Orchestral Sounds #4 (Strings: A Deep Dive)

Hi Everyone,
I’ve already gone over the basic sections of an orchestra in Part 1 & Part 2, and a deep dive in to building one’s own DAW template in Part 3. In this article, let’s take a deeper dive into the string section, various techniques we can use to write for them, and some important guidelines to keep in mind.
To recap what we’ve already learnt so far:
  • A string section is composed of Violins, Violas, Celli and Double Basses, in order of size (small to large) and their individual pitch ranges (from high to low).
  • Sound is produced primarily by bowing the strings, or occasionally, plucking them with one’s fingers.
  • String players can play softly or loudly any where within the pitch range of their instruments by controlling the bow pressure on the strings.
  • When playing multiple notes together like a chord (called double or triple or quadruple stops), only certain stops are practically achievable.

Tuning, Pitch Ranges & Written Clefs

To understand how orchestral musicians read their parts, here’s a quick recap of the various clefs that are used to write and read music. The circled notes indicate where Middle C is placed on each of the clefs.

treble clef tenor clef bass clef alto clef clefs ...

Also, here’s the 4 instruments that form the string section:

String Family


The violin is the smallest of the family and plays in the highest register of the string section.
  • The strings are tuned (low to high) to G, D, A & E.
  • It’s range starts on the lowest string, the open G (which is the G below Middle C) and goes up to nearly or sometimes more than 4 octaves above it. Higher notes are accessible to advanced players using extended techniques like harmonics but we’ll get into that later in this article.
  • Violin player parts are written in the Treble Clef.


The viola is the 2nd smallest of the family and plays in the mid and mid-high register of the string section.
The strings are tuned (low to high) to C, G, D & A.
It’s range starts on the lowest string, the open C (which is the C an octave below Middle C) and goes up to nearly or sometimes more than 4 octaves above it.
Viola player parts are written in the Alto Clef (middle C is on the middle line of the staff) primarily with a change to Treble clef if there are extended passages of music that are in its higher register.

Cello (aka Violoncello)

The cello is the 2nd largest of the family and plays in the low and low-mid register of the string section. In its highest register, there’s a fabulous singing quality to the sound, and it has been extensively used in many scores over the centuries for this effect.
The cello, like the viola, is also tuned to C, G, D & A, except it is an octave lower than the viola.
It’s range starts on the lowest string, the open C (which is the C 2 octaves below Middle C) and goes up to nearly or sometimes more than 4 octaves above it.
Cello player parts are written in the Bass Clef primarily with a change to Alto or Treble clef if there are extended passages of music that are in its higher register.

Double Bass (aka Contrabass or String Bass or just Bass)

The bass is the largest of the family and plays in the lowest register of the string section.
It is tuned to E (3 octaves lower than Middle C), A, D & G. It is not uncommon to see orchestral bass players who have a “C extension” which is an extension of the fingerboard on the low E string o allow access to an even lower range down to the C, which is an octave below the low C of the cello.
It’s range starts on the lowest string, the open E (or with a C extension, the low C, 3 octaves below Middle C) and goes up to nearly or sometimes more than 4 octaves above it.
Bass player parts are written in the Bass Clef. However, the bass is a transposing instrument – it transposes down an octave from the written note i.e. if a middle C is notated on the staff, the actual played note would be 1 octave below the middle C.

