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During the Oscars, the presenter says who wins a particular award and then the orchestra immediately begins playing part of the score from the associated movie.

In years where there is a live orchestra, I can't imagine that there is enough time for the orchestra to hear the presenter and then in the span of a second or two figure out which instruments should be playing, what tune it should be, and at what tempo. So surely they must be informed ahead of time of who the winner would be so that they know which song to play.

So at what point is the orchestra told who the Academy Award winner will be?

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I've peform in musical ensembles and it is by no means a far stretch that they would have 6 pieces prepared and be able to perform it on queue with seconds notice. After all these are highly trained musical professionals not some high school band. – sanpaco Mar 1 at 7:14
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@sanpaco: Ahem "cue" :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 1 at 10:49
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@PreferenceBean Well, it's multiple pieces of music lined up and ready to go... that'd make it a queue of cues, wouldn't it? – T.J.L. Mar 1 at 13:46
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Anyone else? Yup I misused the word queue when it should have been cue. Thanks for pointing it out :) – sanpaco Mar 1 at 23:21
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@sanpaco Sorry, couldn't help it. But I really wanted to make my point about the ability of (some) high school bands. :) – Iron Man Mar 2 at 19:48
up vote 40 down vote accepted

When everyone else does - when the winners are announced.

I can't find an answer originating directly from the Academy on this, but Time covers the 2014 Oscars and had an article which stated:

• A small team of people (about six people, not including Rosas and Cullinan) split up the ballots so that nobody is counting an entire category, which means nobody knows how the different entries stack up. Those subtotals are added up by Rosas and Cullinan [two accountants]. By Friday evening, the two accountants will know all the winners.

• Though they won’t disclose how many vote are received, there are about 6,000 voting members of the Academy. All of the counting is done by hand. “It’s old-school,” says Cullinan. “It’s as boring as it sounds. You have lots and lots of stacks of little pieces of paper.”

• All of the categories are counted several times, and extra if there’s a tie (which has happened). There has never been a post-awards recount required.

• The Academy provides triplicates of cards listing each movie in every category. Rosas and Cullinan put the winning cards in the envelopes; the losing cards and extras are destroyed.

• Two identical and complete sets of cards are put in two identical briefcases. This year, PwC has introduced a new style of briefcase — seen above — which is the first one to bear the Academy’s logo as well as the accounting firm’s.

• Having rehearsed their blocking on Saturday, Rosas and Cullinan will travel to the show separately, in cars with security details. They carry the briefcases down the red carpet, pausing for interviews, and each take their places on opposite sides of the stage. As presenters come on from either side, they’ll be handed the right cards.

This process is backed up in several other places, including the Journal of Accountancy:

Secrecy is paramount. Team members from PwC meet at an undisclosed location, and each accountant tabulates only a portion of the votes so he or she won’t know the final results. Only Ruiz and Cullinan put everything together in the end to determine who the Oscar winners are, and they commit those results to memory. The winners’ names are not typed into a computer or written down, to avoid potential lost slips of paper or breaches of security.

In the final hours before the Oscars ceremony, Ruiz and Cullinan will quiz each other to make sure they have accurately memorized the winners in each category. They then will look through the preprinted cards for all of the nominees, select those that list each of the victors, and stuff the envelopes. Both will head to the ceremony on Sunday carrying the correct set of envelopes. If one gets hung up in L.A. traffic, the other will also have the results in his or her briefcase. Once at the event, both will be backstage to hand the appropriate envelopes to the celebrity presenters during the live event.

So inferring from what both of these articles say, the orchestra find out when most of the world finds out - when the winner is announced. This means they will likely have rehearsed multiple pieces of music for each winner. As @sanpaco says in his comment above, this is certainly not uncommon for a highly professional musical outfit.

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The giveaway would be if you can ever get a camera angle to see them all flipping to the right chart as it's announced - either that or they've memorised all the scores, which I would think highly unlikely. Or alternatively, these days, they've got the dots on a screen which could be remotely triggered for all players simultaneously. – Tetsujin Mar 1 at 9:33
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They don't need to memorise the whole score, just the short passage they will play. That's not a big ask for a professional orchestra. – OrangeDog Mar 1 at 11:23
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@OrangeDog They might not even need to memorize anything. I've worked with musicians (who are much better than I) who can sight-read complicated scores cold and play them at least 98% accurately. Also, most of the music in question is not that complicated. – Todd Wilcox Mar 1 at 14:45
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@OrangeDog The pieces are so short that you can easily fit 6 or more of them on two sheets of music. Therefore a simple solution would be to have a sheet of music for each category showing the bit they will play for each entrant in that category. Go to the next two sheets for the next category, and when announced, just put your eyes on the correct bit. All the bits will have been rehearsed beforehand so everyone has a reasonable familiarity with each bit. All bits are simplified - they'll still be easily recognized, but fairly easy to sight-read as well. – Adam Davis Mar 1 at 15:33
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"In the final hours before the Oscars ceremony, Ruiz and Cullinan will quiz each other to make sure they have accurately memorized the winners in each category." - What if they both misremember... – Tom.Bowen89 Mar 1 at 15:55

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