Guide To Orchestral Scoring In Studio One – Part 1 Intro & Basics: Strings

Orchestra First Violin Section

Part 1 Intro & Basics Continued

3. Strings:

During the string sections relatively brief history as an orchestral section, it has seen a meteoric rise to prominence and indeed dominance in the ensemble. Innumerable scores from all periods demonstrate that composers have treated woodwind and brass as accessories to the string section, to which they typically entrust their most essential musical material.

The reasons for this are many: stringed instruments are relatively indefatigable, and can play extremely long phrases (at both rapid and slow tempi) without the interruption of having to stop for a breath. Their versatility means that they excel at any type of music- stringed instruments typically have a wider range, dynamic span and expressive capacity than either winds or brass. The timbre of the stringed instruments is extremely rich in harmonic overtones, meaning the listener tires less quickly of string-based music than that of any other section. Strings offer a fairly homogenous timbre from top to bottom with far less variation of tone colour between octaves and even between instruments, thus lending a sort of unity to the ensemble. Paradoxically, the strings also offer the greatest versatility in producing different kinds of sound through the use of altered and extended technique. These are some of the factors that have led to the strings exalted position within the orchestra, and thus the composer will spend the majority of his time and will typically ascribe his most important musical ideas to the strings.

There are four instruments in the string ensemble: Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass. However an orchestral score most usually has five string parts- including two different parts for the violins. Additionally, string players share a music stand, making it convenient to subdivide the section further into first and second chair. This is known as divisi.

The string section is the most populous in the orchestra- Section sizes will vary greatly from orchestra to orchestra, and have been gradually increasing over the last three centuries. Typical sizes are as follows:

Articulations:

All orchestral stringed instruments share a common core of articulations that help give the section remarkable versatility & flexibility. The commonest of these are included in most major string libraries.

Legato

Passing from note to note on a single draw of the bow. The notes sound smooth and connected. Legato serves as a useful articulation for general string writing.

Glissando

Sliding up or down chromatically between two notes.

Portamento

Very similar to glissando, but a glissando is deliberately written in the music by the composer and may be a long slide of and octave or more. A portamento is a much shorter slide, usually between two melodic notes which are quite close. It is a natural by-product of legato playing.

Staccato (and Staccatissimo)

A note played short and detached. The bow remains in contact with the string. This articulation is useful for accentuating rhythms, executing pointed melodies and in any situation where the notes are to be played abruptly and disconnectedly. Because of the heavy attack of a staccato articulation patch, it is generally unsuited to fast runs, although it is tempting to use it in this way. Far more effective is to use a separate “runs” patch that benefits from the response of a staccato but without such a heavy attack. 

Spiccato

Similar to staccato, except the bow bounces lightly on the string. A more suitable articulation than staccato for rapid repetition of notes.

Tremolo

Rapid back-and-forth movement of the bow on the same note. Can be used in many of the same general contexts as legato. Adds tension and strife to a string passage, and one tremolo note may be sustained for long durations to add suspense.

Trill

Rapid alteration of the note and the note above. The higher note may be a major or minor second above the starting note. It is often used as ornamentation, at cadences, or for tension. In tonal music, the scale degree will dictate the trills interval (m2 / M2) 

Harmonics

If the vibrating string is touched very lightly, it will be prevented from sounding its fundamental frequency, and will instead sound one of its higher partials (overtones). Tones produced in this manner sound quite distinct from normal stopped tones- the timbre is thinner, airier, and softer. Harmonics are used in situations when such a timbre is desired. They impose certain limitations when compared to normal stopped-tones. Harmonics cannot be played on open strings (since, by definition, the string needs to be stopped for the harmonic to be produced) Therefore, a harmonic played on the lowest string of the instrument is impossible. Due to the delicate balance and precision required to perform a harmonic, they are much better suited to long, sustained notes as opposed to rapid passages. As such, they are more useful in harmonic writing than in melodic writing. 

Pizzicato 

Plucking the string with the right index finger. This articulation offers very little sustain and is generally unsuited to melodic writing unless for a specific effect. Typical uses include broken chord accompaniment, inner voice or bass harmony, pedal notes or a plucked chord effect in tutti. Due to the greater string resonance in the lower strings, pizzicato is more effective on the cello and double bass.

