String Overview and Characteristics
The string family is the largest family in the entire orchestra, with up to 60 players in the ensemble. It consists of 4 instruments of different sizes: The violin, the viola, the cello and the contrabass/double bass. In addition, the harp is also considered a part of the string family. However, given the different nature of the instrument, we will cover the harp at a later time, focusing only on the 4 other string instruments in this article.
The instruments are made of wood, and usually carved into their characteristic curvy wooden body shape, then attached to a wooden neck piece. Strings are attached to wooden tuning pegs on the headpiece located on the top of the neck, and are stretched over the body and neck of the instrument. The string instrument’s bodies are hollow inside to allow the sound of the vibrating strings to resonate.
The musician plays the instrument by drawing a bow across the strings, making them vibrate, and thus produce a sound that is again amplified by the instrument’s hollow body. The bows are usually made of wood, strung with horse tail hair. The string instruments can also be played by plucking the strings with fingers, or different techniques utilizing the wooden part of the bow.
The string family is very versatile, and has probably the greatest range of expression and intensity among the orchestral families. They also blend very well with basically anything in the orchestra. They can play anything from sweeping love themes, atonal horror cues, massive heroic melodies and emotional ballads. Let’s have a closer look at the ensemble and its characteristics.
Let’s get started by looking at the ranges of the different instruments. The string section consists of violins (usually divided in 1st and 2nd violins), violas, cellos and contrabasses (also called double basses) + harp. It is quite important to be aware of the limitations of the playable range of the instruments. This is to place your melodies in the best ranges of the instruments to get the best possible sound, and avoiding writing parts that the instruments cannot actually play.
Above you can see the ranges of each instrument in the string section. Try to keep these in mind when writing and orchestrating material for the string instruments. Also be aware that in general, the string instruments have a more warm, round and dark sound in their lower register – while the higher you go, the more bright and piercing the sound will become. Another thing to note, is that the double bass is notated one octave above what it actually sounds like, something that allows easier notation. This is the reason why it might seem that the cello has a lower range than the double bass, based on the image above – while the reality is that the double bass is almost an octave lower than the cello.
Next, let’s have a look at a few general characteristic traits of the string section, that separates them from the other instruments in the orchestra.
They can play any note imaginable within their range. This is because string instruments have no frets, or pre-defined keys like you find on a guitar or piano. The pitch is defined by where the musician places their fingers on the fretboard, so they are able to play notes that are between the usual steps, as well as slide smoothly between two given notes. The fact that string instruments can play pitches outside the general steps, makes them suitable for playing atonal music, like for example in horror cues.
They can play continuously, without the need to breathe. String players don’t need to breathe to be able to play, like brass and woodwind players do. This is simply because they play using a bow, and thus can play longer melodic lines without taking breaks between phrases. This makes it possible to have continuous string patterns over longer periods of time.
They can play fast melodic scales and runs. A good string player can play very fast runs and scales, as well as arpeggiated chords pretty easily, when the material is orchestrated well. They can also play very quick repeated notes, for example 32th note rhythms and patterns, easier than most other instrument groups since they play with a bow and not with their mouth and breath.
They can play several noes at the same time, through double stops or triple stops, where the player plays two or three strings at the same time. However, to pull of this off in a manner that’s possible to play, it requires some knowledge of the instruments to notate it properly.
Their tone color is darker and warmer in the low range, but thiner, brighter and more brilliant in the high range. The range you place your string melodies in, will have a huge impact on how the tone color of your theme will turn out. If it is played in the lower register of an instrument, it will sound warmer and more gloomy. If you place it in a higher register, it will sound lighter and more brilliant. The higher you go, the more thin, brittle and penetrating the string sound will become.
They are able to play a lot of different articulations, like legato, pizzicato, con sordino, staccato, marcato, etc. Be familiar with the different articulations of the string family, and learn how to use them effectively.
Being the backbone of the orchestra, strings blend perfectly with all other instruments.Doubling melody lines and chords with strings is a potent way to strengthen other instruments through orchestration. For example, doubling a clarinet section melody with violas in unison, will make that melody shine even more.
This is a quick and brief look into the general characteristics of the string family. Keep this in mind when both writing and orchestrating material for strings, utilizing the instruments in the best possible way. For more in depth information, stay tuned for more articles, and our upcoming orchestration courses.