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In this article on the string instruments you’re going to learn everything you need to know about the string family.

There’s infographics on the tunings, range, and timbre.

Plus video demonstrations of each and every technique!

From how they’re built to how they’re played and everything in between.

Let’s dive in!

Use the table above to navigate to the section you’re most interested in.


The String Instruments & Sections

The String Section

In this section I’m going to teach you all about the four string section instruments in an orchestra. 

We’ll look at:

  • The string instruments
  • How they’re played
  • The sound they create
  • How many you’ll find in typical groups
  • The layout during performance and recording

In this article you’ll learn about the various string techniques that are available on string instruments.

You can play all of these string techniques on all four string section instruments, but they will have different tonal qualities to them, depending on which instrument is playing them.

Even if you deal exclusively with sample libraries, and have no intention of ever writing for real instruments, this section is still massively important. 

It’s going to help you understand all of the various articulations that come with sample libraries. And the more you understand them, the better you’ll be able to write for them, and the more realistic you’ll be able to make your pieces sound. 

It’s going to open up a whole new world of timbres and sounds for you to get your teeth stuck into.

NOTE: all of the video examples below start and end to show just the techniques in question. Just hit play!

Don’t fancy reading? Here’s a video version of this article:

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String Section Instruments

Let’s start with the easy bit, what are the four orchestral string section instruments?

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Violoncello
  • Contrabass

The violoncello is usually just called a cello and the contrabass is often called a double bass, upright bass (in jazz/pop) or, simply, bass.

String Section Instruments

They’re all built in basically the same way, with the main differences being size. And, of course, timbre.

We also group Harp into the string section, but for the purpose of this article we’re only going to focus on those four string section instruments.

How String Instruments are Played

You can bow or pluck each of the string instruments in a variety of ways.

But when it comes to playing style, traditionally, the violin and viola are both held under the chin, whereas, the cello and contrabass are both stood upright when they’re played.

The cello and bass both have pegs that extend out from the bottom to adjust the height.

You play the cello seated, with the instrument between your legs, while you would usually play the contrabass standing, or perching on a high stool.

There are some other playing methods in traditional music from other cultures, such as resting the violin more vertically on the bowing shoulder and bowing vertically rather than horizontally. However, I’ve described the traditional methods.

String Instruments Sounds

In terms of the sound that a string instrument makes, there are a few factors to consider. 

The vibration of the string is what actually produces the noise that you hear. The vibration creates a main frequency or note, which is called the fundamental.

What you’re actually hearing though is that main note along with a whole series of frequencies, or overtones, ringing out above it. 

That’s how all instruments create their unique timbres, by combining those overtones. 

But in string instruments they’re particularly pronounced, and you can exploit them with the use of harmonics.

These overtones or harmonics mean that you need to be aware of resonance when writing for strings. 

The most resonant notes are the open strings (that’s when there is no finger on the string). Notes that would usually appear in what’s called the “harmonic sequence” are also resonant on that string. So that’s the octave, 12th, double octave, and double octave + major third.

String Harmonics

Without going too deep into acoustics, the reason they resonate more than other notes is that the frequencies are all multiples of the fundamental frequency. 

So the frequency for the note “A” is 440Hz. That means the note “A” vibrates 440 times per second. If you were playing “A” on a string section instrument, that means the string is vibrating at that speed, 440Hz. 

The A an octave above that is 880Hz, meaning it’s vibrating twice as fast (440 * 2 = 880).

The 12th above is 1320Hz (440 * 3) and so on. 

These multiples naturally vibrate more in tune with the original, open string and violin body itself and therefore are more resonant.

Wow. Science!

Don’t stress too much about that, but just be aware that certain notes will naturally ring out more than others. 

Now that you’re aware of this, if you’re writing for real instruments regularly, you’ll know exactly what the problem is if you hear certain notes standing out.

With some practice and experience you’ll even be able to spot it before you’ve printed the scores!

How Many Violins Are in a Typical Orchestra?

The number of string instruments in an orchestra varies depending on the size of the orchestra. Obviously!

The string section is made of 5 groups:

  • 1st Violins
  • 2nd Violins
  • Violas
  • Cellos
  • Contrabasses

When describing the number of string instruments in each section, you often see a series of numbers separated with slashes, like:

16/14/12/10/8

And that means:

  • 16 1st violins
  • 14 2nd violins
  • 12 violas
  • 10 cellos
  • 8 basses.

