April 09, 2015
Choosing a String Instrument: The First Step in the Musical Journey
When your child first decides to take up a string instrument, there’s no guarantee that he or she will know exactly which one to try. The most famous orchestral string is the violin, but maybe your aspiring musician would prefer the deeper voice of the viola, or to play in even lower registers with the cello or bass. Your child may even have the opportunity to try out each one through the school’s music program, which is definitely worth looking into.
No matter the situation, one thing is true: there are no right or wrong choices for instruments. In this guide, you won’t find any recommendations of one instrument over another. Instead, each of the four orchestral strings will be explored in some detail, providing you with the background information you need to make an informed choice based on which instrument appeals to your son or daughter the most.
Read on for an overview of the violin, viola, cello and bass, along with a brief history of each one and some details of what they’re like to play and handle. With that information, you and your child will be well-prepared to make an informed choice that will lead to a bright musical future.
With its wide variety of sounds and its unmistakable tone, it’s no surprise that the violin has been an incredibly popular instrument for centuries. From the classical music that gave the violin its place in our culture to the modern folk genres that lend its second name – fiddle – there’s no question that the violin has more than earned its place in the musical landscape of the past, present and what’s sure to be a very bright future.
As the smallest of the four primary string instruments, the violin delivers a characteristic sound that’s well-suited to carrying a melody. This makes it a leader in any orchestra, band, ensemble or duet, as well as a popular solo instrument. The violin outnumbers any other single instrument in a typical orchestra, where its section is divided into two parts: first violins (playing the primary melody) and second violins (playing the harmony).
It may surprise you to learn that the very earliest versions of the violin were actually three-string instruments. The fourth string was added by Italian luthier Andrea Amati in 1555 to increase the instrument’s range. Four-string configurations were standard by the time Antonio Stradivari began his career about a century later, and the Stradivarius violins he crafted went on to set the standard for the instrument – so much so that they’re still without equal today.
Because of the violin’s one-of-a-kind dynamics, it gained a reputation as the “king of the orchestra,” able to carry diverse melodies ranging from extremely soft to powerful and dramatic. It’s known for its crescendos, diminuendos, and for having a tonal quality not unlike that of the human voice. All of these traits have been contributing factors in the violin’s overwhelming success.
Although it’s true that violins are the smallest instrument in the orchestral string family, this is not to say they’re all the same size. In fact, violins come in quite a few sizes ranging from the smallest “1/32” models to full-size instruments (often referred to as “4/4”). The reason for this is quite simple: a violin needs to fit its player closely for proper playing, so the range of sizes allows musicians to start learning at an early age and trade in for larger instruments as they grow.
The way a violin works is simple, too – at least in concept. If there’s one thing Stradivari proved, it’s that the finer details of violin-making are no easy feat to master. All violins are played by being held against the left shoulder and chin, with the left hand supporting the instrument’s neck and controlling the notes and vibrato. By drawing the bow across the strings (or by plucking them, a technique known as “pizzicato”), they’re made to vibrate, which produces sound.
Many professional musicians choose to play the violin, but there’s no obligation to reach the professional level. You can play the violin as a recreational instrument, or to perform at your own leisure, such as in church or at school. The important part is that you get what you want out of your instrument, which can be as straightforward as enjoying the sound or as subjective as feeling a sense of satisfaction from your own progress. For these rewards and more, the violin is a solid choice.
The viola is an instrument derived from the violin, which explains why it tends to appear in orchestras as a complement to the latter. But don’t be mistaken: the viola can definitely stand on its own as a solo instrument, or even take the place of a violin in an ensemble if the music allows. A viola is a bit larger than a violin, with a deeper, more resonating tone that greatly enriches the overall sound of the upper-registers string section.
Thanks to its full-bodied acoustic character, the viola is an all-star for fleshing out a string ensemble. It makes for a nice contrast against the sound produced by its slightly smaller violin cousins, which adds a counterpoint that can step in to take the lead from time to time for a more dynamic composition – a trait that many composers have taken advantage of. If you’re interested in adding depth and character to the music, the viola may be the instrument for you.
The roots of the viola go back to the mid-16th century, around the same time as the emergence of the 4-string violin. These ancestors to the modern viola were alternate versions of violins, and changes made to the viola in the last century were responsible for separating it enough to become a distinct instrument. These changes were the culmination of improvements that began in the late 1700s, aiming to solve the challenge of building violas that delivered the best possible sound without being too physically large to play.
Music written for the modern viola is about as old as the first of those revisions, dating to late in the 18th century – even though the instrument was going through its “growth spurts” at the time, today’s violas are designed to fill the same role (they just manage to be much easier to play while doing so). The most recent revisions to basic viola design can be attributed to violist Lionel Tertis and builder Arthur Richardson in the early 1900s, who worked together to refine the instrument to its present form.
