Overview of String Family
violin, viola, cello, and bass

string family.jpg What can be more strange, than that the rubbing of a little hair and cat-gut together should make such a mighty alteration in a person.

Jeremy Collier (1650-1726)

The string family is the largest and most well known in a symphony orchestra. The string family of instruments include the violin, viola, violin-cello (or cello), and double bass; these instruments resemble each other in appearance and  method of producing a characteristic sound and timbre. Their main differences are their size, which relates to a corresponding range of pitches and tone characteristics based on the size-pitch relationship. Collectively, the string family has a tonal range of more than five octaves. The harp and guitar are also string instruments that follow the size-pitch relationship but are not used as frequently in an orchestra.

String Instrument Construction


String instruments look deceptively simple in construction but are very acoustically complex instruments. The body of a string instrument resembles a shallow wooden box. The upper and lower sides are slightly bowed in the center and connect the narrow curved side-panels. As many as 70 pieces of wood are shaped, proportioned and glued into invisible joints in the body. Extending from the body is the neck, whose long narrow extension provides distance for the vibration of the strings. Onto the neck is glued the dark colored fingerboard, which extends under the strings.


At the end of the fingerboard is a decorative scroll that contains four tuning pegs that fasten one end of a string and control its tension by tightening or loosening the peg. In the central area of the instrument is a curved wooden bridge (1). By being higher in the center, the bridge and raises the strings as they are stretched between the scroll and the tail piece. With this raised and arched bridge, the player can more easily bow one string at a time. The bridge is designed to prop the strings and to transmit the vibrations into the soundboard and body of the instrument. Amplification of sound through the bridge can be altered by a mute to create a different timbre. At the back end of the instrument is a tailpiece that connects the strings to the end of the instrument. On the soundboard (top side) of a string instrument are two f-shaped openings positioned symmetrically on both sides of the bridge. Called F holes, these opening allow sound to escape from the resonating chamber inside the instrument. 

Inner Components


Two important wooden components, which help create the particular timbre of a string instrument, are located inside the body. One is the bass-bar (2), which is an oblong piece of wood glued lengthwise inside the belly to provide structural strength for the body of the instrument. The string-pull tension applied to the bass-bar can be as much as 80 pounds. The other important but unseen part is the sound post (3), which is made of pine and is about as thick as a lead pencil. Located just beneath the bridge, the sound post connects the top and bottom of the instrument, allowing vibrations and sound waves to pass through the instrument.

bow.png Sound Production

String instruments produce sound by vibrating strings, either by bowing across the strings or plucking the strings with the finger.

The bow

I never cease to be amazed, moved, and full of wonder when I think of the fabulous discovery of the bow: only a prodigious spark of genius combined with an incredible inner determination could have inspired the idea that a string could be kept in a state of constant vibration by the continual friction of horsehair.

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999)

The bow plays a vital role in sound production for a string instrument. The bow is constructed from horsehair stretched along a flexible wooden "stick." The stick is designed with an inward curve. The hair is kept loosened until ready to play to avoid warping the stick. The hair of the bow, when examined under a microscope, has tiny jagged barbs, similar to a saw blade. images.jpg These rough edges "grasp" the string and thus set it into a vibrating motion. String players apply a rosin to the bow to help it grip the strings. Rosin is the brittle resin left after distilling the turpentine from pine pitch. It comes in a cake form and is applied by rubbing the hair surface until the surface becomes white. At the end of the bow is a screw to tighten or loosen the bow hairs. This end is called a "frog." The frog is where the right hand holds the bow with the thumb opposing the four fingers. The bow movement is an extension of the wrist action as players draw the bow across the strings. As the bow is drawn across the strings, the strings vibrate and the sound is produced. Some avant-garde musicians, such as Jon Rose, are exploring new possibilities for violin bows.

The bow controls the volume and phrasing of the music. The more pressure that is applied to the strings through the bow, the greater the sound. The bow may move very slowly across the strings as in a long legato passage or in separate detached strokes for a more staccato or marcato melodic line. The entire first or second violin section of the orchestra usually use the same bowing technique during a performance -- have you even noticed how the string players' arm motions are so perfectly in sync?

The fingers

String players play an ascending scale by shortening the strings with finger pressure, while supporting the neck of the instrument with the thumb. Changes in pitch are achieved by crossing over to an adjacent string or by shifting hand position, climbing crablike up the fingerboard towards the bridge. These shifts have to be practiced rigorously to obtain absolute precision. A string player's fingers are also used to produce sound by plucking the string, a style known as pizzicato and abbreviated "pizz." In jazz and dance-band music of the 20th century, the double bass part is often pizzicato throughout, sometimes requiring such techniques as 'slapping' the string. Other special pizzicato effects used in 20th-century music include plucking with the fingernail, to produce a rather sharp sound called snap pizzicato, or plucking close to the bridge which produces a dry sound lacking in resonance (Grove Music Online ).

