Instruments | Ensembles

A musical ensemble is a group of two or more musicians who have come together to play music.

In theory, an ensemble could contain any number of instruments in any combination, but in practice, certain combinations just don’t work very well, either for musical reasons or because of the sheer practicality of getting particular instruments and players together in the first place.

Why do Musical Ensembles Form?

Ensembles can develop instinctively. When someone in a group of people starts singing or sounding a rhythm, it is often a natural reaction for the others in the group to join in somehow, perhaps by singing along, tapping or clapping a rhythm, or adding an extra part of their own. The informal mass singing of football crowds, soldiers on the march or sugar-plantation workers all started this way. Jazz, pop and folk music have this spontaneity, too, with a great tradition of musicians getting together for jam sessions.

Alternatively, a composer, arranger or producer might assemble a certain combination of instruments to best serve the musical vision they have in mind. They might think of a brand-new combination of instruments, or either add or take away instruments from an existing ensemble. The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) once had a dream in which he saw a flute, a clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones playing in a group. This then formed the instrumentation for his Octet. In jazz, small ‘swing combos’ occasionally performed in the 1930s and 1940s using three or four players from the same swing band.

An ensemble might also come into existence primarily to serve a certain function. The rise of the wind band, for instance, was closely linked to the need for music for military parades, and other ensembles are closely linked to certain purposes, such as choirs and church services, or swing bands and dancing.

Ensembles can also be formed specifically to perform in public to an audience. This might be for artistic reasons, for commercial gain, or a combination of the two. ‘Manufactured’ pop groups tend to be put together for their audience appeal more than their musical originality and are dropped when they sell too few records. On the other hand, many classical, jazz and rock groups perform challenging music that audiences find difficult, and often make a financial loss as a result. They may, however, be rewarded by the artistic satisfaction of having played that music in public.

Ingredients for a Successful Musical Ensemble

First and foremost, an ensemble must work well musically. The instruments need to form an effective team, combining their individual strengths in the most efficient way possible. For instance the string trio of violin, viola and cello tends to work better than that of three violas, as between them the violin, viola and cello possess a much wider range and a greater variety of tone colours. This allows more interesting music to be written for them. The instruments must also be able...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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