When you attend a theater performance, the music can be an integral part of the entire experience. Live orchestra music has a way of carrying the audience along with the rest of the performance, serving as a powerful force. Members of a live orchestra typically remain hidden from the audience, seated out of sight in the orchestra pit. While the audience cannot see the orchestra, they can certainly hear it. Explore the history and technical acoustics of the orchestra pit to learn about this important theater feature.
History of the Orchestra Pit
Richard Wagner, a German opera composer, receives credit as the creator of the orchestra pit. Wagner worked tirelessly in opera composition, with great concern about theater practices and the overall presentation of the orchestra in performances. Bayreuth, located in northern Bavaria, Germany, is the location of the Margravial Opera House, built between the years of 1744 and 1748. King Ludwig II of Bavaria financed a complete overhaul of the opera house under the supervision of Wagner. Part of the new design was a sunken orchestra pit that would hide the musicians from sight. The premier of the orchestra pit occurred in 1876 with the performance of The Ring of the Nibelung.
- Glossary of Theatre Terms: This glossary of theater terms defines many of the parts of a theater performance, including the orchestra pit.
- It’s a Long Trip to the Orchestra Pit: Performing in an orchestra pit with out-of-sight seating gives musicians an unusual perspective on the theater.
- The Wagner Festspielhaus: Richard Wagner designed an innovative orchestra pit in his theater at Bayreuth.
Characteristics of an Orchestra Pit
The orchestra pit sits between the audience and the stage, situated at a lower level to remain out of sight of the audience. Some orchestra pits have curtains further hiding the musicians. The acoustical design of the orchestra pit is exceedingly important to ensure that the music flows freely up and out of the recessed area. The walls serve to move the music toward the audience and not toward the performers on stage.
- Parts of a Theatre Building (PDF): The orchestra pit is one important part of a theater building.
- Diffracted Sound Field From an Orchestra Pit (PDF): Computer software can help with the design of acoustical orchestra pits.
- Planning Guide for Performance Spaces (PDF): This planning guide addresses the safety of acoustical designs in orchestra pits to prevent injury to musicians.
- Orchestra Pit Acoustics: From Bayreuth to Broadway (PDF): Early orchestra pit designs were not set up acoustically to minimize hearing damage to musicians.
- Building Your First Successful Pit Orchestra: An orchestra conductor shares tips and information about overseeing an active orchestra.
Musicians in the Orchestra Pit
Musicians performing in orchestra pits may feel removed from the performance because they cannot see the stage, the performers, or the audience. The conductor conducts the music, and the musicians simply follow this lead to produce the theater’s music. Shows may last up to 2.5 hours, and musicians usually dress in black to appear both nondescript and professional. With concerns about hearing damage for musicians performing in orchestra pits, newer acoustical designs dampen the decibel levels in the pit. Lighting is important to ensure that musicians can see adequately when performing in orchestra pit seating. Orchestra pits may also feature guard rails and nets to prevent accidental falls.
- Bringing Broadway Home: Organizing a Broadway Pit Orchestra in an Amateur Setting (PDF): A director or conductor can use orchestra pit organization tips for setting up musicians for a performance.
- Life in the Pit: Learn about the activities and situations common for musicians performing in an orchestra pit.
- Musicians’ Guide to Noise and Hearing (PDF): Without acoustical safety measures, musicians are at high risk for hearing damage due to regular exposure to loud noise.
- Acoustic Improvements of the Working Conditions for Musicians in Orchestra Pits (PDF): Musicians performing in an orchestra pit receive significant exposure to loud music, which can damage their hearing.