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Orchestral Strings. Allison Wegner and Ashley Lear. Viol family. Violin Viola Cello Bass. * The harp is considered a part of the orchestral strings. Violin. History of theViolin.

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Orchestral Strings

Allison Wegner and Ashley Lear

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Viol family





* The harp is considered a part of the orchestral strings.

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History of theViolin

  • European origins date back to the “musical bow” of the 9th century; ancient predecessor called the Rabab possibly from Arabia.

  • Practice of using a bow to rub the strings was adopted in the 11th century

  • The rote and later the five-string vielle slowly integrated ribs into the design

  • Before 1500, the viola da gamba was widely used in many settings.

  • Modern violin emerged during the early 16th century.

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Violin Construction


  • Body is traditionally made from maple or sycamore. (Full size is 14 inches)

  • Tuning pegs, located on the scroll at the top of the neck are usually ebony or rosewood. Fine tuning pegs are located at the bass of the strings.

  • Originally strings were made from dried sheep intestines or catgut, modern strings are made from synthetic core (metals) either solid or stranded.

  • Bow sticks made from Brazilian wood Pernambuco; bow frog made from ebony; ribbon made from horse hair.

  • Maker uses ribs to create an exact arching of the body for the sake of acoustics.

  • The f sound holes are located on the surface of the body.

  • Friction between bow and string vibrates through the bridge and the sound post to the body of the violin where it resonates.

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Violin Tuning and Range

  • Non-fretted instrument

  • Open strings from left to right; G, D, A, E. (occasionally extra doubling strings)

  • Pitch range from G3 (below middle C) to the highest note on the modern piano C8.

  • Usually non-transposing instrument. (exception = scordatura)

  • Violinists read treble clef.

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Violin in the orchestra

  • Typically 16- 30 violins

  • Violin section divided into first and second violin parts.

  • Violin often called the “King of the Orchestra”

  • First violinist is the concert master

  • Violins can be warm and soothing or bright and shrill depending upon what is needed and the skill of the violinist.

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Other Uses for Violin

  • Violins in folk music referred to as fiddles (not usually memorized but passed on by ear)

  • Italian classical violin (Niccolo Paganini)

  • Jazz violin used as lead melody line

  • Electric violins used in progressive rock

  • Part of string quartet (typically 2 violins)


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  • Emerged with violin during the early 16th century.

  • Slightly larger than the violin (16 inch body)

  • Richer, darker, more full-bodied timbre

  • Reads alto clef (sometimes treble)

  • Four strings left to right C, G, D, A

  • It is a perfect 5th lower than the violin (still a non-transposing instrument)

  • Typically carries an inner voice part.

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Viola continued…

  • Part of a stringed quartet

  • 10- 12 violas in typical orchestra.

  • Important role in chamber music (Mozart’s six-stringed ensembles)

  • Used in some newer folk music

  • John Cale is a notable violist who has helped in its popularity.

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Important Differences

  • Requires wider fingering so ideally larger hands.

  • Requires more intense vibrato

  • Violists often use the pad rather than the tip the finger much like a cellist.

  • More weight must be applied by the bow due to thickness of strings.

  • When entering in unison with violinists, violists have to begin the bowing a bit early.

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Tips for beginners

  • Children should begin with a 1/2 or 3/4 violin or viola

  • Requires a good ear

  • Keep bow perpendicular to strings

  • Should be able to fit a pencil between the hair of the bow and the wood when tightened.


  • Draw bow closer to the fingerboard than the bridge.

  • Invest in a shoulder rest.

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  • Developed from the bass viol (violin) around the same time as the violin and viola.

  • Body of a full size cello is 30 inches long (recommended for children to start on 1/2 size)

  • Four open strings C, G, D, A sound one octave lower than the viola.

  • Cellists read bass cleff.

  • Although it varies according to the cellists skill, the range is from C2 up to C6.

  • Celli have a mellow warm timbre.

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Cello continued…

  • Part of the stringed quartet or quintet.

  • There are typically 8-12 celli in an orchestra.

  • Cellist tend to carry inner-voice harmony in orchestras and there are often cello solos.

  • Celli are used in jazz but not quite as much as the double bass.

  • Notable cellist Yo Yo Ma

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Tips for beginners

  • Students should sit on the edge of a chair/thighs parallel to the ground.

  • Should be able to stand up quickly without moving the tail pin from its position.

  • The neck should come right past your ear.

  • Should have relatively nimble fingers (also large enough)

  • Elbows should always be high.

  • Use knees to stabilize the body between them.

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  • From the viola da gamba family

  • Bowed, fretted, stringed instruments appeared in 1400’s in Europe

  • Germans shaped the bass like a viol - with sloped shoulders and a flat back

  • Italians built basses with violin corners and a curved back

  • 1800’s - fretless bass

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  • Early Baroque period - low profile

  • Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846)

  • First great bass virtuoso

  • Revolutionary composer and player

  • Bass players had their own music to play!

  • Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889)

  • Italian composer, conductor, and virtuoso performer

  • Used the French bowing style

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  • Usually 1.8 meters long

  • Top is made of spruce

  • Sides, back and neck made of maple

  • Fingerboard and Tailpiece made of ebony

  • 4 or 5 strings made of steel (used to be made of gut)

  • Tuning pegs are made of brass

  • All parts are glued together except for the soundpost

  • *Sizes and materials of the bass vary.

