Bartók makes extensive use of classic elements in the work; for instance, the first and fifth movements are in sonata-allegro form. The work combines elements of Western art music and eastern European folk music, especially that of Hungary, and it departs from traditional tonality, often using non-traditional modes and artificial scales. Bartók researched folk melodies, and their influence is felt throughout the work; for example, the second main theme of the first movement, as played by the 1st oboe, resembles a folk melody, with its narrow range and almost haphazard rhythm. The drone in the horns and strings also indicates folk influence (see example).
The piece is scored for 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (one doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tamtam, 2 harps and strings.
Note that while the printed score has the second movement as Giuoco delle coppie (Game of the pairs), Bartók's manuscript shows it as Presentando le coppie (Presentation of the pairs). The printed score also has an incorrect metronome marking for this movement. This was brought to light by Sir Georg Solti as he was preparing to record the Concerto for Orchestra and the Dance Suite. Solti writes:
When preparing these two works for the recording I was determined that the tempi should be exactly as Bartók wrote and this led me to some extraordinary discoveries, chief of which was in the second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. The printed score gives crotchet equals 74, which is extremely slow, but I thought that I must follow what it says. When we rehearsed I could see that the musicians didn't like it at all and in the break the side drum player (who starts the movement with a solo) came to me and said "Maestro, my part is marked crotchet equals 94", which I thought must be a mistake, since none of the other parts have a tempo marking. The only way to check was to locate the manuscript and through the courtesy of the Library of Congress in Washington we obtained a copy of the relevant page, which not only clearly showed crotchet equals 94, but a tempo marking of "Allegro scherzando" (the printed score gives "Allegretto scherzando"). Furthermore Bartók headed it "Presentando le coppie", (Presentation of the pairs) not "Giuoco delle coppie", (Game of the pairs). I was most excited by this, because it becomes a quite different piece. The programme of the first performance in Boston clearly has the movement marked "Allegro scherzando" and the keeper of the Bartók archives was able to give us further conclusive evidence that the faster tempo must be correct. I have no doubt that thousands of performances, including my own up to now, have been given at the wrong speed!|4=Sir Georg Solti|5=Liner notes from London LP LDR 71036, Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and Dance Suite, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recorded January 1980
The fourth movement, called Intermezzo interrotto by Bartók, consists of a flowing melody with changing time signatures, interrupted by a banal theme which is a parody of the march from Dmitri Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony (No. 7). The banal theme is itself interrupted by glissandi on the trombones and woodwinds. In this movement, the timpani are featured when the second theme is introduced, requiring 12 different pitches of the timpani over the course of about a minute. The general structure is "ABA–interruption–BA."