Lyrical and bouncy; sharp and mellow; sweet, plaintive and joyous: Strings can beautifully convey each of these, and this is why they are the heart of any orchestra. In the hands of a master performer, a stringed instrument can make you giggle one minute and weep the next. The flexibility and range of these instruments has allowed them to endure and evolve over several centuries, which is probably why they remain the darling of many composers to this day.
String instruments have deep roots in Western classical music. In the Renaissance and Baroque eras (1400 – 1600 and 1600 – 1720 respectively), it was the viol family of string instruments that held dominance. Similar to violins, they were wood with gut-strings and played with a bow, but unlike violins, they were fretted and had a flat back. Around 1550, in northern Italy, the modern violin family was born from blending the rebec and the lira da braccio. From the rebec the violin inherited its system of tuning by intervals of a 5th, whereas the lira da braccio gave the violin its hourglass shape. From the outset, the violin family was a favorite of musicians and composers alike for its range, flexibility, and sound.
The violin family of instruments consists of four members, each a standard member of the orchestra: violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. While they all possess similarities, they vary greatly in size, timbre, and range.
Violins: The smallest of the group, these are the most numerous instruments found in any orchestra.
The violin has the highest range and is held under the chin to be played.
Violas: As the alto version of the violin, these slightly larger siblings are also held under the chin, but have a much wider body and longer neck. The range is a perfect fifth below that of the violin and it has a characteristically deeper, mellower timbre.
Cellos: With a range reaching an octave below the violas, cellos are the tenor of the family. Their larger size means they are played while seated with the instrument held between the musician’s knees. The cello is known for evoking a certain plaintive, rich timbre but can be just as lyrical and light as a violin when needed.
Double Bass: Measuring 6 feet in height from endpin to scroll, these instruments bring a deep, throaty rumble to the orchestra. Because of their massive size, bassists play while standing or seated on a tall stool. Differing slightly from other members of the family, the double bass has slightly sloped shoulders and is tuned in intervals of a 4th as opposed to a 5th. The range typically reaches a minor 6th to a full octave below that of the cello.
Stringed instruments have an ability to evoke emotion that has made them a crucial part in film scores, commercials and even television. You may have embraced stringed instruments because of their more recent use in popular music. Many songwriters today are realizing that strings add a new layer of texture and depth that is otherwise unachievable. Even with as much technology as we have at our disposal, we still look to centuries-old instruments to create a true sense of drama, longing, fear or joy.
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Heidi Oswald was introduced to string instruments from about the time she was born. Both of her parents were orchestral musicians, so she grew up hearing enchanting chords, effortlessly played by the likes of Niccolo Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate and Antonio Vivaldi, bouncing from room to room. When she’s not playing, Heidi enjoys writing about her love for the classical music genre, and yes, for the instruments themselves.