Modifying Basic Timbre

The timbre (tone color) of a string instrument can be affected in several ways. Careful observation of a string player may show the left hand moving with a short, but rapid motion called vibrato. Vibrato is achieved by a rapid wrist-and-finger motion on the string causing minute alterations of pitch. This motion adds sustain and depth to the tone quality. All advanced string players use vibrato when playing. Another way of affecting timbre is to place a mute over the bridge. This small wood (or plastic) device softens the sound, making it more muffled, indicated in the music as con sordino. Timbre is also affected by the way the bow is drawn across the string. More pressure on the bow makes the tone more harsh. Other styles of bowing also affect the tone and expressive qualities of the sounds.

Regulating Pitches

tuning_viol.jpg The exact pitch of the sound depends upon (1) the length of the string being set into vibration, (2) the thickness of the string, and (3) the tightness of the string. In the string family the player controls and produces the desired pitch by the position of the finger of the left hand as it curves around the neck of the instrument and presses down onto the fingerboard. As the string is "stopped," vibrations can only occur from the length of the string that remains as the string continues traveling to the end of the violin, across the bridge and through the sound post. It is this length of vibration that produces the pitch. The shorter the distance between the bridge and the finger position, the higher the note. The longer the distance between the bridge and the finger position, the lower the note.

Each of the four strings are made of different materials, different thicknesses, and different tensile strengths. For all of the instruments, the tension is controlled and regulated by the tuning pegs which are located at the scroll end of the instrument. While tuning, the player carefully listens to the sound and then tightens or loosens the string until the pitch is correctly matched.

Starting and Stopping Sounds

The motion of the bow across the string usually determines how long a sound is produced. Bowing techniques allow the player to create abrupt, clear-cut beginnings and endings of sounds known as staccato and smooth, less distinct beginnings and endings called legato.legato_qtpic.jpg String players use playing styles to produce short, detached notes by plucking a string with the finger (pizzicato) or by playing the notes in very smoothly connected manner, know as legato.

Other methods of controlling sound include glissando, where a finger of the left hand slides along the string while the right hand draws the bow, sounding all the pitches in the left-hand finger in one phrase. Tremolo, often associated with suspense – think of the woman tied to the railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train -- is produced by a repetition of a tone via rapid up-and-down movements of the bow. Trills are played via the rapid alternation between adjacent pitches. Two or three notes played at the same time on a string instrument is call double or triple stops, allowing a single string instrument to produce harmony by itself. One of the most interesting sound created by string instruments is harmonics. Harmonics are tones in overtone series above the basic pitch produced by lightly touching the string at various points or by a combination of pressing the first finger on the string and lightly touching it with the little finger. Harmonics produce crystalline, ethereal sounds that can be very impressive. Play the video, listen to the violins play high-pitched harmonics soaring above the oboes and other woodwinds accompanying them. To view the video make sure you have the latest version of QuickTime player.

Violin Harmonics

Near the end of the video clip, you can see the violinist play harmonics by lightly touching the string with his little finger. The guy makes it look easy! The video excerpt is from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which we will study in great depth when we reach the 20th-century style period.

Discovering the Orchestra: Strings

The following video is the first in a series that presents the symphony orchestra through each of its instrument families -- strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. The host of the video, Paul Anthony McRae, discusses each instrument, including its history, tone production and size-pitch relationship. Following this discussion, a principal member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays an excerpt from the orchestral literature. Each instrument segment ends with an ensemble performance by the entire family of instruments. To view the video make sure you have the latest version of QuickTime player.

Introduction to String Family

Bach Double Violin Concerto

A representative example of the string family is the Concerto for Two Violins in D Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. The concerto genre, which emerged from the Baroque style period (1685-1770), involves a solo instrument, usually a violin, and an accompanying instrumental group. In a concerto, the solo instrument (or instruments) play the main melodies of the music, usually in a virtuosic manner, while the orchestra provides harmonic accompaniment and occasionally countermelodies. The dominant concerto format from the Baroque period is the concerto grosso, which we will study when we get to the Baroque period. Most violin concertos showcase only one solo violin against the accompanying orchestra, but Bach's double concerto features a first and second violin as the solo instruments. In video demonstration, Gil Shaham (first violin) and Isaac Stern (second violin) play the first movement.

Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor by J.S. Bach

Electric Violin

In the following video the late D. Robert Burroughs plays a seven-string electric violin. Notice how the instrument's pitch range extends from that of the double bass to the violin instruments.

Ahundavad Hawan (Morning of Creation)


Romanian Folk Dances

Romanian Folk Dances is a suite of six short pieces composed by Béla Bartók in 1915. It was originally composed for the piano but Bartok orchestrated the piece in 1917. In the video conductor D. Robert Burroughs leads the CBC Orchestra. After viewing video, you may want to explore more of Bartok's music in the Naxos Music Library to find a potential composition for your term paper assignment.

Romanian Folk Dances

Review of String Family Terms

Complete this crossword puzzle to learn the key terms of the string family. After you complete the puzzle, click the Re-start button to call up another version of the crossword puzzle.

Matching Exercise

Complete the matching exercise below. If needed look up the names of string players or violin makers in Wikipedia.

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Listening Review

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String Instruments Puzzle

Assemble this jigsaw puzzle of string instruments in this painting by Jan Bruegel de Velours (1568-1625). Most of the instruments were used during the Renaissance style period and evolved into the modern string family.

The Sense of Hearing (1618) by Brueghel

 END Overview of String Family