Section Types & Sizes

String sections can vary in size depending on what sound the composer desires. Though technically not “a string orchestra”, a section could be as small as 3 players (a string trio – violin, viola and cello), quartet (2 violins, viola and cello).
Since the larger instruments tend to be louder and have greater projection, string sections normally have more violin and viola players than celli and bass players. The size of a string section is expressed using a hyphenated “formula” detailing the number of players in each section start from highest (violins) to lowest (basses). e.g. 10-8-6-6-4 would mean 10 players in Violin I, 8 in Violin II, 6 each in Violas and Celli, and 4 players on the Basses.
Conventionally, string orchestras spread out across 1st and 2nd Violins, Violas, Celli and Basses range in size as follows:
Chamber – 12 players (4-3-3-2-1) to 21 players (6-5-4-4-2)
Symphonic – 40 players (12-10-8-6-4) to 60 players (16-14-12-10-8)
You may also see numbers that aren’t even or always in some of the above ratios. Orchestras have to work with whatever musicians they have available and they work out the numbers as best as they can to achieve the desired balance between the sections.
Here’s an example of a Chamber Orchestra in what seems to be a 6-4-3-3-2 section sizing.
Blue Ridge Chamber Orchestra
Here’s another example of a Symphonic Orchestra – look at the size of the string section (40+ players)!
String section - Wikipedia
On the rare occasion, a massive string section of 80+ players could also be called upon if the work required it, though it is both uncommon and expensive. An example of this would be Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder requiring 86 string players (20-20-16-16-14)! Keep in mind that such pieces are also likely to contain other equally massive sections to achieve the overall orchestral balance I alluded to in Part 2 of this series.

Playing Techniques

String players can use a variety of techniques to evoke and express the musicality of their instrument. These include but are not limited to:
  • Arco (playing with the hairs of the bow as is most commonly seen)
  • Col Legno (with the wood portion of the bow, not as common)
  • Pizzicato (plucked with the fingers, quite common)
The arco and col legno techniques can be further subdivided into playing long, sustained notes (e.g. détaché, where every note has a separate bow action and change in direction of bowing attributed to it, or legato slurs where multiple notes are played over a single bow action) or short notes (e.g. spiccato, or staccato, or staccatissimo).
There are also techniques that govern what the bowing hand or the stopping hand (stopping is pressing one or more strings down on the finger board to get one or more desired pitches).
The most common stopping hand techniques include:
  • Playing stopped notes independently with the fingers of the stopping hand
  • Portamento which is sliding from one note to the next (as opposed to playing the notes independently without any “connecting slide”) for smaller intervals or glissando when wider intervals are being played.
  • Trills which involves quickly alternating between a note and another note higher or lower than it.
  • Harmonics (natural and artificial), which result in muting out the fundamental or lower order partials of the sound to accentuate a higher partial, resulting in a higher pitched whistle like sound. People who play guitar would probably be familiar this technique.
Bowing hand techniques dictate the bowing style, which part of the bow to use, placement of the bow, etc. e.g.
Sul ponticello – playing near the bridge – results in a sharper, more aggressive sound.
Sul tasto – playing near or over the fingerboard – resulting in a flute-like (flautando) smoother sound.
Tremolo – Rapid repetition of a note.
In another commonly used technique, con sordino, a mute is applied on the strings (at the instrument bridge) that makes them a quieter and provides a darker sound. Note that since this involves the use of both hands to physically clip on the mute, so players need time to do so and cannot do it in the middle of playing. Normally anywhere between 10-30 seconds should be adequate to put on or remove a mute, depending on the capability of the player in question.

