Building the Band: A Music Theory Acoustics Lesson

By Michael Pilhofer, Holly Day

How you build your band is an important element in music theory. Next time you go out to see an orchestra or a big band play, or even when you watch one of those late‐night show bands perform on TV, take a look at where the performers are sitting in relation to each other. Pay particular attention to which instrument is the “lead” instrument.

As you study an orchestra or band, you’ll likely notice these two things:

  • Especially in an orchestral setting, all the performers playing the same instruments are sitting together. This setup isn’t because they all have to share the same piece of sheet music — it’s because when you stick two violins or flutes or clarinets together they sound louder and fuller. If you stick ten of them together, you’ve got a wall of sound coming at you from that area of the orchestra.

    Incidentally, this setup is one reason instruments are so challenging to play. They’re not particularly tricky to play well in themselves, but you often have to play them in exact synchronization with other performers.

  • The lead instruments are in front of all the other instruments, especially in acoustic performances. This setup is beneficial because of volume and perception: The sound waves from the instruments in the front of the ensemble will be heard a microsecond before the rest of the band and will, therefore, be perceived as being louder because you hear them a split second before the other instruments.

    This principle applies to a regular four‐piece electric band setting, too. If you want your singer to be heard above the guitars, make sure the amplifier carrying his or her voice is placed closer to the audience than the guitar and bass amp.

The best place to sit at an orchestral performance is directly behind the conductor but far enough back to be at the same height level as him. Conductors build each orchestra for each performance around where they stand so they can hear exactly what’s being played. Similarly, this situation makes it pretty easy for a seasoned audio engineer to record an orchestral performance. Put the microphones right where the conductor’s standing, and you’ll record the piece of music exactly as the conductor intended for it to be heard.