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Orchestration: PART 3 - Strings

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The quintet of string instruments that are the largest grouping of instruments in the orchestra are also the most homogenous in timbre. This comes from their common ancestors and means of producing sound.

String instruments are at once the easiest grouping for which to write, and the hardest for which to write perfectly idiomatically. Poorly orchestrated music for strings still sounds good because of the nature of the string sound. However, our goal here is to achieve a superior level of orchestration. Again, as for the brass instruments, a good book on instrumentation is essential for learning the huge variety of string techniques that are available to the composer/orchestrator. The limited scope of this online lesson will not allow us to go into quite as much detail, however we will try and cover some of the basic techniques that are available.

If we thought that the clarinet was the Sybil of woodwinds, we are in for a surprise, as the strings represent an entirely new level of musical schizophrenia.


Bowed techniques

Sound on a string instrument is achieved through the vibrations caused by the rubbing of rosin-covered horse-hair against the strings of the instrument. Generally, the bow is moved across the string at a point mid-way between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. This produces the “normal” sound of the string instrument.

By moving the bow onto the fingerboard, one gets the “sul tasto” (in French “sur la touche”) effect. The bow here cuts closer into the vibration of the string, creating an almost muted effect.

Moving the bow closer to, or even right across, the bridge gives the “sul ponticello” effect. Amateurs of horror movies recognize this effect from its over-use in B-grade film scores. The effect is extremely colourful, and easily over-done. Sul ponticello is often accompanied by another bowing effect: tremolo. This is the rapid (unmeasured) movement of the bow, back and forth, to create a sort of trembling effect.

Yet another effect that is achieved with the bow, but not in the traditional manner of using it is “col legno”, or “with the wood”. Here the bow is turned upside down so that the wooden part rather than the hairs strikes the strings. The effect is very percussive, though not terribly loud (remember the opening of “Mars” in Holst’s suite “The Planets”). The intonation of strings col legno is indistinct, so it is unusual to ask for a specific melody to be played thus. While col legno is a “struck” effect with the bow, some composers (notably Mahler) have actually asked string players to bow across the strings with the wooden part of the bow. The effect is extremely light, and at least in my opinion, of dubious value.

Plucked techniques

String players can use fingers to play the strings as well. This is called pizzicato. Basically, they pluck the strings like a harp. In soft dynamics the effect can be very rich and light, while in loud dynamics it is heavily percussive, especially if the string is allowed to strike the fingerboard. The latter effect is often called a “Bartok pizz.”, and can be indicated by a little circle over the note with a tiny vertical slash in the top.

When the composer asks a string player to change bowing techniques, or to use the fingers and pluck strings, the effect is indicated in the score with a text expression. To have the musician return to “normal” string technique, a new expression is added. When pizzicato is needed, simply writing “pizz.” will suffice. To return to bowed strings, indicate the return with “arco”. For other effects, the return to normal bowing technique is indicated with the expression “ord.” (for “ordinario”).

You should think of pizzicato strings as a different instrument when considering tone weight and timbre. Pizzicato will not “blend” with other string sounds as easily as some of the other effects due to its percussive nature. The same is also true of col legno.

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  • 10 months later...
Guest QcCowboy

Orchestration: PART 3 - Theory (Strings) continued

1st and 2nd Violins

When speaking within the context of an orchestral setting, we will always consider the violins to be divided into two distinct groups: the first violins and the second violins.

The entire string section is placed in a fan, or semicircle, starting to the left of the conductor and moving across the stage towards the right. Generally, the first violins are the group seated to the left of the conductor (let’s call that “9 o’clock”.. the audience is basically “at 6 o’clock”.. the concert is at 8 o’clock!). The second violins are a bit further inside the stage, around “11 o’clock”. Here we come face to face with a situation that has puzzled both composers and conductors alike for a number of years. When the writing is particularly antiphonal, the two violin sections lack a certain distinction because of their close proximity. After all, they are comprised of the exact same instruments. There is no real difference between a player in the first violin section and one in the second. Both are expected to be capable of the same virtuosity.

Over the years, different composers (and conductors) have repeatedly tried solving this problem by placing the two violin sections on opposite sides of the stage, with the first desks to the left of the conductor and the second desks to the right. While the goal in so doing was laudable – to augment the antiphonal effect between the two – the end result has given mixed results. By placing the second violins opposite the first desks, any antiphonal writing between them is very clearly defined, however, we come face to face with a simple problem of accoustics: the second violins are now turned in such a fashion so that their instruments are basically pointed to the rear of the stage, away from the audience.

