The Music in Communities Network’s research agenda includes filling some statistical gaps in our understanding of the community music sector. We know that there are an enormous number of community-based groups out there but we don’t know how many people are in them, how often they perform, what music they play, what issues they face, or their demographics.

The first in a series of surveys focuses on community orchestras. The results paint a picture of a diverse and creative sector embracing all age groups and playing a wide range of music.

Key Findings

  • Over half of Australia’s community-based orchestras commission new music or have a member of the group compose for it.
  • While classical music is still the most popular genre, community-based orchestras perform a wide range of music including contemporary, multicultural, baroque, and Australian music.
  • There is great potential for orchestras to discover and try music which they aren’t yet playing. 46% of respondents are interested in playing a genre of music which they don’t currently play.
  • Australian music ranks highly among genres that orchestras “would like to” play, if they aren’t already.
  • All age categories are represented in at least 85% of adult/all-ages community orchestras.


Most Preferred Genres

Classical music (i.e. from the classical period) is by far the most popular genre. 87% of respondent orchestras say they regularly play classical music, 11% occasionally, with a total positive ranking of 98%1. The second most played genre is Romantic music, played occasionally by 74% of orchestras and regularly by 7%. The genre with the second-highest positive ranking, however, is Movie Themes and Popular Songs (89%). The least performed genre, of the options given, was multicultural music, with the special category of “Babies Proms” (a style of concert rather than a genre) having the lowest ranking.

Of the positive responses (always/often/occasionally/would like to), classical music is the most played style. The rankings of other genres point to diversity across the sector, with a high percentage of orchestras performing non-classical music such as movie themes and popular songs, and 20th/21st century music. (Figure 1)

Do Orchestras Want to Play Other Genres?

Although only 8% of the orchestras responding to the survey currently play all eight nominated genres and categories, another 22% said they would like to add all the remaining genres that they were not already playing, ranging in number from one to four additions. Another 24% made a mixed response, indicating that they would like to add some new genres but were not interested in some others. This left almost half of the orchestras (46%) saying they had no wish to play genres other than those played currently. (Figure 2)

What do they want to play more of?

Only Classical and Romantic avoided any “no” responses, these genres had some blank or “don’t know” responses but none stating that Classical or Romantic music aren’t played. Of the responses stating that the orchestra doesn’t currently play a genre, Australian music ranked equal highest among the genres that orchestras “would like to” play (50%), alongside Movie Themes and Popular Songs. A smaller number of the orchestras not playing baroque, early music or multicultural repertoire would like to do so.

A large percentage of orchestras said they would like to play a “Babies Proms” program. As Figure 1 shows, 20% of orchestras are already performing this style of program. A further 28% said they don’t but would like to, 30% are not interested and some don’t know.

Where do orchestras find their music?

The most used method of accessing music is purchasing music (87%), following by hiring from a publishing company (65%), then hiring from Symphony Services International (54%), and exchanging with other orchestras.2 (52%). Fewer than half of orchestras use other methods listed.

However, the positive rankings of each method varied from their actual use, indicating that some orchestras are interested in methods they are not using, some are using methods to access music which they would prefer not to. The Australian Music Centre has a much higher ranking than its actual use, indicating that more orchestras would like to use its services, while purchasing music has a lower positive ranking than its actual use, indicating that some would prefer not to purchase music. (Figure 3)

In addition to the sources of music listed, community orchestras told the Music in Communities Network that they also use the State Library of Queensland, Victorian Music Library, tertiary music school libraries, and the internet. One website mentioned a number of times the International Music Score Library Project (, which publishes scores and parts for out of copyright works.

Commissioning music

The survey asked whether the orchestra commissions a composer to write music, and whether a member of the orchestra writes music. In total, 54% of orchestras use at least one of these methods. 28% commission music but don’t have a member of the group compose for the group, 11% have a member compose but don’t commission, and 15% use both methods.

The positive ranking is much higher: 76% of orchestras would like to use at least one of these methods (26% commission, 13% have a member of the group compose, 37% both).

Therefore, there is a considerable overlap of interest in commissioning music and having a member of the group write music, and a considerable amount of interest in performing new music which is not yet being realised.

Participation, Concerts and Rehearsals

This estimate relies on the assumption that the sampling was representative of the total number of Australian community orchestras, and that the response was well distributed among the different types and sizes of orchestras. It is fair to assume, however, that individual community orchestras make a valuable contribution to their local communities.

Based on respondents, Australia’s community orchestras have an average of 44 members, rehearse 39 times per year and perform an average of 7 concerts per year.