Mutes

The mute is a three-pronged device fitted onto the bridge of the instrument for the purpose of dampening some of the string vibrations before they can be transmitted to the resonating body of the instrument.  The result is a less full-bodied and quieter sound, useful when a drier, more modest timbre is required.

Instruments:

Violin

The violin is the soprano instrument of the string section- arguably the most agile, versatile and expressive instrument of the orchestra. As such, the default instrument for important melodic ideas in traditional orchestral writing mostly rests with the violins- the other instruments taking lead melodic roles only for contrast, colour or special effect. Along with the conductor, the principal first violinist is considered a leading role in the orchestra.

The violin boasts a phenomenal range, second only to that of the cello. Its compass for orchestral playing (not using harmonics) extends from G3 to E7. Along this wide compass, its timbre varies subtly such that it is capable of a wide variety of tone colours while retaining a remarkable uniformity. The lowest octave of the violins register offers a resonant, sonorous timbre that is equally useful for melodic, accompaniment or solo writing. The low G string in particular, offers a power and intensity that is unique to its register. As the player moves higher on the compass, the sound becomes increasingly warm, through lyrical until finally brilliant in the instruments highest register. At a quiet dynamic, this top register also elicits a mysterious quality, in part due to the sound of the bow being clearly audible when drawn across a thin, taut string. Violin lines (as all string lines) may profit greatly by employing the full tonal variety of the instrument- how best to traverse between these timbres is an important consideration for the composer.

Viola

The viola is 3-4 inches larger than the violin, and the two have very similar performance technique, being held under the chin. It is the alto voice in the string orchestra. Due to its larger size, it is less suitable for leading melodic roles as its smaller counterpart, and composers have been slow to adopt it as a principal instrument and soloist. This is perhaps unjust, as the viola is capable of performing trills, bowing, harmonics, arpeggios and multiple stops at least as successfully as the violin.

There are some considerations to note when writing for viola:

  • The bow is heavier than that of the violin, making the instrument considerably less agile.
  • The viola is generally less resonant than the violin. This, combined with its lower pitch, give it a more somber, dark and mellow sound.
  • The violas thicker strings produce harmonics easier and more reliably
  • The viola in its top register combines extremely well with woodwind instruments, and in some cases, with soft brass instruments.
  • The most typical use for the viola is that of an inside voice in string writing. Its dark timbre makes it suitable for blending into string chords or harmonizing with other instruments.

Cello

The cello functions as the tenor and the bass of the string section. It has the widest compass of any orchestral instrument- from C2 to F6. Collectively as a section, or individually as a soloist, the cello offers an immensely beautiful tone that is rich & resonant in its low register, lyrical & brilliant in the top. Despite its size, the cello is extremely agile and can execute rapid passages with relative ease. Practically any technical feat playable on a violin is also playable on a cello, which makes it an ideal solo instrument, and indeed it is the second most widely used string instrument for solo writing after the violin.  The solo cello can offer a beautiful contrast to the solo violin, and the two play off one another remarkably well.

Cellos are frequently employed in divisi to create a richly harmonic effect. Two or more celli harmonizing in chords can offer great power and depth to the harmony of a piece.

Harmonics are more easily playable on the cello than on either the violin or the viola because of the greater length and thickness of the strings. Additionally, harmonics are relatively more effective because of the rich density of upper partials contained in lower notes.

The cello doubles well with many instruments across all he orchestral sections. By far its most common doubling is with the double bass, however the cello combines well with bass instruments such as bassoon, trombone, horn and bass clarinet. The pizzicato cello combines well with the timpani- its percussive attack lending a heightened sense of tonality to the drum.

Double Bass

The double bass is the basso profundo of the string orchestra. Its usual compass extends from E1 to B flat 3, which may be extended upward for solo playing. Despite its great size, the double bass has a rather weak sound, and can sound rather distant. Because of this, the double bass is rarely used as a solo instrument- and when it is, it is only used with minimal accompaniment and/or for comic effect. With larger section sizes, and with loud dynamics, the sound can be powerful, raucous and sonorous. Its thick, heavy strings make the instrument far more sluggish than the other stringed instruments, and it is therefore necessary to be conscious of this when writing a fast, doubled cello/double bass line.