And that’s a fairly common setup for a large orchestra: 16/14/12/10/8. 

Importantly, for smaller variations you can’t always just half those numbers – as 4 basses aren’t literally half as loud as 8.

Smaller variations include:

12/10/8/6/4

or

8/6/4/3/2

In pop music, you often leave the basses out, as they clash with the bass guitar and make the low end of a mix quite muddy.

So a pretty common layout for pop is:

6/6/4/4

That’s:

  • 6 1st violins
  • 6 2nd violins
  • 4 violas
  • 4 cellos.

It’s possible to go even smaller than this, but you begin to run into problems like the high ranges of each instrument sounding very weak.

And also some intonation or tuning problems…

String players aren’t always precisely in tune.

Plus, they apply vibrato differently to one another.

When you have a section of 16 violins, these tiny discrepancies go unnoticed, and actually add to the fullness of the sound. However, when you get below 4 or 5 violins, those slight differences become very pronounced and can sound pretty nasty. 

It’s like when two people sing together but not in harmony – it often sounds a bit…rough.

Obviously, you eradicate these problems when you get down to just one of each instrument, as in the string quartet. The string quartet consists of:

  • 2 violins
  • Viola
  • Cello

String Instruments Section Layout

The traditional orchestral layout, and the one most commonly adopted by all sizes of string sections (including quartets), basically goes clockwise from high to low pitch as if looking at the orchestra from the audience:

String Section Layout

There is also an alternative layout:

String Section Alternative Layout

This layout means the two violin sections are opposite one another, and the middle and lower range instruments are more central. When you think about it, that’s a bit closer to how modern songs are mixed. You have low frequencies central and higher ones spread further left and right.

Of course, rules can always be broken, and composers are always finding new ways to bring different textures to their pieces.

Hans Zimmer is a particular advocate of interesting recording layouts. 

If you’re ever fortunate enough to have your string parts performed by actual players and not just sample libraries, think carefully about how you’d like the players to sit and create your own seating plan. 

Do bear in mind though that if you’re not conducting yourself, the conductor you’re hiring might be used to a standard layout – in which case it’s best to play it safe and stick with one of the two traditional arrangements.

…unless you have time and money to burn!

The String Quartet Instruments

The String Quartet Instruments

The string quartet instruments are no different to the instruments you’d find in a typical orchestral string section…minus the contrabass!

What Instruments Are in a String Quartet?

Put simply, a string quartet consists of:

  • Two violins
  • A viola
  • A cello

As you can see in the image below, they’re laid out with the violins on the left, then viola, and finally cello on the right.

High to low / left to right.

String Quartet Instruments
Heinz Bunse [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

So the makeup of a string quartet is three types of string instrument, split into four parts.

Three types:

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello

Split into four parts:

  • Violin I
  • Violin II
  • Viola
  • Cello

How The Quartet Was Born

Joseph Haydn is most famously associated with developing the string quartet into its current form. The classical era in general is where you’ll find the most examples of string quartet music.

That said, there was a huge revival in the early 20th century. Contemporary classical composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Shostakovich revived the quartet, creating some of the most innovative and progressive music heard at the time.

Very early orchestral music only had four parts (no separate contrabass part). This meant that when orchestral compositions were reduced onto single instruments, we ended up with a kind of “quartet” already.

The credit most often goes to Haydn because he was one of the first to purposefully write for string quartet. Although that was kind of by accident…

You see, Haydn often spent time with a noble Austrian (Karl Joseph Weber, Edler von Fürnberg) and would play in a thrown-together quartet of string players (himself included). When said noble Austrian asked for some new music to be performed, Haydn’s original string quartet compositions were born.

And the rest, as they say, is history!

So if you’ve been wondering which string instruments you would find in a string quartet, there’s your answer!

The Parts of the String Instruments

The Parts of a String Instrument

Knowing the parts of a string instrument will help you better understand how to write for the instrument.

How?

Well, if you know how the instrument produces and projects sound then you know how to experiment with that sound. Likewise, if you understand what the instrument is physically capable of, you’ll know exactly how to push its limits.

If a picture paints a thousand words, how many does a video paint?

Here’s the video version if you prefer:

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Parts of a String Instrument

Generally, all four instruments are built in the same way, with the main difference being the dimensions. 

That’s the width, length and depth. 

