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Writing for Strings

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Strings lessons

The string section consists of violins (1st & 2nd), violas, ‘cellos (or ‘celli) and double basses. There are conventions as to the ratios of instruments; e.g. a large orchestral ensemble may consist of 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses (16, 14, 12, 10, 8).

Smaller ensembles would use a similar ratio (12, 10, 8, 6, 4 – 8, 6, 4, 3, 2) In pop and commercial music the basses will often be omitted as their role is covered in the rhythm section. Arco (bowed) passages would sound muddy, and pizzicato (plucked) as played by orchestral players would obstruct the feel or groove of an electric bass or a jazz double bass. A typical 20 piece studio ensemble might consist of 6, 6, 4, 4. Smaller sections (less than 12) will sound weak at the extreme top of the range and will have more of an intimate chamber sound. Problems of intonation are more noticeable with smaller sections.

You needn’t stick to quartet parts of 1st and 2nd violins, violas and cellos; you can subdivide how you feel (divisi). E.g. if you have 8 violins you could have 4 on one part, 2 on another, 2 on another. If you have 4 violas you could divide these into 2 and 2. However the smaller the ensemble the weaker it will sound if you employ too much divisi. You must mark at the top of the score how many players per part, and any changes of divisi as the score progresses (e.g. divisi a4 or just a4 means 4 players).

The string section is incredibly versatile. Unlike most other instruments the string family possesses an equality of tone throughout the range. Very fast passages are usually no problem.

Extreme changes of dynamic are possible in a very short space of time. The strings, either as an ensemble or solo, are capable of a great deal of emotional expression, though this quality disappears outside the range of the human voice (D1 – E5). Long passages of strings tire neither the players’ nor the listeners’ ears. A sustained tone of indefinite length can be produced.



Foto-FFF (de:Benutzer:Achias)

Strings are normally recorded using a stereo pair of mics and often with close mics on each section (1sts, 2nds, violas and cellos) or each desk (each pair of players). Close miking will allow you to alter the natural balance (e.g. violas or 2nds louder than 1sts) or fake a natural balance if for example you don’t have enough of one instrument. This will obviously lose out on natural ambience.

Small ensembles can be made to sound bigger with the use of double tracking but beware, double tracked strings can sometimes sound phased. On analogue tape a solution is to transpose the overdubbed part and varispeed the tape machine. With hard disk recording it is easy to double track with different tunings (slightly up and down) and delays (positive and negative) to partially simulate the effect of more strings. It can often be useful to add real strings to MIDI strings (and sometimes vice versa – not so easy)


String players should not be expected to interpret quavers as swung. Write dotted or triplet notes, however unless you require a corny sound it is not a good idea to write a jazz feel for string players. Unless they are experienced recording session musicians they are only used to following a conductor and hence may tend naturally to play behind the beat of a drummer or click track. If this happens don’t shout at them, they are not wrong but just playing in their own genre. A few polite words with the leader will usually solve any problems.


Irrespective of the range of the instrument, there are specific characteristics. In his book Principles of Orchestration, Rimsky-Korsakov describes the top string of each instrument as:

Violin brilliant
Viola biting and nasal
Cello chest voice
Double Bass penetrating

The other strings also have characteristics and are worth investigating further if you want to study string writing in-depth. (See Rimsky-Korsakov, Adler, Piston) It is also a good idea to find a friendly string payer and get them to demonstrate all the possibilities and limitations of the instrument.


There are specific markings for bowing: a down bow (marked ï) means that the bow is started from the part nearest the player’s hand (the heel or frog), an up bow (marked V) is started from the tip. A down bow can be heavier and will usually occur on a down beat of a phrase, but a skilled player can play with no audible difference between up and down bows. Marking the bowing may speed up your rehearsal but it is also acceptable to ask the section leader to take care of this, and unless you are a string player yourself it is often best to leave this aspect to the expert.

A slur will indicate that all the notes encompassed will be played in a single bow (legato). The more notes required in one bow the less forceful the sound as the bow has to move more slowly.

