The MyMusicTheory Guide to Orchestral Instruments; Part 5 – The Strings


The Strings

What are the main orchestral string instruments?

In the string section of a symphony orchestra you will normally find a number of violins, violas, cellos and a smaller number of double basses. These are the standard orchestral string instruments.

string instruments

There are usually about 28 violin players in a symphony orchestra. Fourteen of them are “first violins” and twelve are “second violins”. One of the first violins has the job of “leader” of the orchestra, which is a position of responsibility. Usually the leader is the one who gets to play any solos!

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Violas number about ten. The viola is slightly larger than the violin and produces a warmer, mellower tone. The viola isn’t often given solo melodies to play, but is more likely to be employed filling out the harmony.

In the following clip you can watch the violin and viola performing together as solo instruments, in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola. Here you can see how the two instruments compare in both size and sound. The soloists begin at about 2″20:

There will also be around ten cellos. Cellos are similar in construction to the violin and viola, but are much larger; so large in fact, that you have to sit down to play one. Cellos have a spike stuck in their underside, which sticks into the floor for support but allows the player a lot of flexibility. Cello players often have very emotional music to play, but also help fill in the inner harmony of a piece, as do the violas. One of the most famous cello players of all time was Jacqueline Du Pre (1945-1987). Watch her playing the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto:

The violin, viola and cello comprise the “violin family”.

Finally, a big orchestra could have eight double basses. The double bass weighs about 10kg (20 pounds) and is about 6 feet (180cm) tall – as big as a man! The double bass is actually probably not directly related to the other three string instruments in this section – some historians think that it is related to the “viol” family, rather than the “violin” family, which dates back to the 15th century, because it is constructed in a slightly different way. The double bass is not often used as a solo instrument against the rest of the orchestra, as it can be difficult to hear. Here’s a double bass duo by Bottesini, the Finale of his Gran Duetto no.2:

What other string instruments are there?

harpIn addition to the four main string instruments, you can occasionally find a part for the harp. The harp is very different from the other string instruments, because the player plucks the strings with the fingers instead of using a bow. Harps have around 47 strings, and can play a range of 6 and a half octaves.

Orchestral harps have seven pedals, which are used to adjust the pitch of all the strings simultaneously. Imagine a piano – if you run a finger quickly along the white notes, you’ll get a C major scale. The same thing is easily done on the harp by plucking the strings quickly. The player can change the scale produced (to any scale, major, minor or otherwise) by simply setting the foot pedals into the required positions.

When were string instruments invented?

Byzantine "Lyra"

The violin family was developed in northern Italy in the 16th century. Some modifications were made in later years, but the instruments are essentially the same now as they were then. Violas and cellos were developed at the same time as the violin, as instrument makers were in deep experimentation with the basic form, trying to find the best way to construct their instruments. The violin shape was most likely based on older, Byzantine instruments, which were brought from Asia and the Middle East to Italy along the old Silk Route.

The question whether the double bass is a member of the violin family or the viol family is one which is still hotly debated. Double basses are different in three main ways:

  • Their strings are tuned a perfect fourth apart, whereas all the other strings are tuned in fifths.
  • The “shoulders” of the instrument are sloping, whereas the others are rounded.
  • The proportions used to construct the instrument are different.

How do string instruments work?

Each instrument has four strings. The strings are practically the same length, but they are of different thicknesses. The thicker the string, the lower the note. The violin, for example, has its four strings tuned to the notes G below middle C, then D above that, then A, then the highest (thinnest) string is E.

Close up of violinist stopping a string

The note which is produced depends on how much length of string is allowed to vibrate. If the player lets the whole string vibrate, it will produce its lowest note. If the player puts a finger on the string (“stops” the string) , the part which is able to vibrate will be shorter, so a higher note is produced. For example, if the player puts a finger about 2cm along the string, the note one tone higher will sound (A, on the G string). Doing the same thing on the D string will produce the note E, and so on. String players have to place their fingers with great precision, or they will play out of tune. Unlike on the guitar, there are no “frets” (marked places) showing them where to press. This is one reason why beginner violinists sometimes sound rather unpleasant!

So, while the left hand is used to shorten the string as desired, the right hand is used to set the string in vibration. Most often, this is done with a bow.

violin bow

What are “bowing techniques”?

Apart from simply drawing the bow back and forth across the strings (which is known as “arco“), the string player has a few other tricks they can pull off to create some wonderful effects. Some of these are:

Pizzicato – plucking the strings with the fingers (not strictly a “bowing” technique!) Watch the pizzicato technique in the clip of Bartok’s 4th String Quartet:

Spiccato – bouncing the bow on the string to make short, detached notes.

Col legno – using the wood of the bow (i.e. upside down!) Mahler uses this technique in the third movement of his first symphony. The clip should start a few seconds beforehand, the you can see the violinist using the bow col legno at 4:00:

That concludes the MyMusicTheory Guide to the Instruments of the Orchestra! Hope you enjoyed it!


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