By volume, strings are the largest section in the orchestra, sometimes including as many as 60 musicians across the violins, violas, cellos and double basses. This swath also covers a large spectrum of notes, articulations and timbres, from soaring melodies to sharp accents to deep, rumbling tremolo.
Yet, across this vast range, stringed instruments have common characteristics. All feature a curved body made of wood, with a long neck and a fretless fingerboard for playing notes. Four strings pass from a tailpiece and bridge over the fingerboard to the scroll, where they wrap around tuning pegs.
To make a sound, a player moves a bow - itself made of wood and featuring horse hair - against the strings, causing them to vibrate. The vibrations pass through the hollow body to a sound post underneath, and the notes and tonality then emerge from two long, F-shaped holes along the top. How light or how heavy the player presses the bow determines the sound quality and dynamics and articulations used.
Within this general arrangement, string players are expected to play fast scales and arpeggios, deliver sustained, continuous notes, incorporate a wide spectrum of dynamics and articulations, and play more than one pitch at a time.
The instruments in the orchestral string family include:
Also called a "fiddle" depending upon the style, the violin is the smallest and highest-pitched of the string family and, in an orchestral arrangement, gets the most melodic parts. Its strings are tuned in fifths, starting from an E and ending with a G.
The violin, as is the case with all stringed instruments, can be traced back to the Arabic rebab, introduced during the 8th century, later evolving into the rebec, and influenced to a degree by the lyra. Violins appeared in their closest modern form in 16th century Italy, but experienced multiple changes in the 18th century: This era's larger body, longer neck, and bigger, clearer sound quality have been the de facto design for all violins going forward.
In an orchestra, it's easy to confuse a violin with a viola when the two sections sit right next to each other and players support both instruments with their shoulder and jaw. Yet, in side-by-side comparisons, the viola is a larger, thicker and slightly heavier instrument that produces a deeper tone a fifth below the violin's range. Within an orchestra, the viola represents the alto voice, adding body and substance in the process.
Formally known as a violoncello, this string instrument is too large to be supported on the shoulder. Instead, the wider body, with thicker strings to match, is held between the player's knees as they sit down and bow horizontally.
Like the violin, the cello's strings are tuned in fifths. Representing the lower end of the string section along with the double bass, cello players read a combination of bass and tenor clefs as they alternate between harmony and the occasional melodic line.
Sometimes called a contrabass, the double bass stands six feet tall, requiring a player to stand to bow. These instruments, used regularly in both classical and jazz music, vary from the rest of the string family in that the strings are tuned downward in fourths, starting with G and ending with E.
Browse Stringed Instruments at Alamo Music Center
Find the full orchestral family of string instruments at Alamo Music Center, as well as options for playing country and bluegrass fiddle and world music. Get to know your instrument with trial lessons, and in addition to an extended warranty, we support all purchases with a choice of financing and layaway solutions, including 12- to 48-month no-interest options at times.