One thing that you should also be aware of is that there are smaller versions of each instrument too, such as a “three quarter cello”. These are designed for children to learn on, but worth mentioning in case you ever see a tiny cello in a thrift store and want to work out what it is!

From top to bottom, the parts of a string instrument are:

  • The scroll
  • Pegbox
  • Tuning pegs
  • Neck
  • Fingerboard
  • Upper bout
  • Waist
  • F holes
  • Bridge
  • Lower bout
  • Fine tuners
  • Tailpiece
  • Chin rest (violin and viola only)
Parts of a String Instrument

Tuning A String Instrument

You tune a string instrument using the tuning pegs.

The tailpiece hold the strings in place at the bottom of the instrument, and the string wraps around the tuning pegs at the opposite end.

By turning the pegs, and therefore tightening or loosening the string, the tuning of the string changes – just like when you wrap an elastic band around your fingers and pluck it. 

The tighter you stretch it, the higher the pitch and vice versa. 

There are “fine tuners” where the string is held in place, at the tailpiece. These give the players muchmore accuracy when it comes to tuning.

The strings are under so much tension that even the slightest of lengthening or shortening can change the pitch dramatically, so the fine tuners are essential for getting the instrument perfectly in tune. 

If you’ve ever played a guitar with a Floyd Rose system, the fine tuners will be familiar to you.

How Notes Are Chosen

The player places their finger on the fingerboard in order to change the note. That’s called “stopping” the string, as where you place your finger physically stops the string at that length.

Unlike a fretted guitar, the placement of the finger is absolutely vital. 

String instruments don’t have frets, which means if you were to slide your finger up the string while bowing you’d have a continual change of pitch. 

Frets on guitars stop the string at perfect half-step (semitone) intervals. 

That’s not the case with string instruments. 

This is why beginner string players often sound out of tune; they’ve not yet mastered the finger placement and listening skills required to make the minute adjustments needed.

How The Sound is Projected

The F holes are the parts of the string instruments that project the sound. 

The string vibrates when it’s bowed.

That’s what creates sound: the vibration.

That vibration transfers through the bridge to the hollow body of the instrument.

Then the sound is amplified from the F holes. 

Again, to relate it to guitar; if you strum an electric guitar without amplification, you get barely any sound. It’s similar when bowing a violin with no hollow body (such as an electric violin) – the sound is much quieter.

Although not as quiet as an electric guitar!

Parts of the String Instruments’ Bows

The string bow consists of:

  • The tip
  • Bow stick
  • Bow hair (made from around 150 to 200 hairs)
  • A grip, itself consisting of:
    • Winding
    • Pad
  • The frog
  • The screw to tighten or loosen the bow
Parts of a String Instrument's Bow

Players use something called rosin to give the bow hairs the ideal amount of friction on the string. Rosin is basically a solidified resin, most often from pine trees.

The bow hairs themselves are usually made from hairs taken from the tail of a horse.

The bow is used to bow across the strings, which are made from either steel, a synthetic material similar to Nylon called “Perlon”, or gut. 

Gut is literally made from a fibre found in the intestines of animals. Typically sheep. Gross.

You should always remember that the strings aren’t all perfectly lined up, like they are on a guitar. That would make bowing an individual string impossible.

The bridge and fingerboard are actually curved.

That’s why string players have to raise the bow higher or lower (or outwards and inwards in the case of cello and bass) to hit each string individually.

World-class conductor, Leanna Primiani, gives some tips on learning orchestration, common string doublings, and her most recommended scores for study on the podcast. Check it out here!

String Instruments: Ranges [infographic]

String Instrument Ranges

The Violin – String Notes, Range, and Timbre

violin string notes range timbre

In this section you’ll learn the violin string notes, violin range, and violin timbre.

Violin Range

Check out the video version of this section here:

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Violin String Notes

The violin is the smallest of the string family. 

Like all of the string instruments, it has FOUR strings, and they are tuned from low to high to:

  • G2
  • D3
  • A3
  • E4

NB: I refer to “middle C” as C3 (as per standard MIDI numbering)

Violin Range

In standard tuning, the lowest note of a violin is G2.

But when it comes to the highest note, things get a little less defined…

That’s because the highest note of any string instrument depends a lot on the individual instrument, and how its built. 

It also depends on the ability of the player….

Ability is a big factor in how clearly and securely the higher notes can be played.

Most professional orchestral players should be able to play up to around E6.

But, if you’re composing with sample libraries, bear in mind that many of them actually limit the highest playable notes to somewhere around C6. 

