The string instruments

A Primer on Music Appreciation

Chapter 1: Sources of Musical Sounds

1.2 String Instruments

1.21 Introduction

One method of producing a tone is to draw coarse hair dusted with resin (rosin) across a taut string. The hair is fastened at each end to a stick originally curved in the manner of an archer's bow but now bent in the opposite direction. The name, however, is retained. The hair is obtained from horses' manes and tails, and most of it comes from Russia. The sticks are made of Brazil-wood. The act of drawing the bow over the strings is bowing, and the instruments played by bowing are STRING INSTRUMENTS.

Modern bowed string instruments are the product of a long period of evolution which culminated with the perfection of the violin family around 1600. They all have four strings with one end tied firmly to a TAILPIECE and the other wrapped around a PEG that is turned to adjust the tuning. Near the fixed end the strings pass over a BRIDGE which transmits the vibration of the strings to the body of the instrument. The body serves as a resonating chamber and amplifies the sound of the vibrating strings to useful levels. Its distinctive shape results partially from experiments leading to the perfection of its resonating characteristics, but the indentation at the middle of each side is a practical concession which permits the bow to function on the outside strings. Protruding from the body of the instrument is a narrow NECK which accommodates the left hand of the player and allows his fingers easy access to the strings. Length, tension and diameter (mass) determine the pitch of the open strings. Pitch changes are made by depressing the strings against the FINGERBOARD with the fingers. Variations in loudness, tone quality and style are made by applying the bow to the strings in different ways. Slight variation in tone quality also can be made by a motion of the hand stopping the strings known as VIBRATO. Vibrato affects the pitch slightly but not audibly. It appears as a shaking motion of the hand. Another tone modification is obtained by inhibiting the vibration of the bridge with a small device of wood, metal or rubber called a MUTE.

The four bowed string instruments arranged from the highest pitched and smallest to the lowest pitched and largest are: VIOLIN, VIOLA, VIOLONCELLO ('CELLO) AND CONTRABASS (DOUBLE BASS). The strings are the most versatile instruments. Together they have a pitch range almost as wide as that of the piano. They are equally at home in rapid pyrotechnics and slow, sustained melodies. They are capable of great expressiveness and brittle wit. It is small wonder they are both the prima donnas and the work horses of every instrumental ensemble from whcih they are not excluded.


The violin is the most brilliant and agile of the string family. This is partially because its relatively short, thin strings respond instantaneously to the slightest pressure of the bow, and partially because its small size allows a very efficient technique of stopping the strings with the fingers of the left hand. The instrument is held in a horizontal position under the chin, and the bow is drawn at right angles to the string by the right hand and arm. Violins are the sopranos of teh string section and more often than not play the melody, but they are just as effective in a variety of supporting roles. Cataloging their capabilities is impossible, but the suggested listening gives an impression of their versatility.

Suggested Listening

1. Paganini: Caprices, Op.1 No.24 Theme and Variations <Paganini was the greatest violinist of his age. With him the tradition of the virtuoso performer began. His 24 Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin exploit every facet of violin technique, including some features he originated. Pubication of most of his compositions was withheld during his lifetime to preserve his secrets>.

2. Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole, Op.21 (1875) I. Allegro non troppo <The title notwithstanding, this is a concerto for violin and orchestra. It is a brilliant display vehicle in the Spanish idiom with strikingly varied writing for the solo instrument>.


The viola is the alto member of the string family. Violas are slightly larger than violins, but not enough to be immediately apparent to the casual observer except by comparison. They are played in the same manner as violins. Their range is lower, more so than the difference in size would indicate. The ideal ratio of string length to pitch is compromised somewhat to keep the instrument within practical dimensions for under-the-chin playing. Heavier strings less tightly strung compensate for reduced length in producing the desired pitch. The adjustments contribute to the distinctive tone quality of the viola which tends to be more somber than the violin and a bit nasal. Listening is suggested which provides direct comparison with the violin, with which the viola is most easily confused.

Suggested Listening

1. Bartok: Concerto for Viola (1945) II. Adagio religioso III. Allegro vivace <The adagio with its typically somber viola style and quality is followed without interruption by the allegro demonstrating the agility of which the instrument is capable. The high register of the viola, used at times in this and other solo works, is less common in orchestral writing>.

2. Mozart: Duo no.2 in B flat, K.424 (1783) III. Andante con variazioni <This duo for violin and viola provides an ideal means of comparing the tone quality of the two instruments, especially when a theme stated by one instrument is imitated immediately by the other>.


The 'cello has the same basic shape as the violin and the viola, but it is much larger. It is held between the player's knees and is supported by an end pin resting on the floor. This playing position, and the cello's greater size necessitate different fingering and bowing techniques. The highest open string on the cello is tuned just one step higher than the lowest open string on the violin, but a cellist can play many notes in the violin range. Violins and cello have essentially the same ratio of size to pitch, so a cello in its high register can be misten for a violin. The low register is rich, sonorous and distinctive. The cello is the tenor of the string family, but in ensembles two parts are often taken by violins and the cellos are moved down to the bass.

Suggested Listening

1. J.S. Bach: Suite no.4 in E-flat for Cello, S.1010 II. Andante <This suite for cello unacoompanied is one of the 6 Bach wrote in the years 1717-1723. The characteristic middle and low registers of the cello are heard in the Allemande.

2. Haydn: Concerto in D for Cello, Op.101 (1783) II. Adagio III. Rondo: Allegro <These two movements of the concerto, in contrasting tempos and styles, demonstrates the extreme registers of the cello and some of the intricate fingurations playable on string instruments>.


The double bass is the largest of string family. It is so large the player stands or perches on a high stool beside it, and the full weight of the instrument is borne by an end pin resting on the floor. The lowest bass string is as heavy as a small rope, and its pitch is almost as low as the lowest note on a piano. The other strings are only slightly smaller, and considerable energy must be imparted by the bow to set them in motion. Strong fingers are essential to stop them for the different pitches. Notes higher than the lowest violin pitch are possible but rare on the bass. The normal bass range overlaps the lower cello range and reaches into that of the viola. The tone of a single bass tends to be fuzzy and lacking in focus. This effect is reduced with a group of basses, but even so they seldom are used in a solo capacity or unsupported by other instruments.

Suggested Listening

1. Saint-Saens: Carnival of Animals (1886) V. The Elephant <This is one of the few instances in which the orchestral string basses play the principal melody unassisted>.

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