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  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Instruments - Strings

We’ve covered the guitar family of stringed instruments. Now we’ll look at the orchestra strings.

Orchestra Strings

The strings section is the soul of the orchestra. They add a certain warmth and character. They also quite versatile in what they can do.

There are four instruments within the string section (with one bonus one which I’ll write about shortly). They each have four strings (though there are some exceptions to this (more on that later too)).

Violin - The highest sounding of the string family. It is also known as a fiddle in folk music circles. The body is hollow, and has holes in the shape of an f - known as “f-holes”. These help the sound come out. The violin is tuned in perfect fifths (G3, D4, A4, E5). The range is from G3 (G below middle C) to E7 (tow octaves higher than the open E string). Strings used to be made out of gut but are now made from steel.

Viola - This reads in Alto clef, and sounds quite low. The body is like a slightly larger violin in that it is also hollow and has f-holes. It is tuned in perfect fifths C3, G3, D4 and A4. (The violin is a perfect fifth higher). The range is C3 (the C an octave below Middle C) to A6 (the A two octaves higher than the open A). Some pieces occasionally call for the viola to be tuned differently to produce a different tonal quality.

Cello - Properly known as the violoncello, this instrument reads bass clef. Again it has a hollow body with f-holes. The biggest difference is that unlike the violin and viola which is held under the chin, the cello is played sat down with the instrument between the players legs. They are also tuned in perfect fifths C2, G2, D3, A3. The eagle eyed will notice that the strings are tuned to the same pitch as the viola just an octave lower. The cello also has a spike which can be extended to the required height to suit the player.

Double Bass - The big daddy of the string family. It has a hollow body (spotting a theme yet?) and f-holes. It also has a spike that can adjust the height. The main difference is that this instrument is played (usually) standing up - though some players sit on a high stool. The tuning is also slightly different in that instead of perfect fifths like the other three, the double bass uses perfect fourths. E1, A1, D2, G2. The double bass is also a transposing instrument in that it is notated one octave higher than it sounds. This is to eliminate excessive ledger lines. The range is E1 to G4.

Common Features

All orchestral strings have common features.

Parts of an orchestral stringed instrument

Scroll - A swirly bit of wood at the top of the instrument. It is simply there as a decoration and in the olden days would show off the skill of the maker as a craftsman.

Tuning Pegs - Often wooden, though on double basses tend to be metal with machine heads (similar to those on a bass guitar). They are used to tune the strings. The thing that houses the tuning pegs is called a pegbox.

Nut - The strings rest on this at the top of the fingerboard.

Neck - What the fingerboard sits on.

Fingerboard - Where your fingers go to make the different notes. Unlike a guitar the fingerboard doesn’t have frets.

Strings - These make the sound

F-Holes - These project the sound

Bridge - The strings sit on this between the f-holes. It’ll have decorative carving and grooves for the strings to sit in.

Tailpiece - This goes from the bottom of the instrument and is what the strings slot into. It’ll have holes in strategic places to hold the strings. On violins and violas (in particular) the tailpiece will house fine tuners which will enable the player to gently adjust the tuning as the tuning pegs can be a little stiff.

Chin Rest (Violin and Viola only) - This is a curved piece that the chin sits (or rests) on.

Spike (Double Bass and Cello only) - This is a piece of metal that comes out from the bottom of the instrument that can be adjusted to produce a comfortable height. It also protects the bout of the instrument (the bout being the big curvy bottom!).

Other Common Things

Another feature of the orchestral strings family (with the exception of the bonus one - we’re nearly there!) is that they can all be played with a bow or the fingers.

A bow is made from wood and “horsehair”. A sticky substance called rosin gets rubbed onto the hairs of the bow. This enables the bow to have a gentle grip as it is pushed or pulled across the strings. This causes the strings to vibrate - which in turn produces the sound. In music if the composer wants the player to use the bow the term “Arco” will be used.

When you use your fingers the sound is produced in much the same way it is on a guitar. The plucked string vibrates and produces a (shorter lasting) sound. This is called pizzicato and will be marked “Pizz.” on a score.

To get a note on a string, much like the guitars, you have to press a finger down. The closer to the bridge you press, the higher the note; conversely the closer to the scroll you press, the lower the note. This is called stopping. If two strings are played at the same time it’s called double stopping. Guess what three strings played at the same time is…and four (though this is very rare).

You can also produce harmonics on all these instruments. Harmonics, similar to when play on guitar, are produced when the string is lightly touched (at certain points). The symbol for a harmonic note is a diamond shaped note, or sometimes a small circle (º).

If you move the bow back and forth very quickly you’ll get tremolo. This is a similar sound to the vibrato effect where a note sounds all wobbly (but for heaven’s sake don’t put “wobbly” in your exam written work!).

If you see the words Col legno that means to play with the back of the bow. It literally means “with wood”. Generally the bow is tapped on the strings as the left hand changes notes. It is famously used in Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets Suite. You can also play the strings using the word of the bow in the “usual” way but this produces a very eerie, thin sound as there’s not much friction.

Con sordino means “with mute”. It is placed over the bridge and makes the strings sound distant (kind of like the mute does on the trumpet).

Vibrato is similar to tremolo except the wobbly effect is not as pronounced and is done using the left hand. It produces a full tone and can also be used on the guitar.

As I wrote at the beginning, all these instruments have four strings - but there are exceptions. The most “common” exception is a five stringed bass, which adds an extra low note (B0). You can get six stringed violins too - but these are exceptionally rare!

The Other Orchestra Stringed Instrument

Have you guessed what it is?

The harp. It is in the orchestral strings family, but the big difference is that the strings (of which there are 47) are plucked with the fingers of both hands and never bowed. The strings correspond to the white notes on the piano.

If you look at a harp it looks like a naked grand piano (with fewer strings).

The harp has seven pedals which are used to produce sharp and flat notes (when pressed or released.)

Like the piano, you can play one note at a time or several. Iconically the harp is famous for its glissando capability (that is is to say playing notes very quickly by drawing the hands up or down the strings).

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