Lessons for Rufus: Writing for strings (1)

June 30, 2006

Prof. Berlioz: For the next few sessions I will be introducing you to writing for the solo stringed instruments, and I don’t mean the guitar, bass and banjo, I mean the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The first three instruments are tuned in 5ths; the cello is an octave below the viola; the viola is a perfect fifth below the violin. The bass, like the guitar, is tuned in 4ths where notes sound an octave lower than they appear.
Likening strings to a choir, the violin is part alto, part soprano, and then its upper register is unique and very high;


the viola is like a dusky tenor- alto that can also play fairly high;


and the cello can be a bass, a tenor, an alto and an really intense soprano in its highest range;

The bass is usually just the bass that can be bowed or plucked.


[These musical examples are from musicarrangers.com. Visit this site for succinct and simple explanations.]

Although there are concertos and sonatas composed for them I”m not going to tell you it’s my favorite music. Basses often sound “funny” when they play melodies.

At the beginning of a concert, you will hear the string section tune up. You will hear LOTS of 5ths. The oboe, which has the richest overtones and carries nicely, tunes the orchestra giving them the pitch “A.” The concert master, the alpha string player, tunes first, then stands up and tunes the section. You’ll hear all the orchestra play their OPEN strings. Open strings are more resonant. And because they are not played with the fingers, you can’t get a vibrato sound from open strings. But what you can do, and mountain music does this often, is to play a melody on one string while the other string is played like a drone. [Berlioz demonstrates this.]

There are many excellent books on orchestration, instrumentation, and music notation. I’d suggest a visit to Patelson’s Music Store and buy some. There are also some excellent resources online; Pete Thomas has a good site as does musicarrangers.com, and many others.

This week, let’s just concentrate about the instrument and how it’s played. The left hand presses down strings to produce notes. There are no frets on violins as there are on guitars; the player must know EXACTLY where to place their finger to obtain the correct intonation. String players practice scales and arpeggios as they are the bread and butter of the melodic material in classical music.

The bow has two main jobs: to play downwards, or a downbow, and to play upwards, or an upbow. The part next to your hand is called the frog, and the other end is the tip. The natural state of a downbow is a strong beginning, and as the string is sustained and the bow moves to the tip, the pressure is less: a down bow is like an exhalation, meaning a strong start, with a tapering at the end. The upbow is like an inhalation, starts softly and builds. Realize that string players learn to overcome this natural tendency in bowing and cover it up, but behind most up and downbows is an emulation of the breathing process. Add to that, a gentle shake in the tone, vibrato, and a sound that emulates the human voice.

Usually string instruments play one note at a time, but they are capable of playing more. When two notes sound simulaneously, this is called a double stop, with three notes, a triple stop, and all four notes, a quadruple stop. Also, unlike the ukelele, the banjo, the guitar, andthe mandolin, the bowed stringed instruments have curved bridges. Realize that their bows are straight lines, and they are supposed to play all four strings! As they play single notes far more frequently than multiples, an arched bridge makes playing single notes easier, and thereby, quadruple stops are more difficult. You have to “throw” the bow across the strings with force in order to get all four strings to sound like a simultaneity, or a chord. [He demonstrates.] A few other things you need to know: only write for adjacent strings, meaning strings IV and II can’t play together because III is in between! In music notation for bowed instruments, the phrase mark indicates the length that the bow will be held. Roughly speaking, the more notes you cram under one bow (the drawing of the bow across a string in ONE direction), the softer it will be; when you draw a full bow across the string per note, the overall sound will be louder. This is the importance of knowing how bowing works, how it feels, and how it emulates breathing and singing.

I’d like you to purchase the Dover Edition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s WORKS FOR VIOLIN. Henryk Szeryng has a good recording of it. (There must be a more up to date recording than this!?) Study carefully how every move is made. Listen to the music and follow along with the score. If you see something you don’t understand, hit the pause button, and look it up.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

outpost June 30, 2006 at 8:21 am

Thanks. Your introduction to the basics of “strings” clarified a lot of personal speculation as I’ve never studied a string instrument.

StaceyH June 30, 2006 at 9:03 am

I also find these posts really interesting. My musical experience was choir in Jr. High and High School and briefly in college. I played French horn in 5th grade but then we moved and I didn’t play it again. I’m 36 now so I’ve been out contact with formal music for a long time and I never learned this stuff when I was involved in it. This makes me interested in music in a whole new way. And I have to say, I’m a little annoyed that I didn’t learn this stuff when it actually would have meant something to me as far as understanding what I was doing musically. Better late than never I guess.

pucks_soul June 30, 2006 at 8:51 am

Really digging these lessons, I haven’t a clue about music but you make it easy to visualize what you are discussing.


chn0205 August 16, 2007 at 7:52 am

Thanks much for your help. Really enjoyed your lesson on strings. Even though I’ve been around for some time, 77 yrs, I learned something. Relating up and down bowing to breathing was new to me. But then I’m a reed man. Can you lead me to like articles related to other facits of writing?


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