What is the difference between a concerto and a symphony?

Know how a concerto differs to a symphony? Michael Beek explains

What's the difference between a concerto and a symphony

Symphonies and concertos share a number of characteristics. Both are large scale orchestral forms of music, and both were very popular from the Classical era (1750 onwards). Concertos did form part of earlier Baroque music, but they really came into their own – along with the symphony – a bit later.


The main point of difference is that in a concerto there a featured soloist (or soloists) is given the chance to really stand out. In concert they will stand up front – so not within the instrumental section of the orchestra. In many respects the solo instrument is in something of a battle with the orchestra, largely competing with the ensemble and showing off a bit. In a symphony, while there may be solo passages, the musicians are really all in it together.

Concertos traditionally have three movements, while symphonies have four – though there are plenty that have more, or less. That aside, both follow typical formal musical structures.

The Classical era concerto introduced the ‘cadenza’, which is sort of an improvised ending to the first movement. The soloist is given free rein to really show what they can do – some were composed, but others are left to the performer to realise.

About Michael Beek

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He joined the team in May 2018, following ten years as a freelance film music journalist and fifteen years at St George’s Bristol – where he was everything from Box Office Supervisor to the venue’s Content & Engagement Manager.


Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of Music from the Movies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records. Also a presenter, Michael has hosted concerts and live events for Bristol Film Festival and St George’s Bristol, plus Debbie Wiseman’s ‘Music and Words from Wolf Hall’ at venues across the UK.