String Family

From left to right: Harp, Double Bass, Cello, Viola, Violin, Guitar, Mandolin, courtesy of iStock (harp), Genevieve Helsby (double bass), Hannah Whale (cello), Yamaha (violin & viola), Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins (guitar), Rolf Tinlin (mandolin)
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Courtesy of Peter NewbleString instruments have always been beautiful – to see and to hear. They have a stylish, elegant shape. Good violins aren’t built by machines like identical cars in a factory: each one is crafted by hand out of top-quality wood and carefully varnished. Old instruments were sometimes even decorated with beautiful patterns.

The shape of the violin family instruments is a bit like the female body. Many of its parts have the same names as parts of the human body: belly, neck, back, shoulders.

All string instruments are ‘chordophones’: the sound is made by vibrating strings that are stretched between two points.

A harpist plucking the strings, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

A harpist plucking the strings

There are two distinct groups of string instruments:

  1. Bowed: the bow is drawn across the strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass).
  2. Plucked: the strings are plucked, by the player’s fingers (harp, guitar) or by a little piece of plastic called a plectrum (guitar, mandolin). The violin, viola, cello and double bass can also be plucked.

Common to all string instruments

  • There are strings made of a material that will produce a sound.
  • The strings are activated by something (fingers, a plectrum or a bow). A hollow box is put under the strings to make the sound louder.
  • The length and tension of the strings affects how high or low the notes are. (‘Tension’ is how tight or slack they are.)
  • On all instruments except the harp, the player’s fingers ‘stop’ the strings. This means that the fingers press down at different points on the strings to alter the length used for playing: when the strings are then bowed or plucked, different notes are produced.

The shorter & thinner the string, the higher the note. The longer & thicker the string, the lower the note.

VIOLIN FAMILY

The violin, viola, cello and double bass are full-time members of the orchestra. They are known as the ‘violin family’, since they all look quite similar.

Pitch range

The violin has the highest sound and the big double bass has the lowest, with viola and cello in between. Here is how the four of them line up and sound, top to bottom.

Violin pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Violin pitch

Viola pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Viola pitch

Cello pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Cello pitch

Double bass pitch, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Double bass pitch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Physical features

From left to right: Arched ‘belly’ and back; Gently curved shoulders (except for the double bass); Holes in an ‘f’ shape for the sound to come out of; Carved scroll above the peg box, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

From left to right: Arched ‘belly’ and back; Gently curved shoulders (except for the double bass); Holes in an ‘f’ shape for the sound to come out of; Carved scroll above the peg box

Makers

Italy was the centre of violin making in the 1600s: whole families became famous for it. They crafted their instruments using the finest materials they could find in their quest for the most beautiful sound. The Amati and Guarneri families were the talk of Cremona, along with Antonio Stradivari and his family.

Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari lived to 90 and made over 1,000 top-quality violins, violas and cellos. Today, his instruments are still the most desirable of all. The amazing thing about these high-class string instruments is that they get better as they get older! They’re worth more and more money as time goes on.

These days, a ‘Stradivarius’ violin could cost about £1 million ($1.5 million)!

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai JenkinsConstruction of the instruments

Body: Made of varnished wood in an elegant ‘S’ shape. Maple for the back. Spruce for the front and the rest of the body. Ebony and rosewood for the fingerboard and pegs.

Strings: Years ago the strings were made of sheep gut; these days they’re normally made of steel or nylon.

Bows

Bow: Horsehair attached to a stick of pernambuco wood. The horsehair is rubbed with sticky stuff called ‘rosin’ made from tree sap.

Each string is stretched vertically from the tailpiece at the bottom, across a little wooden bridge – which lifts the string a bit – to the top, where it is wound round a peg.

Scroll with tuning pegs

Scroll with tuning pegs

Good bows are expensive. They are light and flexible, and help to produce the best quality of sound. Rubbing the bow with rosin is a bit like rubbing the tip of a snooker cue with chalk: chalk stops the cue slipping on the ball; rosin stops the bow slipping on the strings. If the bow didn’t grip the strings and make them vibrate, it would just slide across them and no sound would come out.

Before beginning, the player has to make sure the instrument is ‘in tune’ – i.e. that its strings are at the exact pitch they should be. This is done by twisting the pegs at the top to tighten or slacken them. The tighter they are, the sharper (higher in pitch) they will be; the slacker they are, the flatter (lower in pitch) they will be.

