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What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?

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Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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