The value of volunteer hours in an average community-based (non-youth) orchestra could be estimated at $122,000 for performances and rehearsals alone.3

While the exact number of community orchestras in Australia is unknown, a conservative estimate of 80-100 adult community-based orchestras nationwide would put the value of volunteer contributions from the community orchestra sector at approximately $10-12 million each year, not including youth orchestras or the substantial additional work of volunteers managing these orchestras.

This estimate relies on the assumption that the sampling was representative of the total number of Australian community orchestras, and that the response was well distributed among the different types and sizes of orchestras. It is fair to assume, however, that individual community orchestras make a valuable contribution to their local communities.

Age of Orchestras

Most Australian community-based orchestras have been running for over 20 years. While there are still new orchestras being created, the rate of closure seems low. Clearly these groups are well established in their communities. (Figure 4)

Age of Members

All age categories are represented in at least 85% of adult/all-ages community orchestras, and 70% of community orchestras include young people under 184. This supports an often-stated assertion that community music is one of the few activities in which young and old can participate in “a level playing field”, to borrow a sporting term. It is inclusive. As such, mentoring and skills exchange can happen within and between the age groups, based on musical skill rather than age.

The vast majority of youth orchestras have musicians above and below the ages of 18, while a small number (27%) include only one age group or the other.

In “adult” (typically all-ages, not youth-specific) community orchestras, most have participants from all or most age groups. The age group least represented in adult community orchestras are the under 18s (represented in 73% of orchestras), although participation for young people appears to be strong through the youth orchestras. (Figure 5)

How many orchestras are there?

The survey itself was not able to determine how many orchestras we have in Australia. This is a question ripe for further research, perhaps by canvassing local government cultural officers, for example. Our estimate is that there are between 130-170 community-based orchestras in Australia, but there could be well over 200.

In 2010, Anne Cahill estimated that there were 78 community orchestras and 33 community-based youth orchestras in Australia.5 The Music Council is aware of approximately 79 community orchestras and 53 youth orchestras, although in some cases (particularly youth orchestras) we know that several ensembles operate under a single organisation but have not calculated these additional ensembles as separate orchestras. We began this research with a list of 179 orchestras but in the process approximately 40 of these could not be found online. We cannot be sure how many of the 40 not found have closed and how many are simply not found online; another piece of research suggests that 25% of community music groups have no website, which suggests that some orchestras not found online may still exist.6

If we work from the various lists and other sources known to us and extrapolate from the population figures for each State and Territory, we are prepared to say that our ‘best estimate’ of the number of community orchestras nationally in Australia is 147. We base this on 6.55 community orchestras per one million people.7 Again, taking into account the fact that some of the lists are a little old, we have come up with a range of 130 – 170.

Appendix 1: About the Orchestras Survey

By Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, Editor, Music in Australia Knowledge Base

The announcement of the orchestras survey on the Music in Communities Network website stated that it was intended for orchestras in Australia, particularly the members of the former Orchestras in Australia Network (TOAN). The project was concerned with two things: 1) repertoire and 2) a profile of community orchestras in Australia.8

The sampling was therefore designed to attract what is known as community orchestras though not necessarily clearly defined. There is a slightly blurred distinction between “community” and “professional” – for example, Wikipedia when accessed on 20 June 2012 listed 37 “Australian orchestras” (see page of that name), which included the major symphony and opera orchestras, other professional orchestras, professional chamber music groups, university-based groups, and others. From their website descriptions I independently identified seven of the 37 listed by Wikipedia as community orchestras.9

Alex Masso estimates in the concluding section of his paper that there may be 130-170 community orchestras in Australia. Not all of these could be identified for the survey. Because one of the main sources was the former members of TOAN, an organisation that has been defunct for some years, some of these members may no longer exist or may have changed their name. The original sampling list of 179 reflected this, as 40 couldn’t be found, leaving a sample of 139 including orchestras who had agreed to be on the Music in Community Network and to be surveyed.

Eliminating four surveys appearing twice in the completed sample, the final response was 54 – yielding a response rate of 40%. This is a very decent rate. Furthermore, all but five responses were from community-based orchestras classified as either “adult/all ages” or “youth outside school”, indicating the right targeting. One orchestra classified itself professional, two semi-professional (which may actually fit into even a strict definition of “community-based”), and there were two school orchestras. The vast bulk of the sample, in other words, was genuine community orchestras as intended in the survey design.

In conclusion, while a sample of about 50 is on the small side, limiting the scope for highly detailed classifications, this initiative has to be hailed. Furthermore, it was based on a professionally designed email survey form, with the cooperation with the research organisation Survey Monkey. Finally, the patterns revealed by the survey results in Alex Masso’s report are highly plausible.