Therefore the choice is one of greater distinction between the voices through a stereophonic effect, or one where both instrumental groups are placed in as advantagous a position in regard to the audience as possible.

Thankfully, this is not really the composer’s problem!

As we stated above, in a professional orchestra there is no technical difference between a player in the 1st violin section, and one in the 2nd violin section. Both are capable of the exact same degree of virtuosity, the same beauty of sound, etc…

However, when writing for community or amateur groups, this is less often the case. Many community/amateur groups will relegate weaker players to the 2nd violin section. If you find yourself writing for such a group, do take this into consideration.

Generally, the 1st violins will have material that is placed higher, while the 2nds will often double the lower octave.

Crossing parts between 1st and 2nd violins is a normal part of string writing. As a matter of fact, it is perfectly normal for almost all of the string parts to cross into each other’s ranges, with the lone exception of the contrabass. Due to the extreme low register of the contrabass (do not forget that the contrabass sounds one octave lower than written), and the accoustical principle which generally makes closely set intervals in the lower register sound weaker, voice crossings with contrabass will be a very rare occurrence.

Note: for a brilliant example of contrabass crossing into extreme high range, please see the opening measures of Maurice Ravel’s “l’Enfant et les sortil

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  • 5 months later...
Guest QcCowboy

Orchestration: PART 3 - Theory (Strings) continued

1st and 2nd Violins cont...

Learning to write idiomatically for strings is a life long journey, unless you yourself are a string player. The brilliant Paganini solo violin parts are always a fantasy for most composers. We all dream at some point of writing THAT piece that will excite the passions of violinists worldwide. And it IS a good goal. But here, we will start with a more realistic and down to earth approach.

Historically, the violins - even the entire string section - have been the "backbone" of the orchestra. For the longest time main themes, in anything other than the most delicate and soft sections, were always given to the violins. it was a "given".

With the size of the orchestra growing to the monumental proportions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this became less and less the norm.

However, this never negated the fact that the strings are particularly well-placed to handle "main" thematic material. They have a uniformity of timbre from lowest to highest instrument. They blend imperceptibly with one another. And as luck would have it, they also blend particularly well with other instrument families.

Examining the violins as a group - which means 1st and 2nd violins - we have a number of options.


They can be treated as a group, in unison. This is a VERY powerful effect, and one that should not be over-used. Remember that when 1st and 2nd violins are playing in unison, you have effectively reduced what is normally a 5-part section into a 4-part section. Not in itself a problem until you realize that the 4th part - the contrabass - does not have the carrying power of the other string instruments, nor the extreme range (solo performers, however, are a completely different issue, and are highly capable of extreme virtuosity).

The low register, often played on the rich and vibrant G string, is particularly effective for this sort of unison writing. There are very few moments as stunning in symphonic repertoire as hearing the entire violin section, both 1st and 2nd, launch into a dramatic melody played on the G string.

The middle and high registers lose no power or beauty, and you should feel free to exploit the entire range of the instrument when assigning a main melody to it.


This is the "normal" state of affairs for violins, with the most common configuration being 1st violins playing above 2nd violins, often in simple octaves.

This octave writing has an added benefit: upper partials get reinforced by harmonics from the lower instruments.

Further division of the violins gives a new effect. One could divide each section into two individual parts, in effect, writing 4-part harmony for the violins. Generally, a divisi part for the violin section will have the notes assigned to instrumentalists by seat. Violins generally share a music stand (a "desk"), two by two. In a divisi section, one of those musicians will take the upper part (generally, the musician to the "outside") while the other musician takes the lower part.

There is a psychological effect that occurs here. Normally, each violinist can rely on the player seated immediately next to him, his desk partner. However, in a divisi section, each player is, in effect, "alone".

Not to be cruel, but this can work in your favour as a composer. This sense of lack of "back-up" will also create a certain sense of tension within the section. A particularly dissonant part, or particularly dramatic, will gain a great deal of effect from this division.

Greater sub-divisions of the violin section are possible, depending on the size of the orchestra in question.

Here, however, greater care must be taken when layering heavily divided strings against the rest of the orchestra. While it is true that half the violin section is not half as loud as the entire violin section, there is none the less an effect of reduction of mass. 12 violins playing in unison have a quite different sound from 12 violins playing 12 different lines. In the former case, you will have the amalgamated sound of the entire section, subsumed into the effect "violin section". In the latter case, you will literally have 12 soloists, sounding like 12 soloists.

If you choose to heavily divide the violin section, be conscious that against a large, modern brass and woodwind section, they will not have the same sort of carrying power.

However, carefully used, the effect is quite mystical. It has both a tension and a transparency that is quite unique.

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