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai JenkinsHow sound is made

  1. The bow is drawn across a string (or the string is plucked) with the right hand.
  2. The string vibrates.
  3. These vibrations travel through the bridge and into the whole body of the instrument before emerging as a rich sound.
  4. The left hand presses (or ‘stops’) the strings on the fingerboard for different notes.
From left to right: Violin, Viola, Cello, Double bass with sloping shoulders, courtesy of Yamaha (violin & viola), Hannah Whale (cello), Genevieve Helsby (double bass)

From left to right: Violin, Viola, Cello, Double bass with sloping shoulders

Odd one out

The double bass looks similar to the violin, viola and cello, but it has a slightly different shape. Its size meant that it needed moulding in a particular way to make it easier to play. Its shoulders, for example, are more sloped so that players can reach over them more easily.

Bows really are made of horsehair. Horses in northern climates have stronger tail hair, so Siberian horses are great for bows. The hair is taken from a horse that is already dead, so the animal is not killed for it.

From top: Violin bow, Viola bow, Cello bow, Double bass bow, courtesy of Ralf Ehlers

From top: Violin bow, Viola bow, Cello bow, Double bass bow

Converse sizing

The instruments get bigger… but their bows get shorter!

Special effects

String instruments have an incredible range of expression. That’s why composers have always loved writing music for them. They can sing beautifully, shriek angrily or do any of the following things:

Pizzicato: Plucking – this is used a lot.

Vibrato: Used nearly all the time – the finger wobbles backwards and forwards very fast on the string to make the note sound richer and more attractive.

Double/triple-stopping: Playing more than one note at a time, to make a chord.

Tremolo: ‘Trembling’ – the bow is shaken very quickly backwards and forwards on the string. The effect can be frightening or exciting.

Spiccato: Short, bouncy strokes played at the middle of the bow.

Ricochet: The bow is basically thrown at the string (but in a controlled way, without letting go!) so that it rebounds sharply.

Sul ponticello: Playing very near the bridge, which gives a creepy but crisp sound.

Col legno: The wooden stick of the bow is struck against the strings. The sound is quite harsh.

Muted: A small piece of rubber – the ‘mute’ – is placed on top of the bridge. It makes the sound quieter and more muffled: it can change the whole mood of a piece.

Glissando: The fingers slide along the fingerboard while the note is played. It makes the sound swoop up (or down – depending which way the fingers slide).

Harmonics: At specific places on the strings, the finger just touches lightly: when the bow is pulled across the string it makes a magical, hollow ringing sound.

Occasionally, strings snap! It can be a bit of a shock when it happens. Players always carry spare strings, and know how to replace them.

The orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the string instruments, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the string instruments

Members of the string family (shown above) form the heart of the orchestra: they surround the conductor and like to keep busy. Just as a body would be dead without a beating heart, an orchestra would be dead without a lively string section!

The leader of the whole orchestra is a string player: a first violinist.

A typical symphony orchestra today has:

16 first violins
14 second violins
12 violas
10 cellos
8 double basses

But this varies a lot: it depends on the piece of music, the size of the concert platform, and the conductor’s preference.

The layout can be different too: sometimes the second violins are placed opposite the first violins, where the cellos are shown here. The violas are then where the second violins are shown, and the cellos are where the violas are shown.

The harp is only in the orchestra occasionally. The guitar and mandolin are outsiders: they are hardly ever in the orchestra.

Playing together – chamber music

The string section of the orchestra (not including the harp) is unique: all the instruments are basically the same. They vary in size, so they range in sound – from very high to very low. But they blend perfectly together because they are all built in the same way and have the same sort of sound. So outside the symphony orchestra, there are many ‘chamber’ pieces written just for them.

Part of a string quartet by Haydn – for two violins, viola and cello

String Quartet in C major, Op. 76 No. 3, ‘Emperor’: I. Allegro (extract)

Kodály Quartet. Naxos 8.550314

Find out more about the development of the String Family in .

A Little History of the String Family

Viols

Viols

Before 1600, there were early string instruments such as the rebec, fiddle, lira and viol. The lira was very important in the development of the violin family, and the double bass gets some of its features from the viol.

