The Strings of the Orchestra

The Strings (1).pngHi! Today, I’ll be posting on the string family in the orchestra. I’ll not necessarily be posting on the stringed instruments’ technical structure, but more on their roles in the orchestra and any other tidbits of information I’ve picked up during my research. Hope you enjoy! 

We can basically break down the orchestra into 4 different families: Strings, Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion. Each instrument within its family has its own unique qualities but is similar to its siblings. The similarity in each family, however, is vibration. For example: The string family is made up of the violin, viola, cello, and bass, which all have string vibrations; whereas, the woodwind family includes the piccolo, clarinet, oboe, flute, bassoon, and occasionally the saxophone, which all vibrate using wind, or breath.
Today we’ll be looking at the string family; so let’s get started!

The Strings

The string family is the melody in the orchestra. The strings can lead us into a piece as gently and beautifully as they can lead us out. No wonder they have the front row seats (no offense meant to the non-string musicians out there)!
Let’s get started with the highest string instrument of the orchestra, often called the (sometimes prissy) queen of the orchestra –  the violin.

Orchestra Instrument Seating

The Violin

When you think of the string family the violin is probably the first instrument that jumps to mind, and for good reason. The violin really is the storyteller of the orchestra; it sets the mood for the entire performance. It can be happy and playful, as in Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka or heavy and suspenseful as in Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The violin usually carries the melody, but it can also provide beautiful backup music for another instrument solo, as in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. The violin truly is the beating heart of the orchestra.

There are two sections of violins in the orchestra: 1st and 2nd (see diagram above). The 1st violins mostly play the melody, carrying the highest line of the string family. The concertmaster of the orchestra is the lead 1st violin. He/she is the most important person in the orchestra next to the conductor. Some famous concertmasters include: Joseph Gingold (former Cleveland Orchestra) , William Peurcil (present Cleveland Orchestra), and Martin Chalifour (present Los Angeles Philharmonic). Concertmasters take violin solos, lead the orchestra if the conductor is absent, and decide bowing and technical issues for the strings. Because concertmasters are so important, they are painstakingly chosen for their job.

The 2nd violins are the support system for the 1st violins. They mostly carry the harmony or rhythms that fit together with the 1st violin but often will play melody along with their fellow 1st violinists. The leader of the 2nd violins is called the Principal second; he/she leads the 2nd violin and confers with the concertmaster about bowings etc.

Just to clarify – it is often thought that the 1st violins have the harder job, when in fact, this is sometimes not true. 2nd violin will often have the harder part, playing difficult rhythms and harmonies that coincide with the 1st violins.

All together, the number of violins in an orchestra can range from 20-30. Depending on what pieces the orchestra is performing.

Famous Violin and Orchestra Pieces

Violin Concertmaster Solo – Strauss, Ein Heldenleben 

Solo Violin with Orchestra Accompaniment – Saint-Saen’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

The Viola

Ok, since I’m a violinist writing about violists I could throw some insults their way (the rumors say that many violists are violin drop-outs. Hahaha!). But then again, the violists could hurl some insults right back at me, making for a heated exchange!

“Over-sized pieces of wood!”
“Prissy, princesses!”
“I can’t even hear you!”
“You just don’t appreciate us!”

The truth is, the violists might just be a little underrated in the orchestra. They play harmony most of the time, rarely get to showcase their talents, and have to put up with their “stuck-up” cousins, the 1st violins. The violas are right in the middle, in every way. They’re the middle-sized instrument in the string family, are the middle voice of the string family, and sit relatively right in the middle of the orchestra, hidden between the violins and cellos.

On the other hand, being in the middle is exactly where we need the violas. Without them the entire string section would seem very dull. Since there is such a broad range between the violins and the cellos there has to be something to fill in the gaps, and that task falls to the slightly-lower-than-violins, violas. So when you hear beautiful harmony beside a cello solo, give the violas a round of applause (even though the 2nd violins are helping them)! Also, because the violas are right in the middle they can make sure everyone is together. They’re really the only ones who can hear everyone playing together, and can lead everyone back together.

As with every instrument there’s a leader. The leader of the viola is the principal viola. He/she will lead the violas and confer with the concertmaster about bowings…etc.

There are usually 10-14 violas in an orchestra.