Since it was based on the violin, the viola shares many things in common with its older and smaller brother. For instance, it’s capable of the same versatile dynamics, which makes it an excellent solo instrument and a natural fit into any orchestra. The viola also has a similar requirement to be sized to the player’s body, and so it’s available in sizes ranging from 11 to 17 inches. The playing posture is about the same as well: propped between the neck and shoulder, supported by the left hand, and played with a bow held in the right hand.
Because the viola is so well-suited to an orchestral setting, it can be easy to mistake it for a mostly professional instrument. However, nothing could be further from the truth: one more similarity it shares with the violin is that it’s just as fantastic to play for your own enjoyment, or to adopt as your new solo instrument. So don’t be afraid to try the viola – if you’re looking for an instrument that’s much like a violin, but with a little added depth and character, this is the way to go.
Compared to the violin and viola, the cello is a big leap in instrument size. It’s the second-largest string instrument after the double bass, and produces sound in a much lower register than its smaller cousins. The cello also makes more extensive use of “pizzicato” (plucking) techniques, while still being played quite often with a bow. Most music written for the cello will specify one or the other, but some pieces require switching back and forth.
The role of the cello in an orchestra can include support, harmony or lead – or sometimes varying between the three within a single composition. Occupying the middle ground of the string section acoustically, it can serve as a high or low accent as needed. The cello is a versatile solo instrument as well as a key contributor in string ensembles and quartets, thanks to its capable handling of a fairly wide variety of sounds and melodies.
The cello is a good example of how pioneering luthiers used creative thinking to get around design challenges. Demand was growing for a string instrument that could produce deeper sounds than violins and violas, and in order to do that, the instrument had to be larger – but even the viola was already pushing the boundaries of what players could be expected to comfortably play while held up high. The solution was a clever yet simple idea: stand the instrument upright on the floor instead.
Using this arrangement allowed instrument makers to develop the earliest “tenor violin” models, much larger than the higher-pitched violin and viola, and capable of delivering the tonal qualities that players and composers were looking for. Over time, the new instrument became known as the “violincello” – usually shortened to “cello” by modern musicians.
The cello is played from a seated position, and the foot of the lower bout is fitted with an “end-pin” allowing it to rest on the floor between your feet. Playing a cello is sort of like hugging it, extending one arm around to reach the strings at the front for plucking or bowing, while the other arm manipulates the fingerboard to change notes. As with other string instruments, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional vocation – you can play the cello purely for your own enjoyment if you like.
One thing that cellos share in common with their smaller brethren is that they come in various sizes, ranging from “1/10” to full size, which allows a young player to step up as he or she grows. However, even the smallest cello is larger than a violin or viola, and aspiring players should be aware that the instrument can be unwieldy to transport. Some cellists go as far as keeping two cellos (one at home and one at the school or band hall) to avoid carrying them altogether. But even the players who exert themselves to carry their cello from place to place would agree that playing one is worth the effort!
The double bass, or “bass” as it’s usually shortened, is the biggest member of the string instrument family. With its rich, deep and mellow tone, it’s more versatile than it may appear at first glance – which becomes pretty obvious when you consider how often it’s used in a leading role by jazz musicians. In that case, the bass is usually played “pizzicato.” In an orchestral setting, it can be either plucked or bowed, depending on the piece being played.
Orchestras and other string ensembles are still the most common places to see the double bass in action, with smaller groups usually including a single bassist and orchestras having several. The dynamic of the bass makes it a fantastic support instrument which is not usually considered for soloing, but solo play is completely possible for an ambitious player. And since good bassists are always in demand in the music community, the bass is a wise choice for aspiring professional musicians.
The double bass is an instrument that evolved as a sort of loose collaboration. Just like the cello before it, the bass was the result of luthiers attempting to create an instrument that could play lower parts than the other orchestral strings existing at the time. However, there has never been a great deal of cooperation between bass makers, and the result is that it’s much less standardized than the violin, viola or cello. To this day, basses from different makers can vary significantly in overall size, shape and design.
As more luthiers began to produce the double bass, it quickly became an essential part of virtually every orchestra’s string section. Although there is a lot of variation between individual basses, they’re all designed to fill the same role of carrying the string section in the lowest registers and creating a backdrop for the smaller and higher-pitched string instruments alongside them.
Being another leap in size even above the cello, an upright bass is tall enough that it’s played from a standing position. With one hand, you support the neck of the instrument to keep it balanced while changing notes on the fretboard. The other hand is responsible for bowing or “pizzicato” plucking, and since the arms need to wrap partway around the instrument to reach the correct positions, having the right-size bass is perhaps even more important than it is with other orchestral strings. Sizes begin at “1/8” for very young players, and go up to “4/4” full-size – although the bass is so big that “3/4” models are a good size even for many adults.
Transporting an instrument as large as the bass can be daunting, and like the cello, many student players choose to avoid transportation altogether by having a practice instrument at home and a performance instrument that stays at the school or band hall. But with that big instrument comes equally big sound, which no other string instrument can match – so if that’s what you’re looking for in your string instrument, the bass definitely has you covered.