By 1600 violins and their bigger relations were really taking off, and these older instruments weren’t so fashionable anymore. But the violin family did carry on the tradition of the lira’s elegant shape, with its narrow waist (which lets the bow move freely).

Makers

Italy was the centre of violin making in the 1600s: whole families became famous for it. They crafted their instruments using the finest materials they could find in their quest for the most beautiful sound. The Amati and Guarneri families were the talk of Cremona, along with Antonio Stradivari and his family.

A consort (group) of viols playing together

Thomas Tomkins: Pavan in F major

The Rose Consort of Viols. Naxos 8.550602

Antonio Stradivari at work

Antonio Stradivari at work

Stradivari

Antonio Stradivari lived to 90 and made over 1,000 top-quality violins, violas and cellos! Today, his instruments are still the most desirable of all.

Each one is totally different from the next. People have spent ages trying to figure out the secret of these miraculous instruments, examining the wood and the varnish with a mixture of astonishment and frustration. But no instrument has ever been produced to rival them.

François Tourte the bow maker

François Tourte the bow maker

Bows

As for the bows, they are important too. You might think that a bit of horsehair on a stick is pretty easy to make, but it’s more complicated than that and there is a real art to it. It was about a century after the Italian Stradivari built an ideal violin that a Frenchman called François Tourte presented an equally brilliant bow (in the mid-1780s).

He used Brazilian pernambuco wood, and made the stick thinner and more flexible. The large concert halls that were springing up needed more powerful playing for the sound to fill them, and Tourte’s bows helped to achieve that. His design also meant that it was easier to do many of the special effects that string instruments love, such as spiccato and tremolo.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which of these instruments is not a member of the string family?

a. Cello
b. Bassoon
c. Viola

 Which of the violin family instruments has a different shape, with sloping shoulders?

a. Cello
b. Viola
c. Double bass

 Which of these people was a famous instrument maker?

a. Arcangelo Corelli
b. Antonio Vivaldi
c. Antonio Stradivari

 What does a cello have on its bottom?

a. Frog
b. Spot
c. Spike

 Which of these is the biggest?

a. Harp
b. Double bass
c. Cello

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Extracts

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
String Trio in B flat major: III. Menuetto: Allegro (extract)

Three instruments: violin, viola and cello. The tune is played by the highest – the violin – while the viola in the middle and the cello at the bottom support it. Sometimes they answer or take over: at 0.33 you can hear the violin go down and up, down and up; that same theme is given to the two lower instruments at 0.44. So they work as a little team of three.

Performers: Villa Musica Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.550388

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
String Quartet in C major, Op. 76 No. 3, ‘Emperor’: I. Allegro (extract)

Four instruments: two violins, viola, cello. Many composers have written string quartets. The combination of instruments produces a nicely balanced sound from top to bottom. Haydn was known as ‘father of the string quartet’ (as he was of the symphony too!), because he really developed the form.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550314

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97: II. Allegro vivo (extract)

Five instruments: two violins, two violas, one cello. The Czech composer Dvořák was living in America when he wrote this String Quintet, staying in a place called Spillville in Iowa. He was influenced by the tribal dances performed by a group of visiting Native Americans: he picked up on their drum rhythms and echoed them in this bright and charming second movement, which begins with the viola introducing that drumming idea by repeating one single note.

Performers: Vlach Quartet, Prague; Ladislav Kyselák, viola

Taken from Naxos 8.553376

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 18: I. Allegro non troppo (extract)

Six instruments: two violins, two violas, two cellos. More instruments means more notes, and the sound – the texture – is thicker. This suits Brahms who wrote very rich music, with sonorous chords where several notes lock together in a really satisfying way. The expressive melody beginning the whole sextet is introduced by the first cello – so it is not high up but lower and more intense. It is taken over (at 0.15) by the first violin and first viola, higher up.

Performers: Stuttgart Soloists

Taken from Naxos 8.550436

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Souvenir de Florence (‘Memory of Florence’): I. Allegro con spirito (extract)

An orchestra of several string instruments plays here. In fact Souvenir de Florence was originally written for a string sextet, but it is often heard in a version for string orchestra, where the sound seems to blossom into something even more radiant. It is dramatic but joyful at the same time. He wrote one of its main themes while in Florence, Italy.