Violin vs. Viola

The viola is much the same as the violin except for a few differences; the main difference is the string names. The strings on a viola number (from highest to lowest) A-D-G-C whereas the strings on a violin number (from highest to lowest) E-A-D-G. So the viola omits the violin high E string and adds a lower C string below the G string.
Obviously, the viola is also a bit larger than the violin, thus creating huskier, warmer tones. Because of the added length of the viola, violists must spread their fingers farther apart than violinists to create their notes.
Finally, a last point of interest about violas is their clef. Violas use the less-common alto clef, sometimes called the C clef because middle C is in the exact middle of the clef. Basically, the alto clef is a mix of the treble and bass clef. And I personally give the violists who have mastered it a hearty congrats for I have failed miserably! See below diagram for a scale in the alto clef.

Famous (yes, there are some) Viola and Orchestra Pieces

Viola Section Solo with Orchestra – Beethoven’s  Symphony No. 5, 2nd movement

Viola Solo with Orchestra Accompaniment – Hoffmeister’s Viola Concerto in D major

The Cello

A bow is drawn across a string – a low, husky, tone emerges, sending tremors down your spine. The instrument that sounds the most like a human voice – the cello. Often seen as a solo instrument, the cello is among the most recognizable instruments in
the orchestra. Because of its unique size (over 3 feet long) the cello is the only instrument that must be played sitting down, propped on the floor between the player’s knees and leaned against the shoulder.

Cellos in the orchestra are quite versatile. They normally play harmony alongside the violas but are able to play a bass line too (especially in a string quartet). In more foreboding pieces, the cellos can draw out the melody perfectly where the violins cannot.

The range of the cello is another interesting feature. The cello’s lowest note is C2 (2 octaves below middle C) but by shifting up on the fingerboard the cello is able to get into violin range, thus having one of the broadest ranges of the string instruments.

I’m sure you’re getting the idea by now. The cello has a leader too – principal cello. He/she determines bowings…etc. for the cellos.

There are usually 8-12 celli in an orchestra.

Famous Cello and Orchestra Pieces 

Solo Cello with Orchestra Accompaniment – Dvorak  Concerto in B minor Op. 104 

Solo Cello with NO Accompaniment – Bach Cello Suite No.1 in G (listen to the tone :))

 The Bass

Whew! The bass…where to start? The double bass is totally different than any other string instruments, in so many ways. Perhaps it would be best to just make a list of the different traits of the bass before discussing its roles in the orchestra.

Traits of the Double Bass (differing from the other string instruments)

  1. The bass is tuned in fourths, against the fifths of the violin, viola, and cello. It’s string names are, from highest to lowest, G-D-A-E.
  2. The bass is not a over-sized cello as many think. Instead, it has origins in the gamba family, thus resulting in many having sloped shoulders, in the tradition of the Baroque.

    C extension

  3. The Bass is very universal in its tuning. Its common strings as noted before (high to low) are G-D-A-E. However, since many pieces require notes lower than the lowest string, E, bassists will add a C extension. The C extension is a sliver of fingerboard that comes up over the peg-box, allowing the string to tune down to a C instead of an E. Bassists will also sometimes add a B extension, but this is rare.
  4. One mechanical aid bassists often use is wooden “fingers” or “gates” that can be closed to press the string down and fret the C, D, E, or E notes. This system is particularly useful for basslines that have a repeating pedal point such as a

    Double Bass “gates”

    low D, because once the note is locked in place with the mechanical “finger,” the lowest string sounds a different note when played open (for example, a low D).
    The bows and bow holds of the double bass are another point of interest. (see diagram below). The French bow is similar to the violin, viola, and cello bows and is held in much the same way, from above. The German bow, however varies greatly. The frog is slightly wider and the bow is rounded at the frog. The German bow is also held underhandedly (see diagram). Both styles are used throughout the world and together in different orchestras. Strings in the Orchestra

The Bass in the Orchestra

When I see the humongous basses lined up behind  the cellos I think of “steady.” To me, the basses are always there in the background, keeping everything under control. Reigning silently, and almost invisibly, but constantly there. To give assurance when needed. To give low, tremulous rumbles of steady beat. And to give a feeling of suspense at the right times.

In the orchestra, the basses are good friends to the celli. They just go together. Look at the cellos’ bowing and then glance over at the basses and they’ll probably be the same. One interesting fact: because the bass is so low its notes would result in being lines and lines off the bass clef. So they play their notes one octave below where they’re written!

Famous Bass and Orchestra Solos

Solo Bass with Orchestra – Capuzzi’s Double Bass Concerto (1st movement) in D major 

And that finally completes my post on the strings of the orchestra! Thanks for reading!

– Cammi S.


2 thoughts on “The Strings of the Orchestra

  1. Wow! I had no idea on the complexity of arranging the string section of an orchestra! Thanks for the great explanation and education!


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