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Sound Production

  • Strings vibrate when bowed or plucked

  • Vibrations travel through the bridge, through the soundpost and then to the back of the bass

  • Vibrations ring through the pores in the wood and out through the F-holes

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  • Four strings (E A D G)

  • Bass is the only transposing string instrument - they sound an octave lower than what is written

  • Solo Tuning (F-sharp B E A)

  • Most solo bass repertoire is written in solo tuning, so bassists don’t have to transpose

  • Read a minor 7th below concert pitch in solo tuning

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Clef & Range

  • Bassists play in Bass, Tenor and Treble Clef, but usually in bass clef

  • As solo music became more difficult (notes in higher octaves), composers began to write bass parts in higher clefs

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  • C Extension

  • Most popular way to extend the low range of the double bass

  • Extends the E string chromatically down to a low C (lowest C on a piano)

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  • Depends largely on the make of the bass

  • Rounder back - darker sound

  • Flat back - brighter sound

  • Most basses have a darker sound in the normal octaves

  • Sound gets brighter outside of the normal range

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Role in the Orchestra

  • Root of all chords

  • Difficult to hear, but absence would be noticed

  • The lowest sound in the orchestra

  • Doubles parts with tuba and contra bassoon


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Tips for Beginners

  • Anyone can play the bass - lots of PATIENCE

  • First: Bowing technique

  • Then add left hand

  • Most kids start on a 1/8 bass

  • Full size is 3/4

  • 7/8 is used by professional orchestral bassists (more wood and BIG sound)

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Left Hand Technique

  • Vibrato: stylistic oscillation of the pitch caused by rotating the upper arm at shoulder joint.

  • Glissando: sliding of the finger up or down the neck to create runs.

  • Harmonics: touching or depressing of the strings to create specific tones or overtones (natural or artificial)

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Right hand technique

  • Double Stop: playing of two notes at the same time.

  • Pizzicato: plucking the string with finger of thumb directly.

  • Col legno: use of the wood rather than the the hair of the bow. (usually percussive)

  • Spiccato: striking strings with the hair of bow.

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Bowing Styles

  • German: more power and more sound, easier to start on (hand is underneath the bow), Dragonetti bow

  • French: used by cellists, have more control, more bowing style options, more difficult because gravity works against it

  • Both are equally common

  • Professional symphonies

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  • Made from resin (obtained from pines and other plants)

  • Bass rosin is softer and stickier than violin rosin (in order to grab the thicker strings)

  • Increases friction between the bow hair and the strings

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Other String Accessories

  • Wolf tone eliminators

  • Mutes

  • Humidifiers

  • Endpin stops of straps

  • Tuners

  • Metronomes

  • Shoulder pad

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  • About 80 lbs. / 6 ft. high

  • 6.5 octaves (46-47 strings)

  • Lowest strings made of copper or steel-wound nylon

  • Middle strings made of gut

  • Highest strings made of nylon

  • Walnut, maple, cherry, and ash wood can be used to make the body of the harp

  • Soundboard is usually spruce

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3 Types of Harps

  • Arched Harp: soundbox and neck forming a curve

  • Angular Harp: soundbox and neck form a right angle

  • Frame Harp: neck and soundbox are joined by a column to create a triangular shape

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  • 7 pedals (one for each note)

  • Discs at the top rotate when pedal is pushed

  • Pegs pinch off the string

  • 3 pedal positions (flat, natural, sharp)

  • Sebastian Erard (1810) - double-action pedal system

  • Strings tuned to C-flat Major scale

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Sound Production

  • Taut strings are plucked, vibrate down into soundboard

  • Sound projects out from the wood and from the sound holes in the back of the soundbox

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  • Tuned to a C-flat Major scale

  • It is possible to play in almost any key

  • Tune when string is open (no pedals!)

  • String is at full length when pedal is up (in flat position)

  • Can use a tuning key to adjust the pitch slightly

  • http://www.soundjunction.org/theconstructionoftheharp,andhowit’splayed.aspa?crid=0&lid=3152749

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Transposition, Clef & Range

  • Non transposing instrument

  • Harpists set the pedals to the key at the start of a piece (accidentals signal pedal changing!)

  • Play off of the Grand Staff (Right hand plays treble clef, left hand plays bass clef)

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  • Two schools of technique

  • Salzedo: elbows up and forearms parallel to the ground, many gestures while playing (visual), never rest arms on soundboard, louder sound

  • French: wrists are fluid, right arm rests on soundboard, not as much gesturing, can play faster, more quiet

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Role in the Orchestra

  • Add color to the orchestra

  • Usually one or two harpists in a symphony orchestra

  • Sometimes the harps are covered by other instruments, unless the composer knew how to write for harps

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Tips for Beginners

  • Children and beginning adults start on a lever harp

  • Dexterity of the fingers and previous piano skills would be an advantage

  • Teachers: Be aware of your young harpist’s needs - literature is limited for middle school orchestras

  • Beginners are also limited in the number of keys they can play (using a lever harp)

  • Teachers: Might need to arrange a harp part to make it easier for student to read.

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Helpful Sites

  • Violinonline.com (viola, cello)

  • Dsokids.com (guide to the orchestra)

  • orchestralibrary.com

  • www.astaweb.com

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Works Cited

  • Elgar, Raymond. Introduction to the Double Bass. London, Lowe and Brydone (Printers) LTD, 1960.

  • Brun, Paul. A History of the Double Bass. Published in France, translated in 1989.

  • http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/1187/Music/basshist.html

  • http://www.soundjunction.org/theconstructionoftheharp,andhowit%e2%80%99splayed.aspa?crid=0&lid=3152749

  • www.youtube.com

  • www.wikipedia.org

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Works Cited continued…

  • http://www.dsokids.com

  • http://www.harpspectrum.org/pedal/wooster.shtml

  • Stowell, Robin. The Early Violin and Viola:A practice Guide. Cambridge University Press. 2001.

  • Cowling, Elizabeth. The Cello. Chalres Scribner’s Sons New York. 1983.