Performers: Vienna Chamber Orchestra; Philippe Entremont

Taken from Naxos 8.550404

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 4: III. Scherzo (extract)

Here is an example of the strings in the full symphony orchestra – violins, violas, cellos, double basses – playing pizzicato, so all the strings are being plucked at the same time. It’s an exciting effect, which Tchaikovsky uses all the way through the third movement of his Fourth Symphony.

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.555714

Chamber Music

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
String Quartet No. 30 in E flat major, Op. 33 No. 2, Hob.III:38, ‘The Joke’

The Classical composer Joseph Haydn wrote 68 string quartets. Several have been given nicknames, and this one is called ‘The Joke’ because it stops and starts at the very end – it tricks the listener into thinking it’s finishing, but, after a pause, back comes the first theme again. If you listen to the last movement (track 4) from 2.47, you can hear its main theme, followed by a slow passage at 2.55 that sounds like a coda – a coda is a ‘tailpiece’, a little section that normally finishes something. So we’d expect the music to end after that. But what happens at 3.12? Snippets of the main theme keep being blurted out. Finally, when it really ends, we simply get one of those snippets and not a proper ending at all! What a joke!

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550788

Charles Ives (1874–1954)
String Quartet No. 1, ‘From the Salvation Army’

Charles Ives, from New England in the USA, was trained by his father – a bandleader – and became an original, inventive composer. He never forgot the hymns and band music he heard as he grew up, and he used these a lot in his music. Play track 1: right at the start, there’s a hymn tune in the cello; after 10 seconds the higher viola joins with a version of it in a different key (on different notes); then at 0.20 a third layer is added from the second violin; and finally at 0.31 in comes the first violin to sing it at the top. This kind of layering is called ‘fugal’ – a fugue is a complicated musical structure, with rules!

Performers: Blair Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.559178

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
String Octet in E flat major, Op. 20

Mendelssohn wrote this brilliant octet when he was only 16 years old. ‘Octet’ means that it is for eight instruments: four violins, two violas and two cellos. Listen to it leaping into action from the beginning, bright and positive. There aren’t nearly as many as octets as there are quartets, so Mendelssohn’s is extra special.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557270

Works for String Orchestra

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Serenade for Strings, Op. 20

Elgar’s Serenade is a popular work for string orchestra. He wrote it in 1892, soon after he got married. There is a sweet sadness about it – the kind of feeling you get when you remember something nice that happened to you and yet isn’t there anymore. Listen to the second movement (track 2): it seems to be sighing. Elgar has the string orchestra work together to produce beautiful chords and a sustained, singing sound – which is what string instruments do so well.

Performers: Capella Istropolitana; Adrian Leaper

Taken from Naxos 8.554409

Samuel Barber (1910–1981)
Adagio for Strings, Op. 11

The American composer Samuel Barber created the most beautiful musical arc with his Adagio, which was first performed in 1938 and became world famous. It is like a dream, which slowly builds. Can you hear from 3.02 how the lower cellos take up the melody that was in the violins? A new ‘voice’ gives it another dimension. From c. 4.00 the cellos play high on their strings, supported and answered by the violins, as the intensity of the music builds to a climax – a long high chord at 5.19. The music then calms and softens. This Adagio is one of classical music’s gems.

Performers: Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559088

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Divertimento for strings, BB 118

Béla Bartók loved the folk music of his country, Hungary. It influenced his own works, which often have strong rhythms. Listen to the opening of this Divertimento – the insistent, repeated notes in the lower string instruments make a statement right from the start. There are some tense chords too – curious and bold. Listen at 5.00: it sounds like bees in a bottle! The bees lead to the bold chords at 5.16, and although it quietens down briefly the chords come blasting in again. If this was the music to a film, what do you think would be happening on the screen? The second movement, though slower, sounds ominous too… But then try track 3 – it’s playtime!

Performers: Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Richard Studt

Taken from Naxos 8.550979

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Simple Symphony, Op. 4

Britten was 20 when he wrote his Simple Symphony, though he uses bits of music that he wrote several years earlier. The ‘Playful Pizzicato’ (track 2) is the most famous movement: all the players pluck their strings. Can you hear how the little melody is played by one group, then answered by another? And listen at 1.00 – there’s a good, solid introduction in the lower strings for a playful, bouncing melody in the violins. The whole work is attractive and light-hearted.

Performers: Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Richard Studt

Taken from Naxos 8.550979