Writing Techniques

When writing for a string ensemble, it’s important to remember that the characteristic sound of the strings we’ve come to know comes from each section playing the same note(s) assigned to them. So you’ll see a lot of music scores where each section is playing just one note and this provides the most homogenous and “big strings” sound.
Another technique you’ll come across is “divisi”. This basically means that you can take a section e.g. Violins I, and give them more than one note and they will distribute the notes equally between them. While this leads to a potentially richer harmony, it will thin out the ensemble sound of the strings as there are literally less strings vibrating at each written note, so keep that in mind. Divisi upto 3 notes distributed within a section is not uncommon, especially if they are a large symphonic string section with a lot of players. Divisi is also commonly used when there are quieter passages in the music, and some other naturally quieter section of the orchestra is playing the melody and needs to be heard e.g. woodwinds. When marking divisi in a score, “div.” is a commonly used abbreviation. To instruct the players to play together again, the term “unisoni” (unis.) is marked.
Keep in mind that if more than one note is written, and if divisi is not marked, and if the chord is easily playable as a double/triple stop, then the section will play it as such, which sounds very different from divisi. Firstly, it’ll be a lot louder since the number of strings vibrating to those notes is many more than when the notes are split up between the players. Also, the combination of the double/triple sounds working together leads to a lot more overtones.
It’s considered good practice to try and work within each instrument’s natural range. e.g. Putting celli above the violas or violins is not a common practice unless the celli have a soaring melody line and in which case the arrangement itself is approached very differently. The most common practice is to give the Violins I the highest part, Violins II lower than Violins I (or at most in unison with them), Violas below the Violins, and Celli and Basses below the high strings, written in octaves i.e. the Basses are one octave below the Celli. This provides a naturally harmonious and appropriate string sound where each instrument is resonating within its best range and you’ll also be able to find players who can play these parts more easily as they are accustomed to working with such parts.
Becoming accustomed with the dynamics of a string section is a challenging task – apart from the wide dynamic range that each section can actually play at across several articulation types, bowing has an inherent dynamic to it because of the physics of manipulating the bow with the hand closest to the strings vs. the hand being the farthest away from them. Familiarizing yourself with downbows and upbows (the direction that the bow is moving) and what kind of sound it results in over time (change in attack, change in volume, change in sustain) as the bow starts moving and stops moving to change direction is integral to understanding how to write for players in a way that allows them to feel and play their part naturally and evoke the best performance from them.
One more important consideration in general when writing (not just for strings) is to use the breadth of articulations available to you to make the music more interesting for both the player and the listener. Combining short & long notes in a passage can help with that as opposed to say keeping everything just détaché, or legato or staccato or pizzicato. It’s amazing how much realism one can accomplish by just using these 4 playing techniques appropriately. Add portamento, trills and tremolo to that and you’ve got yourself an extremely wide array of techniques at your disposal that can easily result in a very satisfying piece of music when used properly.
Here’s an example (from the 2nd Movt. of “Divertimento for Strings” by composer Christopher Weait) that combines several of the techniques I’ve mentioned to create a musical piece. The playing & writing techniques include: arco, pizzicato, détaché, legato (indicated by the slurs), upbow/downbow markings, divisi, unisoni (bar 11 in the celli), and quite a wide dynamic range from p to mf in just the first 14 bars of the piece with plenty of crescendos and decrescendos!

References For Further Study

IMSLP has tonnes of free scores that you can go through. There’s literally centuries of material that you could study to understand how to write for strings (or any of the other orchestral families or as a whole). Starting with your classical composers is probably the best place to begin. To help you get started with some names, work your way through baroque and classical composers like Vivaldi, Bach Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven, leading to romantic era composers such as Paganini (one of the greatest violinists of all time), Schubert, Strauss (II), Wagner, Tchaikovsky & Rimsky-Korsakov and eventually coming through to modernist composers like Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Holst, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Copland, Shostakovich & Barber. Note that it’s critical to start at the roots and progress chronologically through the various periods of classical music, as if you try to assimilate any modernist composer’s works without understanding the more basic musical composition forms and underlying theory that their predecessors evolved through, you’re more than likely to get overwhelmed very quickly. It takes time, a lot of patience and several years of study. 🙂

“Discovering The New World” (arranged for String Orchestra)

Below is a link to a piano roll & score walkthrough video of my composition, “Discovering The New World”, arranged by me for string orchestra. I’ve tried to encapsulate several aspects of what I’ve described above in this particular arrangement. This includes playing techniques such as staccato, marcato, arco, détaché, legato, pizzicato & tremolo, as well as writing techniques and compositional devices such as divisi and unisoni/tutti, as well as constantly generating interest by moving the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements in the music around the various sections.
I hope you enjoy the composition. Please comment on the video if you find it useful, and do share it with your friends and acquaintances who may be interested in watching it along with reading this article.
That’s it from me for this post! I hope you found it useful! Please post your comments about this article below and share what you liked or didn’t like! Your feedback is always insightful. Cheers!
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