A Beginner’s Guide to the Orchestra

2 hours a week for 8 weeks

French horn

The sound of a great symphony orchestra in full flight is one of the most thrilling sounds in all of western classical music. This course explores the instruments of the orchestra and the variety of sounds they can achieve, and examines the growth and development of the symphony orchestra. It also explores the kind of music written for the orchestra, by examining some of the greatest composers and compositions of all time. No prior musical knowledge is necessary.

Course Outline

Session 1: Introduction to the orchestra

  • The glory of the symphony orchestra
  • Symphony orchestra versus Philharmonic orchestra
  • The families of orchestral instruments
  • The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Benjamin Britten
  • Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite

Session 2: The string section

  • Violin, viola, cello, double bass, harp
  • Interlude: The Baroque orchestra
  • The Four Seasons, by Vivaldi

Session 3: The woodwind section

  • Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon
  • Interlude: The birth of the Classical orchestra
  • The importance of Stamitz and Mannheim
  • C.P.E. Bach’s Oboe Concerto in E flat

Session 4: The brass section

  • Trumpet, Horn, Trombone, Tuba
  • Interlude: The Classical orchestra
  • The orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven
  • Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat

Session 5: The percussion section

  • Timpani, gongs, drums, cymbals, xylophones, and others
  • Interlude: The Early Romantics
  • Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3, "Scottish"

Session 6: Conductors and conducting

  • What the conductor does
  • Interlude: The Later Romantics
  • Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

Session 7: Orchestration

  • How the instruments are used, separately and together
  • Interlude: The Post-Romantics
  • Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Session 8: Favourite orchestral works

  • Interlude: The twentieth century
  • Favourite orchestral works
  • Gershwin: An American in Paris
Book cover A Beginner's Guide to the Orchestra

Buy the course notes for this class

In hard copy book form, through Lulu Press
$22 + postage

Susan also teaches a shorter, 1-day exploration of the orchestra called “Understanding the Orchestra.”


“Susan’s courses are always first class – this one surpassed them. Her presentation and course notes are excellent – I enjoyed every minute”

“Totally beyond my expectations. Susan is a superb teacher and a pleasant woman who knows her subject”

“My most enjoyable WEA course ever! It has completely changed the way I listen to music. Brava Susan! Your courses are so interesting, informative and educational”

“Thought the presentation of the course was excellent. Susan has put so much thought and effort into it and presents it with enthusiasm and humour”

“I have really enjoyed this course and felt the teacher went to a great deal of trouble and efort in preparing the course. I will do further musical courses next year – I feel more confident to do this now!”

“A terrific course – Susan was brilliantly prepared – it all made sense and was very informative. It has helped my ‘listening’ skills and enjoyment of classical music. Susan knows her stuff”

“Thoroughly enjoyable. One of the few courses that I haven’t been tempted to skip classes. The course and content has enhanced my enjoyment of music and performance”

“I looked forward to each night and was able to learn something each night. One of the most successful courses I have attended”

About Susan Deas

Susan Deas is a professional musician, lecturer and teacher. She has been teaching music appreciation courses for more than twenty years, through Sydney University’s Centre for Continuing Education, WEA Sydney and at other venues. Her training includes a Bachelor of Music with a major in Performance (Piano) and Musicology, a Master of Music Studies (Studio Pedagogy), a Bachelor of Arts (Communications), and an A.Mus.A in Musicianship. Susan teaches piano and music theory to adults and children, and plays piano and organ at various venues around Sydney. Susan is an accredited piano teacher and musicianship teacher, and is on the Council of the Music Teachers’ Association of NSW.

More about Susan’s qualifications

Read what people have said about Susan’s other courses

Susan’s other music courses