Orchestration: Introduction to Strings

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Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass
Violinists of the Philharmonia Orchestra in United Kingdom

Introduction to Strings

Stringed instruments, known by their technical name “chordophones,” are instruments that produce sound by vibrating strings. The strings can be either “bowed”, meaning a bow is drawn across the string like a violin, or “plucked”, meaning the strings are directly manipulated via the fingers like a guitar. This produces two distinct groups of stringed instruments obviously named “bowed” and “plucked.” We will begin with the bowed strings as they are, by far, the most important to the orchestra, and then move on to plucked in the second part.

Bowed Strings

The four major bowed string instruments shown approximately to scale

Bowed stringed instruments are very important to the orchestra constituting the orchestra’s largest section: usually, up to 70% of the players on stage are string players. The bowed strings descended from the lira da braccio of the Renaissance period. The exception to this is the Double Bass which actually descended from the Viol family; notice its slightly different shape. By the 1700s, the strings became the first orchestral family to be technically perfected thus being the first to be fully exploited by composers. As such, this historical weight necessitates that we spend a lot of time on the bowed strings; they are, in effect, the thrust of the orchestra.

There are four major bowed stringed instruments in the orchestra: the violin, viola, violoncello, and double bass. They are in descending order of pitch and number in the orchestra. Note that strings are never used in the concert band save for the occasional double bass.

In a nutshell, sound is created by drawing a bow across a string making the string vibrate. The pitch is controlled by the length of the string that is allowed to vibrate which is determined by the fingers; volume and intensity is determined by the pressure of the bow on the string; timbre is generally determined by the placement of the bow on the string.

Anatomy of the bowed strings

To hold the instrument, the chin is held against the chin rest on the body while the left hand balances the instrument usually with the thumb underneath the neck. The playable part of the string is between the nut and the bridge. The fingers of the left hand press against the strings along the fingerboard. The left hand determines the pitch by shortening the string and can add vibrato by pressing firmly and slightly rocking the finger. The strings themselves are tuned by the tuning pegs on the end of the neck near the scroll and sometimes fine tuned with special pins (fine tuners) on the tailpiece which lies on the belly.

The right hand holds the bow at the frog end of the bow (also called the heel); the tip (also called the point) is the opposite end of the bow. The bow is placed on the string with the hair side down and then drawn across it to make sound. Depending on the angle of the bow certain strings can be played, even more than one at a time. The bow can be placed either between the fingerboard and bridge (which is the standard place), or on the fingerboard, or near (or on) the bridge. One can also forego the bow altogether and just pluck the strings with the fingers. Each technique gives a different timbre.

The different instruments all look similar in appearance except for their dimensions: the larger the instrument, the lower the range. The Violin, Viola, and Violoncello all have four strings that are tuned in fifths while the double bass has four* strings tuned in fourths. See their standard tuning below:

String Ranges

*The bass sometimes has a fifth string tuned to C0 below the E0 or the E string is sometimes tuned down to C0 with the "C-extension." We will discuss these special cases later when dealing with the specifics of the Double Bass.

The ranges are limited by these strings: the lowest string is always the low-end limit to the range while the top string dictates the high-end limit. Pitches cannot go infinitely high because the fingerboard is only so long. A good rule is to assume two full octaves above the highest string as the limit in orchestral writing, though, in some cases, an additional fifth or more can be assumed depending on the case. However, that extra bit of range is very risky and of little use in orchestral section playing. Solo and chamber uses can use that range easily though.

Here are the general ranges for each of the instruments:


Violin Range


Viola Range


Violoncello Range

Double Bass:

Double Bass Range

We will discuss each range in greater detail later when talking about each individual instrument.

The String Section

The string section is the only section that is doubled in the orchestra. In other words, there is more than one player per part. The number of players on each part varies depending on the size of the orchestra. All the instruments are divided into five groups in the standard string section: Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Violoncello, and Double Bass. As the names imply, the five groups consist solely of one type of instrument each, i.e. "Violin I" has only Violins in it, "Double Bass" only "Double Basses" in it. The name "Violin I" is usually spoken as "First Violins", Violin II as "Second Violins"; they are always notated with the roman numeral. The groups make the string section resemble a four-part SATB Choir (that is, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass) with an added Double Bass section. Because of the historical use of the Double Bass as part of the “basso continuo” in baroque music, it usually doubles the Violoncello line down an octave.