Generally speaking, you should avoid the extreme high range of each instrument on all of the string family instruments. Unless it’s being used for a particular effect. Such as a thin, strained sound, or a very piercing timbre.

Violin parts are written in the treble clef at concert pitch. So there’s no need to mess around with transposing! 

Violin Timbre

The violin has a bright, and brilliant timbre, which in the higher range can be very piercing.

The Viola – String Notes, Range, and Timbre

viola string notes range timbre

In this section you’ll learn the viola string notes, viola range, and viola timbre.

viola range

Often the viola is the most overlooked of the string instruments. That’s a real shame, as when you play to its strengths it can give you a really unique texture in your compositions.

To the general public it just looks like a violin, so they’ve no way of telling them apart. As opposed to the cello and contrabass, which have quite obvious differences!

Sadly, even composers often use the viola to simply “plug the gaps” in their orchestrations. This leads to a lot of boring, or even awkward viola parts.

The poor viola players are left jumping around chord tones, or holding long notes, while the violins get the sweeping melodies over the top.

Learning about the viola’s characteristics will help you understand how to best play to its strengths.

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Viola String Notes

The viola is tuned one fifth below the violin, so standard tuning, from low to high, is:

  • C2
  • G2
  • D3
  • A3

NB: I refer to “middle C” as C3 (as per standard MIDI numbering)

Viola Range

In standard tuning, the lowest note is C2 up to a highest of around G5.

Some models and players will be able to get even higher, but sample libraries are often limited to D5 at the highest.

Most viola parts are written in the alto clef.

That might be another reason why composers don’t like writing for viola – we’re terrified of the alto and tenor clef!

If the part is in the higher register of the instrument for an extended period of time, then treble clef can also be used.

Viola players can easily read both clefs.

Just try to avoid too many ledger lines. No one likes reading ledger lines!

Viola Timbre

The timbre of the viola is similar to the violin, but a bit darker.

This makes it more stately or mellow.

It’s also sometimes said to be more nasally than the violin.

The Cello – String Notes, Range, and Timbre

cello string notes range timbre

In this section you’ll learn the cello string notes, cello range, and cello timbre.

Cello Range

Most people agree that the cello is one of the most beautiful sounding and emotive string instruments. Perhaps that’s because it’s less piercing than the violin, but just as expressive.

It has a huge range, allowing it to be used in a wide variety of ways. From a dark, penetrating low range, through a full, warm midrange, all the way to a bright, piercing top register.

The cello can, and often does, do it all!

In contrast to the violin and viola, when you play the cello you hold it between your legs, stood upright on the floor. It has a peg that extends from the bottom, allowing you to alter the height.

Here’s the video version of this section:

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Cello String Notes

The cello strings are one octave below the viola.

From low to high it’s tuning is:

  • C1
  • G1
  • D2
  • A2

NB: I refer to “middle C” as C3 (as per standard MIDI numbering)

Cello Range

The lowest note on the cello, in standard tuning, is C2.

Since it has a longer fingerboard, the cello’s range is quite a lot larger than its smaller siblings’: from C1 it can stretch all the way up to C5 – a full 4 octaves.

Parts for cello are written in the bass clef, unless there are extended sections in a higher register. In that case, you can use the tenor clef to avoid too many ledger lines.

Cello Timbre

The timbre of the cello is full, warm, and sonorous.

You could say that it’s similar to a male chest voice.

Double Bass – Range, String Notes, and Timbre

double bass range string notes timbre

In this article you’ll learn the double bass range, double bass string notes, and double bass timbre.

As promised, here’s the infographic:

Double Bass Range

The double bass is the largest instrument in the string family, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most audible.

Despite its huge, resonant body, the low range and dark timbre of the double bass means it doesn’t pierce through the orchestra as much as its smaller siblings’.

You can refer to the double bass as “contrabass” or simply “bass”. In jazz and popular music, you often call it an “upright bass” to distinguish it from an electric bass guitar.

The difference between the cello and double bass is threefold:

  1. Size
  2. Timbre
  3. Range

The double bass is a lot larger than the cello, has a darker, grittier timbre, and a smaller range. It’s also one octave below the cello, even though it’s written at the same pitch.

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Double Bass String Notes

Guitarists and bassists may see something familiar here!

The tuning of the double bass is the same as the bass guitar or first four strings of the electric guitar.

