds”, later “consonance” and, in late medieval usage, “consonance of musical pitches together in one concord”. The word was already used in Ancient Greek (εὔφωνος, eúphōnos) to designate a variety of concords and harmonic mixtures.


A composition for orchestra, usually in three or four movements, in which various sections or instruments of the orchestra are prominent in turn: Bach’s Fifth Symphony; Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony.

The history of the symphony

The symphony first developed in the early 1700s as an orchestral piece meant to precede an opera or other ballet. Its origins are indebted to the overture, which was a popular type of courtly entertainment at the time. The first symphonies were composed by Italian opera composers working in Germany and Austria.

The Baroque period

The term “symphony” arose out of the Greek word for “consonance,” which in turn was built upon the root “syn-” meaning “together.” In late-18th century Europe,the word was initially used to refer to a novel kind of instrumental concerto that featured several differentAssuming a basic knowledge of music history, the following will provide a broad overview of the symphony’s development, beginning in the 17th century and leading up to the present day.

The first use of the term “symphony” to refer specifically to an orchestral work dates back to 1733, when Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini wrote a piece using that title. However, the genre now known as the symphony had its beginnings in the early years of opera. At that time, operas were generally quite long, often lasting several hours, and were divided into a series of distinct sections called da capo (literally, “from the head”) arias. These da capo arias were usually separated by shorterrecitative sections in which the plot would advance through spoken dialogue.

In order to provide some relief from the monotony of recitative, many composers began inserting short orchestral interludes (often dance-based) between sections of recitative. These interludes eventually became so popular that they began being performed on their own as standalone concert pieces. These early concert interludes are known as sinfonias (the Italian word for “symphonies”), and they laid the foundation for the development of the modern symphony.

One of the most important early contributors to symphonic form was German composer Johann Stamitz, who was active in the middle of the 18th century. Stamitz’s innovations included expandingthe role of woodwind instruments withinthe orchestra and introducing what would come to be known as thematic development (the idea of using a single musical idea or theme as basis for an entire composition). Other important 18th-century symphonists include Franz Joseph Haydnand Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both of whom helped codify manyof symphonic form’s most fundamental principles.

The Classical period

The word “symphony” (pronounced sim-FOH-nee) is derived from the Greek word symphōnía, which translates to “agreement or concord of sounds.” The term first appears in classical Greek rhetoric; and by the late Classical period, “symphony” was being used to refer to a well-known continuous section of music that occurred between two other sections of contrasting music in an opera or other large work. This section was known as the symphonia.

The Romantic period

The symphony began to take on its modern form during the Romantic period, when composers such as Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms were exploring new ways to express themselves. They were influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which emphasized individualism and emotion over reason, and they aimed to create music that would evoke strong feelings in the listener. As a result, Romantic symphonies are often longer and more complex than those of earlier periods, with stirring melodies and grandiose endings.

The modern symphony

The modern symphony orchestra typically has between fifty and a hundred musicians. It has four sections: the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion. The string section is the largest and is made up of the violins, the violas, the cellos, and the double basses. The woodwind section is made up of the flutes, the oboes, the clarinets, and the bassoons. The brass section is made up of the trumpets, the trombones, and the tubas. The percussion section is made up of the drums, the cymbals, and the timpani.

The 20th century

In the early years of the 20th century, the symphony was still very much alive and evolving. New symphonies were being composed all the time and orchestras were constantly looking for new ways to perform them. One of the most significant developments in this period was the rise of the modern symphony orchestra.

This new type of orchestra was made up of professional musicians who were paid to play in a Symphony. This allowed for a more consistent sound and higher quality performances. The first modern symphony orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, which was founded in 1842.

The 20th century also saw a number of other important developments in the symphony. One was the rise of atonal music, which is music without a tonal center (a note that serves as a starting point for all the other notes in a piece). This style of music was pioneered by composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.

Another important development was the advent of electronic music. This new type of music was made possible by advances in technology, and it had a profound effect on the symphony. Composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen began incorporating electronics into their symphonies, creating entirely new sounds that had never been heard before.

The 21st century

The modern symphony can be traced back to the overture, a dramatic, one-movement work intended to precede operas and other theatrical productions in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although many of the greatest composers wrote overtures—including Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven—the genre reached its apex in the early 19th century with the works of Gioachino Rossini, Carl Maria von Weber, and Felix Mendelssohn. These composers’ overtures not only set a high artistic standard for the genre but also established many of its key formal and expressive conventions, which were later adopted by symphonists.

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