Appendix 2: Questions

Page 1: Questions for community orchestras – repertoire

Questions on the first page are to gather information so that we can inform you and other orchestras. Your responses on the first page may be used as information on our website to let orchestras know what others are playing. The questions on the second page will simply be collated to create a profile of all community orchestras. For more information see

1. Which of the following types of music does the orchestra perform?

Types of music: Baroque and Early Music / Classical Repertoire / Romantic Repertoire / 20th – 21st Century Art Music / Australian Composers / Movie themes, popular songs etc / Multicultural repertoire / “Babies Proms” concert / other (please specify)

Options: No, not interested / No, but we would like to / Occasionally / Often / Always / Don’t know. Comment box for “other”

2. Please list pieces you have played recently. Alternatively, feel free to send concert program information to Alex Masso

Options: Open comments box

3. What methods do you use, or would you be willing to use, to access repertoire?

Methods: Buying music / Exchanging music with other orchestras / Hiring from Symphony Services International / Hiring from the Australian Music Centre (Australian music) / Hiring music from other library (please mention in comment field) / Hiring from a publishing company / Commissioning a composer to write music / Member of the orchestra writes music / Member of the orchestra arranges music

Options: No, don’t want to / No, but would like to / Yes, but don’t like to / Yes, and will continue to / Don’t know. Comment box for “other (please specify)”

Page 2: About your orchestra

The questions on page two will be collated to present some basic statistics about the community orchestras of Australia.

4. Name of orchestra

Options: Text box

5. Which of the following best describes your orchestra?

Options: School Orchestra / Community-based Youth Orchestra (i.e. outside school) / Community-based Orchestra (adult / all ages) / Semi-professional Orchestra / Professional Orchestra

6. Average number of players

Options: text box

7. How long has the orchestra been running?

Options: 0-5 years / 5-10 years / 10-20 years / 20-30 years / 30+ years / Don’t know

8. What age groups are included in your orchestra (select as many as you like)

Options: under 18 / 18-25 / 25-35 / 35-45 / 45-55 / 55-65 / over 65

9. How many times each year does your orchestra perform, on average?

Options: text box

10. How many times each year do you rehearse, on average?

Options: text box

11. If you would like to hear about the findings of this survey and join our mailing list, please provide your email address.

Options: text box.


Alex Masso. Received 1 August 2012. Entered into knowledge base 18 September 2012. A PDF version can be downloaded from the Music in Communities Network (MiCN) website.


  1. 2% didn’t respond to the question .↩︎
  2. The Orchestras of Australia Network (TOAN) developed a scheme to facilitate orchestras exchanging music. The network no longer exists but anecdotally the Music in Communities Network is aware that some continue to use connections made through TOAN, and orchestras would support a new version of the scheme. The survey did not specifically ask about the National Music Lending Scheme.↩︎
  3. The Economic Value of Volunteering in South Australia, accessed 13 June 2012. Using 2010 rates, p 8.↩︎
  4. For this section, only “community-based”, i.e. not school-based or semi-professional/professional, were included. We have separated adult/all-ages and youth orchestras for these calculations, as indicated.↩︎
  5. Cahill, Anne, Australian Community and Youth Orchestras — the State of Play. Prepared for the MCA Classical Music Summit (2010).↩︎
  6. Community Music Online, preliminary research by Alex Masso, February 2012. Unpublished.↩︎
  7. ABS Population statistics, accessed 24 July 2012. Average orchestras per million of population are 6.6 (NSW), 4.8 (VIC), 7.5 (QLD), 3.7 (SA), 1.7 (WA), 9.8 (TAS), 5.4 (ACT), 12.9 (NT). Average of all states and territories = 6.55. This rate, extrapolated to a national population of 22,482,200, provides an estimate of 147 orchestras. In some states and territories (QLD, TAS, NT) we know there are more orchestras than this average rate per million.↩︎
  8. The announcement was replaced in September 2012 with the second of the planned MiCN surveys, of community choirs.↩︎
  9. Interestingly, a Victorian orchestra on its website nominated itself as “one of ten community orchestras in Victoria” which suggests that further detective work may yield many additions to the list — who does a particular type of community orchestra regard as its peer groups, as from other viewpoints there would be more than 10 community orchestras in that state? Meanwhile, the results of this initial survey appear to be realistic. While some blurring undoubtedly remains, it is reassuring that every one of these seven orchestras were included in the sample.↩︎

Alex Masso manages MCA's Music in Communities Network. He is a Sydney-based drummer, educator, advocate and managed the events program at Wollongong Conservatorium of Music before joining MCA in 2012. Alex plays with The Vampires, Slide Albatross, Kinetic Jazz Orchestra, The Splinter Orchestra, and others.

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