That makes it the only member of the string family to be tuned in fourths rather than fifths.

So the double bass string notes are:

  • E0
  • A0
  • D1
  • G1

NB: I refer to “middle C” as C3 (as per standard MIDI numbering)

C Extensions

Many modern orchestral double basses have what’s called a “C Extension.”

A C Extension is basically an extended fingerboard that extends above the peg box for just the low E string.

Image Attribution: Bottesini [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

C extensions have a series of stops that allow you to lock the string chromatically on any note between C0 and E0.

Double Bass Range

With the extension, the double bass range starts at C0, with its highest practical note being G2.

Without the extension, the lowest note is E0. Therefore, you’ll need to bear that in mind that if you’ll be writing for live instruments extensions are not always available.

At the very least you’ll need to give notice and specify that you’ll need double bass C extensions.

Double bass parts are written in the bass clef, and sometimes the tenor clef if the part is written in the higher range.

Double Bass Timbre

It has a heavier sound than the cello, with a full, deep, dark, penetrating timbre.

Unlike the other instruments in the string family, the contrabass isn’t often used as a solo part, although there are some notable examples.

Despite its size, it’s actually very nimble, but its lower range means fast passages can sound muddy or lack clarity.

String Instruments Techniques & Articulations

string techniques and articulations

In this section you’ll learn about the various string techniques that are available on string instruments.

You can play all of these string techniques on all four string section instruments, but they will have different tonal qualities to them, depending on which instrument is playing them.

Even if you deal exclusively with sample libraries, and have no intention of ever writing for real instruments, this section is still massively important. 

It’s going to help you understand all of the various articulations that come with sample libraries. And the more you understand them, the better you’ll be able to write for them, and the more realistic you’ll be able to make your pieces sound. 

It’s going to open up a whole new world of timbres and sounds for you to get your teeth stuck into.

NOTE: all of the video examples below start and end to show just the techniques in question. Just hit play!

Prefer a video? Here you go!

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Articulation Techniques

Articulation is all about how a note is played, and how notes begin and end.

We’ll start by looking at articulations that are common across all instruments, not just strings, before moving into the more string-specific ones.

Duration vs Force

The main articulations fall into two categories: duration and force.

The articulations that affect duration are:

  • Tenuto
  • Staccato
  • Staccatissimo

And articulations that affect force are:

  • Accent or marcato
  • Martellato or marcatissimo

Let’s look at those in a bit more detail…

Duration

Of the duration articulations, from shortest to longest, the order would be:

  • Staccatissimo
  • Staccato
  • (An ordinary note)
  • Tenuto

As you can see, tenuto is longer than an ordinary note, and staccato and staccatissimo are shorter.

Tenuto

Tenuto is often described as playing a note to its full value. 

In practice, the actual result of marking something as tenuto tends to give the note a very subtle accent. 

Like a slightly forced sound. 

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Staccato

Staccato, however, is translated as “detached”. 

That’s a much better way to think of it than “short”. It means that each note should be detached from the next.

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Staccatissimo

Staccatissimo basically means extremely detached. 

Again, in practice, players often interpret it to mean “play the note as short as is possible”.

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Force
Marcato (or Accent)

The hairpin accent or marcato means to play the note with force

So the note is emphasised, beginning more forcefully.

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Martellato (or Marcatissimo)

On string instruments, Martellato is actually a bowing technique that is used to play marcatissimo notes. It means to hold the bow on the string, putting on a lot of pressure, and then sharply jolting across the string to produce a load, abrupt note.

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String Techniques

Okay, now let’s look at some more specific string techniques.

Détaché

As the name implies, détaché means to play the notes detached. 

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Legato

Legato is the opposite of détaché.

It means that notes are fluidly joined together. 

That sometimes means a group of notes played in a single bow stroke, but legato can also be played by bowing back and forth in a smooth motion.

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Portato

Next up is portato. 

When you see this notated, you’ll realise it’s a combination of legato and staccato. 

That sounds completely conflicting, so let me try and explain it in a simpler way: 

Portato is legato, but with each note slightly emphasised.

If you watch a string player playing portato, you’ll see that the bow almost pauses for a moment as each note is played. Not in a jolty way, as that would create a detached sound, but in a smooth, bouncy kind of way.

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Portamento vs Glissando

The next two articulations we’re looking at have a lot of crossover: portamento and glissando.

Unlike a guitar, the string instruments don’t have marked frets. 

