The piece is scored for a large orchestra made up of four flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes (one doubling cor anglais), three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling double bassoon); six French horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba; four timpani, cymbals, bass drum, side drum, triangle, glockenspiel, tamtam, wood clapper, harp and strings.
The piece is generally regarded as Mahler's most conventional symphony up to that point, but from such an unconventional composer it still had many peculiarities. It almost has a four movement structure, as the first two can easily be viewed as essentailly a whole. The symphony also ends with a Rondo, in the classical style. Some peculiarities are the funeral march that opens the piece, and the Adagietto for harp and strings that interrupts the booming score.
The work is in five movements: