If you asked any orchestra director which family of instruments offer the greatest range of expression, intensity, and nuance they’d probably say the orchestral string family. The orchestral string family is composed of instruments that are played by sliding a bow across the strings. Due to their range of tones, the violin and the cello have developed into the most prominent instruments in the orchestra, but the orchestral string family also includes the viola and double bass. Here’s more information about what makes each of the orchestral string instruments so special.
The violin is the most popular stringed instrument and is featured in orchestras around the world. It’s also the smallest in size and produces the highest pitch. Although the violin is the most prominent in Western classical and folk music, violins are also featured in jazz, rock and roll, and heavy metal music. The earliest violins were mostly plucked but, over time, they’ve transformed into instruments that are primarily played with a bow. With four specialized strings tuned in perfect fifths and a body manufactured from different types of wood, violins can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars in price. A person who makes or repairs violins is referred to as a luthier; in most cases, luthiers make or repair other orchestral string instruments, as well.
The viola is the alto version of the violin. Although it’s slightly larger in size and has a much wider body and longer neck, it’s played in a similar manner to the violin. Since the 18th century, the viola has been the middle voice of the orchestral string family: it’s a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello. One thing that sets the viola apart from most other instruments is that it primarily uses the alto clef, which is otherwise rarely used. The viola does employ the treble clef from time to time, but only in pieces of music where a substantial amount of sections are written in a higher register. For this reason, viola players should be familiar with reading and playing both the alto and treble clef.
With a range reaching an octave below the viola, cellos are the tenor of the orchestral string family. Since it’s the second largest instrument in the string family, cellos are played in a seated position with the instrument held between the knees. Known for evoking a very rich timbre, the cello can be just as lyrical and light as a violin if played in a certain way. For this reason, it’s quite versatile in nature and prominently featured in orchestras around the world. In fact, all symphonic works involve a cello section, and many pieces require cello solos. Generally speaking, music for the cello is written in the bass clef but, depending on the composition, it can also be written in tenor and alto clefs.
Also referred to as a violono or simply a bass, the double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. It measures six feet in height, so bassists must play the instrument while standing or seated on a tall stool. It’s also the only modern bowed string instrument that’s tuned in fourths, rather than fifths, with its strings usually tuned to E1, A1, D2, and G2. The double bass is a standard member of an orchestra’s string section, and is also featured in concertos, solo, and chamber music. Although classical music uses the acoustic sound produced naturally by the instrument, in jazz, blues, and other genres of music the double bass is amplified with an amplifier and speaker.
Purchase Your String Instrument From Music & Arts
At Music & Arts, we’re dedicated to bringing you one of the largest offerings of professional band and orchestral instruments, products, and accessories in the world. As a one-stop shop for students, parents, and educators, you’ll find orchestral string instruments and accessories from some of the top manufacturers, including Yamaha and Bellafina. Remember, when selecting an orchestral string instrument you should take the musician’s interests and desired sound into consideration. If your child is a student, a great place to start is by speaking with their music teacher or band instructor.
For more information about orchestral strings, check out The Differences Between the Violin and Viola and Cello Strings & Accessories: An Introduction.