When you place your finger on the fretboard of a guitar, the string is actually being stopped by the piece of metal that runs perpendicular to the fretboard. 

The fret. 

Violins, cellos, and double basses don’t have these frets

They’re fretless

So, when you slide your finger up or down the fretboard of one of these instruments you get a continuous change of pitch, not perfect semitones. Using these slides in between notes is either portamento, or glissando.

But what’s the difference?

Portamento is when you slide to or from one single note, whereas glissando is where you slide from one note to another note.

But in practice, they’re generally used interchangeably.

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Vibrato

A string player will naturally perform with vibrato unless you instruct them not to, by writing “non-vib” on the score. Or “senza vibrato” if you want to sound posh.

Most good sample libraries include non-vibrato patches too. 

It gives a drier, slightly colder sound than a warm, full vibrato.

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Spiccato

Spiccato is a very short sound, much like staccato. But the main thing that makes it different is that between each note the bow should bounce off the string. Whereas for staccato the bow should remain on the string.

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Ricochet or Jeté

A kind of extreme version of spiccato is ricochet, or jeté, bowing.

This is where you literally let the bow ricochet, or bounce, multiple times off the string in the same bowing direction.

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What Does Pizzicato Mean?

Pizzicato, or pizz. for short, is where the string is plucked rather than bowed.

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There’s also an extreme version of pizzicato called either snap pizz, or the Bartok pizz, named after the composer most famously associated with it.

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String Harmonics

Natural String Harmonics

You might have heard harmonics played on the guitar, where the guitarist lightly touches the string while plucking a note and it creates a beautiful, high pitched ringing sound. 

Well, harmonics are also a feature of string instruments.

But they don’t always sound pretty! 

The natural way of creating string harmonics is just like the guitar: you lightly touch the string while bowing. 

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Artificial String Harmonics

You can also create artificial string harmonics.

An artificial harmonic is created when the player stops a note, so they press firmly down on the string as if to play it normally, and then with a second finger touches the string very lightly a fourth above the note. That creates a sound two octaves above the original stopped note.

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Sul G

Another technique you may want to consider is Sul G, or Sul “whatever string you want”.

This means that all of the notes should be played on only one string. So Sul G means to play all of the notes only on the G string.

Trills and Tremolos

Okay, now something that can be a bit confusing: trills and tremolo. 

By definition a tremolo is a “trembling” sound. A single note bowed tremolo on a string instrument is where the player bows very quickly back and forth to create that trembling sound.

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The second form of a tremolo is the fingered tremolo, where the player alternates between two notes in a single bow stroke. Not the fast back-and-forth bowing as in a bowed tremolo.

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This is where the overlap with a trill comes in, and where there’s some confusion. 

A trill is also the rapid movement between two notes.

Usually the note a half or full tone above the written note.

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Bariolage

Bariolage is possibly one of the more impressive sounding string techniques, as it sounds like a lot of notes being played very quickly

It’s actually more of a bowing technique than a fast finger technique. 

Usually using an open string as a root, the player moves the bow quickly across a number of strings. The result is a fast, arpeggiated sound.

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Col Legno

Col Legno is a really great string technique for adding a percussive texture to your string parts. 

There are two forms of Col Legno, but normally if you don’t specify which, it’s assumed to be Col Legno Battuto. 

This is where the player turns the bow upside down and literally hits the strings with the wooden part of the bow!

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The other form of Col Legno is Col Legno Tratto, which is where the player bows the strings with the wooden side of the bow.

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Collé & Chopping (or Chunking)

Our final two techniques are kind of traditional and modern equivalents of each other: collé and chopping (or “chunking” as it’s sometimes called).

This is where the bow quickly lands on the string and then chips away. This gives a short, gritty, quite percussive sound.

In Collé, the traditional method, the note itself is a little more pronounced

Whereas in chopping sometimes the note is completely muted and you just get a percussive, wood chopping kind of sound, as the name implies.

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String Instruments: Bowing Techniques

In this section you’ll learn all about string bowing techniques.

Here’s the full video on bowing techniques:

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There are many different ways that a string player can bow their instrument. 

Each way creates a slightly different tone. 

Learning these bowing techniques will help you find new timbres and textures to exploit in your compositions.

Bowing Directions

You can use bowing directions to your advantage. 

Say you want a more aggressive, slightly more powerful sound for each note. You could instruct the players to use downbowing, which is naturally more powerful than an upbow, to get that effect.