This table shows some of the many different types of bowing:

Legato A group of notes played smoothly in one bow
Staccato Short up and down bows (notes are half-length). Bow may or may not leave the string. Indicated by dots placed over/under the note
Spiccato Staccato with a bounced bow. Usually used for faster passages. Slurred staccato Short notes played in the same bow
Detaché A cross between legato and staccato, Indicated by a line placed on or under the note.
Louré A succession of notes slightly separated played on the same bow. Indicated same as detaché but with a slur
Marcato Heavy, separate stroke with a pressed accent played near the heel
Jeté Bouncing the top of the bow to create repeated notes in one bow. (Indicated by slurred staccato)
Tremolo Small but very rapid up and down bows. Can sound dramatic, ethereal, scary or clichéd if overdone. Measured (e.g. semiquavers) written with two slashes, unmeasured with three. A fingered tremolo is similar to a trill but with an interval larger than a whole tone.
Col Legno Using the bow upside down.
Ponticello Bowing close to the bridge – a thin sound
Sul Tasto Bowing over the fingerboard – sounds hazy
Flautando Bowing close to the fingerboard – sounds flutelike
Glissando/ Portamento Sliding from one note to another, indicated by a line between the notes.
Sul G etc This means all notes played on the G string, can apply to any other string as requested e.g. Sul A

Modo Ordinario on the part indicates back to normal.


This means plucking the strings with the finger (the right hand middle finger unless indicated for left hand with +). Allow time to change between arco and pizzicato passages. It is quicker to change to pizz after an arco upbow and quicker to change from pizz to an arco downbow)

Not suitable for very fast passages or notes higher up the strings (e.g. on violins higher than C above the treble clef, violas F below that, cellos F above middle C) unless doubled with woodwind, as the notes are less resonant.

Double Stops

Two or more notes may be played at once (provided, of course, that they are on different strings). Double stops are indicated by bracketing the notes together. They work particularly well with cellos. Thirds, sixths and tenths are best for tuning; fifths, fourths and octaves can be tricky.

3 note stops are difficult to play quietly and should include at least one open string.

4 note stops should include two open strings and have to be played slightly arpeggiated.

Double stops allow for more notes in the chord, however if the notes required are impractical the parts can be split (divisi) when you have a large enough section, e.g. where there are two notes on a 1st violin part half the players can be directed to play one note and half the other. Don’t worry unduly about writing impossible or difficult double stops as the players will usually automatically play them divisi.


One of the characteristics of string playing is vibrato (vib) and will usually be employed unless specified (N.V.). When a section uses no vibrato the result is a cold, icy sound. Vibrato can add a romantic feel but is corny if over-pronounced or used to excess. It is very expressive on solo passages.

Note: vibrato is not possible on open strings, if you want a G below middle C to be played with vibrato, voice your chord so that this note is played by the violas or cellos. Likewise the C below middle C should be played by the cellos and not the violas.


In general intonation is not a problem for string players. Vibrato helps intonation (as it does with wind and brass instruments) as the slight wobble above and below the pitch tends to average out into the correct pitch. Larger string ensembles can actually benefit from slight discrepancies in intonation, as this creates a chorus effect. If a large violin section were all playing absolutely in tune with each other it would not sound so large. (This is not desirable with quartets or small sections so beware of writing unison passages for fewer than four violins. Large intervals can sometimes make intonation problematical, more often with leaps upward than downward.


A mute is an attachment that clips onto the bridge. The result is a beautiful soft and ethereal sound, which is very useful for a different tone colour. Allow at least two bars rest to attach the mute. (Longer if the player has left it in the boot of their car).

Parts are marked Sordini or mutes.


A harmonic is the result of lightly touching the string with the left hand instead of holding it down on the fingerboard. There two sorts:

Natural Harmonics

Played on open strings by touching the string on various nodes (divisions of the length of the string, e.g. half way up, a third, a quarter etc). Notes easily available are: One octave, an octave and a fifth, two octaves, two octaves and a third. To notate, write the pitch required and place a small o above the note.

Artificial Harmonics

These are produced by touching the string a perfect fourth above a stopped note. The harmonic is two octaves higher than the stopped note and is indicated by placing a diamond on the stave one fourth above the fingered note.

Harmonics do not work well for melody, but are good for tremolo and special effects. In quiet passages they sound cold and transparent, in loud passages they sound cold and brilliant. Can be used pizz but sound weak.


Very fast passages are not practical where there are too many intervals of fourths and fifths or in the extreme upper limits of the range (e.g. above A5 on the violin). However repeated notes or tremolo are very effective in this range.

Strings will often not compete in strength or blend well brass.

In the conventional ensemble, the natural blend is such that the 1st violins and cellos will stand out more than the 2nds and violas.


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