English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Is there any clear line between a symphony and symphonic?

For long, I thought that a symphony was simply a "song" played by a symphonic orchestra. Then I realized that more often than not, the ensemble is actually also called symphony orchestra.

As a lot of this terminology is used on pages from all around the world (often translated by non-native speakers), I'd like to get some final clarification from an educated native speaker. Will you?

And to make the question complete, speaking of an ensemble, is there any difference in meaning in the following (and are they all equally correct): symphonic, symphonic orchestra, symphony, symphony orchestra, philharmonic, philharmonic orchestra (I know that most orchestras will have their "standardized" English names but speaking of a general classical orchestra, are all the terms identical?)

share|improve this question
symphonic is an adjective, symphony is a noun. – Jim Dec 10 '12 at 20:30
@Jim That's exactly what I thought before I realized that sympony was used as an adjective as well. Therefore I asked this question. – Malis Dec 10 '12 at 20:36
yes, a noun can be used as an adjective- bread box, car port, wish list, and symphony orchestra. It's called a symphony orchestra because it is an orchestra that plays symphonies, just as a bread box is a box that holds bread. – Jim Dec 10 '12 at 20:40
The Grove dictionary has a good writeup on the usage of the word in different historical contexts here, but it may require a subscription and probably has a lot more detail than you're looking for. – Cameron Dec 10 '12 at 20:43
@Malis Understandable. To sum it up, symphony used to be synonymous for overture, but now refers to "extended work for orchestra. …The adjective ‘symphonic’ applied to a work implies that it is extended and thoroughly developed." In the US, symphony can also mean symphony orchestra. Symphonic orchestra is a more rare construction (and has no entry in the Grove dictionary, which is considered a standard musical reference). Philharmonic just means a musical organization, with one incarnation being a standard European orchestra (e.g. The London Philharmonic). – Cameron Dec 10 '12 at 20:58
up vote 5 down vote accepted

"Symphonic" is an adjective, "symphony" a noun, "symphony orchestra" a noun phrase. Whether an orchestra is called a "symphony orchestra," a "philharmonic orchestra," or something else is purely a matter of the creator's preference. There are top-ranked orchestras with both names (Vienna Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, etc.), and there's no systematic difference in composition or repertoire.

share|improve this answer
That makes sense. Thanks. To sum it up - all of those terms I suggest are pretty much identical as far as we aren't speaking of a specific orchestra that has (obviously) a single specific official name (which can be any of those suggested). Right? – Malis Dec 10 '12 at 20:50
OT: Why can't I upvote your answer as useful without enough reputation? Consider it upvoted anyway. – Malis Dec 10 '12 at 20:53
The only one that isn't quite right is symphonic used by itself. – Jim Dec 10 '12 at 20:55
There is symphonic music, but I've never heard of a symphonic orchestra. – gmcgath Dec 11 '12 at 11:47

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.