The string family is much like any other family in the orchestra. They are similar looking, with a hollow wooden body crossed over by four strings, ending in several knobs located at the upper end. They are played by running a bow across the strings, creating a shimmery sound in different pitches.
Their sizes vary, the smallest being the violin, the viola being 1/7 the size larger than the violin, a much larger cello and a huge double bass. To put it in plain terms, this family consists of a Father, a mother, and two children! Let us start with the smallest member of the family, who like all the youngest ones, generally demands the most amount of attention!
The Violins are the highest pitched members of the string family. It has four strings tuned a fifth apart, and is played by drawing a bow across its strings. There are several other methods to play it, like plucking the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) and by striking the strings with the wooden side of the bow (col legno). The first violinist in an orchestra is the foremost player of the group, he has a place of special importance and is called the “concertmaster” or “principal violinist”. Violins were initially made in Italy in the 16th century, with several prominent musical families taking part in the manufacturing process. One such family is the Stradivari family that has made violins that have lasted till current times!
The viola is 1/7th size larger than the violin. It has an alto voice and has four strings tuned a perfect fifth below the violin. It is generally used as an accompanying instrument paying the inner voices of melodies. In a few select pieces, it has been given the pride of place
and its own powerful primary melody. It is played with the same technique and principles as used in the violin.
The Cello is a large instrument, played by an instrumentalist who sits on a chair and places the cello between his legs. He draws the bow across the strings, which are tuned an octave (eight notes) down from a viola, and creates a deep shimmering sound. The notation is written for this instrument in the bass cleff or sometimes tenor cleff. It is often considered an accompanying instrument for an orchestral ensemble, however some composers like Bach composed exclusive pieces for the cello, like in the six famous Cello Suites.
The double bass is the largest and deepest pitched instrument of the string family. It is played with the performer standing up, or sitting atop a high bar stool! It is tuned in fourths, unlike the rest of its family members. It is often played with the “pizzicato technique” of plucking the strings providing a rhythmic beat. This is popularly used in waltzes as well as in the jazz era!
The Double bass and the cello are difficult instruments to transport, hence are often seen sticking their curly heads out of the window of a taxi cab or car!
Y, a doctor of chemistry, as well as a composer has written a beautiful string quartet using the above instruments. The String Quartet number 2, third movement Notturno beautifully displays the power of each individual instrument in perfect harmony with the others!
Contributed by Dr. Dhanwanti Rajwade
Dhanwanti is a doctor by day and western classical musician by night. She loves digging through history and uncovering quirky facts about the great Masters of Classical music!