There are also a few ways to tell string players which part of the bow to use. You could write:

  • WB for “whole bow”
  • MB for “middle bow”
  • UH for “upper half”
  • LH for “lower half”

Some more terms that indicate bow placement are…

Testa or Punta D’arco

This means to play with the very tip of the bow, and creates a very thin, light sound

Al Tallone

Meaning to play by the frog of the bow, and gives a slightly cumbersome, more powerful sound.

Bow Placement

All of the terms so far have been to do with whereabouts on the bow the player should play. 

But you can also change the tone of string instruments by changing where on the string the bow is placed.

Sul Tasto

Sul Tasto means to place to bow higher up the string, over the fingerboard. This results in a softer, less bodied sound. 

Sometimes this is referred to as flautando – as it’s closer to the tone of a flute.

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Sul Ponticello

The opposite of Sul Tasto is Sul Ponticello, which means to play closer to the bridge

This gives a glassy, scratchy sound, which can actually be really unpleasant if not performed well.

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Con Sordino

Not quite a bowing technique but it is something that affects the tone of a string instrument, and that’s Con Sordino or With Mute

String instruments are designed to resonate. They have big, hollow bodies with those f holes that amplify all that vibration out. 

The mute clips onto the bridge and prevents it from vibrating so much. 

This changes the tone of the instrument, giving is a darker sound with less harmonics (or upper frequencies).

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There’s a great example of mutes in Sibelius’s “Tapiola”. The string players each remove their mutes one by one while holding a tremolo on one single note.

So the texture just slowly changes over time.

Divisi Strings & Double Stops: Chords for String Instruments

divisi strings and double stops

In this article you’ll learn about two techniques that allow you play more notes in the string section: divisi strings and double stopping.

You’ll also learn why sustained four-note chords are impossible on an individual string instrument.

If you’d rather watch this as a video, I’ve got you covered!

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How Many Notes Per Chord?

If there are four string instruments split into five parts (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and basses) then surely that means the biggest chord you can have is a five note chord, right?

One note per section?

Well, no.

There are a couple of ways of creating fuller chords with more notes.

Namely: divisi strings and double stopping.

If you’re never planning to work with a real orchestra, and are doing all of this with samples, then you might be wondering why you need to worry about this.

It’s all about realism.

If you load up a sample library patch that has 18 violins and you play a three note chord with those violins, the sample library doesn’t automatically split those 18 violins into three groups of 6.

It plays 18 violins on each note!

54 violins in total!!!

So learning how the string section forms chords will help you understand how to make your MIDI string samples sound more realistic.

Double Stops

Let’s start with double stops.

A double stop is when the player plays two notes at once.

The reason it’s called a double stop is because usually the players uses two fingers to stop two separate strings.

You can have double stops, triple stops, and even quadruple stops. That’s where all four strings are played to form a chord. 

Importantly though, it’s only really the double stop where the notes can be played at a variety of dynamics simultaneously.

Because the bridge of the violin is curved, the player can only bow across two strings at a time – unless they push down extremely hard on the strings. In that case they can sometimes play three at once.

violin bridge
curved violin bridge

That means triple stops can be played as a single chord. Just expect it to be LOUD!

Quadruple stops are always arpeggiated, from bottom to top. So bare in mind that you won’t get a solid attack with quadruple stops.

Quite often with orchestras, even if you direct them to play double stops, they’ll still actually play divisi.

I explain what divisi strings are below.

There are a few reasons that players avoid double stops.

Namely:

  • They’re harder to play in tune, since the player has to get two notes in tune at the same time
  • They’re harder to make sound as tonally full
  • Beginning and ending a double stop isn’t always easy, unless the composer plans it very well.

Here’s a demonstration of double stopping:

Divisi Strings

Now, divisi strings.

As you might have guessed from my hints, divisi is where a chord splits across the section.

If you have a two note chord in your violin part, half of the violins will play one note while the other half play the second.

Incidentally, for a two note chord the players will split “per desk”.

That means per stand.

Usually two players share one music stand, so the default is that the player closest to the audienceplays the top note while the player on the inside, further from the audience, plays the lower note.

Very broadly speaking, try to avoid having the first violins divide, unless you really need the extra notes.

Put any high register dividing on the second violins.

Also avoid divisi in the basses, other than for octaves or if you’re trying to create a low, muddy, crunchy sound.

Don’t expect to hear each note clearly though!

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