Obviously, however, music has progressed far beyond just SATB writing, so this historical rationale for the groups is largely moot: Double Bass parts are often very independent of the ‘Cellos. Or, for example, Violin I and II will often double at the octave breaking the rules of traditional SATB writing. No longer are the strict rules of the old classical school necessities, but rather just guidelines of a certain sound that can be broken at will. However, composers are expected to still use the traditional five groups no matter how complex they are, such as in Ligeti’s Atmosphères where every instrument plays something different despite still be divided into the traditional 5 groups. However, this is not a hard and fast rule and sometimes varied to the composer's needs. For example, Brahm's Serenade No. 2 has no Violin sections, or Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms omits Violins and Violas. Thus, if there is no compelling reason to do otherwise, it is recommended to still use the traditional five groups.

The players within each group in the string section play with two players per stand. One sits on the left side, the “inside” player, with another on the right, the “outside” player. The number of stands within each group varies depending on the availability of each instrument for certain groups. But the standardized symphony orchestra (followed by most modern professional orchestras around the world) uses this standard when adhering to the traditional five groups:

The String Section By Numbers:

Violin I: 8 – 9 stands 16 – 18 players

Violin II: 7 – 8 stands 14 – 16 players

Viola: 5 – 6 stands 10 – 12 players

Violoncello: 5 – 6 stands 10 – 12 players

Double Bass: 4 – 5 stands 8 – 10 players

Of course these numbers are not absolute and sometimes vary. For example, the New York Youth Symphony (the major youth orchestra for the New York City area and one of the top in the United States) has 10 stands of Violin I rather than 8 and only 3 stands of Basses at best. Some school orchestras may be lacking in violas completely or have an excess of violins. These variances have to do with the availability of the instruments; this doesn’t usually apply to professional orchestras though who can hire musicians at will. Usually if the composer calls for a specific number of string players (as Strauss or Penderecki often did) they will be provided if the number requested is within a reasonable range of the guideline above. Notice too that older works or works using smaller orchestras may use fewer players within the same proportions.

Layout of the String Section

Standard Strings Layout
Standard Strings Layout
Antiphonal Strings Layout
Antiphonal Strings Layout

There are two common patterns for string section layout with the former being used slightly more often than the latter. The first is the "standard" clockwise arrangement from high to low voices.

This arrangement is very similar to choir arrangements were the different sections are clearly divided in descending order. The basses sit behind the violas and 'cellos; their proximity with the cellos is often attributed to the basses often doubling the cellos.

The second layout is an "antiphonal" arrangement where the Second Violins are placed opposite the First Violins.

This setup was popular in the romantic period so the antiphonal nature of the Violins could be exploited. Examples can be seen in the works of Mahler and Strauss who attempted to use the Violins in an antiphonal matter, however, the effect is not as pronounced as it may seem. Even though they are on separate sides of the stage, the distance between the sound masses is not that great resulting in an only minimal antiphony; however, it is a very striking visual effect having the Violins trade parts which may be enough for some composers.

While this format is used today occasionally, one should expect the first format if the composer does not ask for any other setup. Variations on these setups sometimes occur as well like the basses being placed on the left side of the stage, or the cellos and violas being switched. A general rule that should be observed is that the First Violins always sit directly to the left of the conductor. A less concrete rule is that the "bass voices" (almost always cello and bass) lie to the right, however, this is far less standardized.

Being that the string section is so large and requires so much physical space, it is difficult sometimes to fit a large orchestra on the stage and, accordingly, sections have to be moved around, like the basses, or even the cellos being moved to the left. Usually these changes will not affect the overall sound of the section, though it may change how the piece looks visually. If the visual aspect of the orchestra is important to the composer, he or she must specify exactly where he or she wants the sections to be placed on the stage.

More radical setups for strings include Stokowski's experiments with the Philadelphia Orchestra where he placed the string section behind the wind sections; it wasn't the greatest success. One notable example of setup is from Vaughan-William's Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis who wrote for a string orchestra and a smaller antiphonal orchestra placed away from the main orchestra. Or Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, where he uses two antiphonal string sections set apart from each other. And we cannot forget Stockhausen's Gruppen where he takes his massive orchestra and splits it up amongst three separate stages with three conductors taking bits and pieces of the string section with each orchestra. However, these radical setups are in the minority of pieces and the composer should use caution before asking for a complex setup and consult with the orchestra that would be performing the piece.

Notation of the String Section

The string section, being divided into five groups, is usually given five staves. Each staff gets one group and its own clef etc. The opening system might look something like this:

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture - strings only shown

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture

Recording: Philharmonia Orchestra; Otto Klemperer, conductor

Given that the basses often doubled the cellos in older scores, the strings would sometimes only use four staves as seen in this Mozart Symphony:

Mozart: Symphony No. 40, Mov. 1 - strings only shown

Mozart Symphony No. 40

Recording: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra

In this case, the bass part plays the cello part and would thus place the cello part in octaves. While you may see this older method from time to time, it is not recommended that one use it because an independent bass part is common enough in post-classical music to warrant a separate staff.

