The symphony is for a fairly small orchestra by Mahler's standards, lacking trombones. It is scored for four flutes, two piccolos, three oboes, a cor anglais, three clarinets, two clarinets in E flat, a bass clarinet[?], three bassoons, a double bassoon[?], four French horns, three trumpets, timpani, bass drum, triangle, sleigh bells[?], glockenspiel, cymbals, tamtam[?], a harp and strings. The last movement features a soprano soloist.
The symphony is in four movements:
After what is for Mahler an unusually restrained first movement, often said to have almost classical poise, the second movement is a scherzo featuring a solo part for a violin tuned a tone higher than usual. This tuning adds to the rather ghostly and other-worldly nature of the music. The third movement is slow, and essentially a set of variations[?].
The last movement is a song for soprano, and takes its text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), which had also provided songs for Mahler's second and third symphonies. This movement was written in 1892, and was originally intended by Mahler to be the seventh and final movement of his third symphony before he decided it should instead be the seed for his fourth. The song, "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), describes a great feast in heaven.
A typical performance of the whole work lasts around fifty minutes, making it one of Mahler's shortest symphonies.