The symphony is in the standard four movements, with a typical performance taking approximately 35 minutes.
The symphony's melodies have a distinctive Danish flavour and are imbued with Nielsen's personal style. Nielsen scholar Robert Simpson describes the composer's symphonic debut as "probably the most highly organized first symphony ever written by a young man of twenty-seven."
The work opens in G minor, and closes with a rousing peroration in C major. This tendency to move away from the original key to C major is the basis of the whole symphony's tonal structure, and displays for the first time Nielsen's hallmark compositional device, "progressive tonality." (Nielsen at one stage even thought of calling the work "Symphony in C".) Simpson states "it is possibly the first symphony to end in a key other than that in which it started".