Divisi and Soloists in the Strings

Being that there are more than one player per part, the string groups can be divided at will by the composer. The term [i]divisi[/i], Italian for "divided", is used to indicate when parts are intended to be divided by the composer. A divided section should be marked with div., then the players will divide according to the number of parts necessary and the players will specifically not play double stops (playing more than one note at a time). After the parts are no longer divided unis. should appear in the part (derived from the Italian unisoni which means "unison"). In the Brahms Academic Festival Overture example above, you can see the cellos have a divisi mark in bar 2. In this case, the right player (outside) will take the top part and the left player (inside) will take the bottom part. This is the simplest and most straightforward divisi.

Another way to write more complex divisi passages is to use two (or more) separate staves like in this example:

Debussy: Nocturnes: Nuages - Rehearsal 1 - strings only shown (instrument names added for clarity)


Recording: State Symphony Orchestra; Evgeny Svetlanov, conductor

In this example, the First Violins are divided into 6 groups. Assuming the standard 18 players, that would mean three players would play each line. The Second Violins are done similarly except in 5 groups (measure 5 of the example) and then 6 groups (measure 6 of the example). The violas are divided into two groups. In measure 8 of the example the Violins all reorient themselves to divide in four leaving 4 to 5 players per line. See the same excerpt reduced below:

Nuages Example Reduced

Nuages Example Reduced

Debussy uses this somewhat extreme divisi to double a very simple line in many octaves to imitate a vast and thin space much like the clouds he depicts in the Nocturne. Notice that he distributes the multiple parts carefully amongst the different sections to make sure they are as balanced as possible. With so few players per part he also makes a very thin texture which is very effective at depicting the vast sky full of clouds. To specify a number of divided parts, one would write div. a 3 for three parts, div. a 6 for six parts etc.

Another form of dividing parts is divisi da leggii which divides the parts by each specific stand. Several staves will be written out and each stand will take their designated line. To designate dividing by stands, write "div. da leggi" and then mark the number of the stands which are playing each particular line in the left-hand margin. Note too that each stand is two players, so it can further be divided into single players.

Strauss uses this technique in a much more complex example from Also sprach Zarathustra. Here he uses divisi so complex that it pretty much spells out a different part for each individual player. This extensive dividing allows for a huge range of subtle timbres with solo voices crossing and meshing with other voices. It also leads to a very effective climax where he carefully orchestrates a crescendo by slowing adding players without making it perceptible that more players are being added. The music seems to just grow naturally. Study this example carefully and see where Strauss uses divisi to further that growing of volume and emotion in the music.

Strauss: Also aprach Zarathustra: "Von den Hinterweltlern (Of the Backworldsmen)"

Also sprach Zarathustra

Recording: Dresden State Orchestra

The concept of a "solo" string instrument is also used where a single player will play a specific line. We will discuss individual string solos when discussing individual string instruments, but the rule should be stated now: To indicate a solo instrument, write "Solo" above the line. (Some composers use the feminine version of solo, sola for the viola since it is a feminine noun in Italian. This is nitpicky, however, and any violist will understand what solo means in his/her part.) The marked part will only be played by one player (usually the leader of the section). Then, to return to everyone playing together, one should write tutti, meaning "all" in Italian.

If there is a solo part but the composer wishes for the other players to play a different line, then gli altri (the others) should be written on the other line. A composer can also specify that only half of the players should play a particular line by writing la metá (half); the inside player will remain tacet while the outside player will play. Again, one should write "tutti" to have all the players return to playing. This is equivalent to writing out a divisi part and having just rests in the second part. (See bar 6-7 of the Violas in the Debussy Nuages example above.)

One note about unisoni versus tutti: Some composers use "unis." and "tutti" interchangeably but this is sloppy notation because they have different functions. "Unis." implies that all the players are playing, just divided, and then come together to form one part, a unison. "Tutti", on the other hand, implies that some players are resting and are now joining the part. They should not be confused, but using either term for either usage will be understood by the player. It is recommended, however, to get into good habits right from the start and use unis. and tutti properly.

Homogeneity of the Strings

A point should be made about the homogeneity of the strings. The strings have the most consistent sound between the entire ranges of the instruments. Accordingly, a melody can effortlessly flow between one group to another with little change in timbre. This is very advantageous to composers in orchestration and has been exploited many times over the history of the orchestra. A melody can also be doubled at the octave (or other interval) and have similar timbre throughout leading to a very “clean” and sometimes “rich” sound, similar to the organ effect of doubling ranks with similar ranks an octave up (8’ doubled by 4’). While this homogeneity is a great asset to the strings, there are many subtleties of timbre as a group and as a soloist. We will discuss these especially when discussing the individual strings.

Next Tutorial: Techniques of Strings - Part I