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The String Family: Instruments, History & Facts

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  • 0:03 The String Family
  • 0:41 Forerunners
  • 2:58 Modern String Family
  • 6:58 Performance Techniques
  • 7:42 Orchestra Roles
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

This lesson looks at the history, construction, and function of the string family instruments of the Western orchestra. The strings form the largest orchestral section and have been called the 'heart' of the modern orchestra.

The String Family

The string family of the modern Western orchestra is typically thought of as the members of the violin family: violin, viola, violoncello, more commonly known as 'cello,' and contrabass, also called the double bass or sometimes just 'bass.'

Technically, there are two other standard orchestra members that are also stringed instruments: the harp and the piano. While the violin family instruments are typically played using a bow, the harp is a plucked string instrument, and the piano is a hammered string instrument. However, the piano is often considered to be a member of the percussion group due to its playing mechanism.

Forerunners of the Modern Family

String instruments are known as chordophones, a term that comes from the Greek words khorde, meaning 'string,' and phonos, meaning 'sound' or 'voice.' Chordophones have a long history. The earliest surviving stringed instruments to date are the Lyres of Ur, plucked chordophones, which currently exist in fragments that date back to 4,500 years ago. The first bowed chordophones were probably developed in central Asia and were the forerunners of an Indian folk instrument known as the ravanastron. The ravanastron is one of the earliest intact ancestors of the modern violin family.

Early ravanastron
Indian ravanastrom.

In the Middle East, the ravanastron evolved into the rebab, a 2-stringed fiddle that was brought by Byzantium via trade routes, such as the Silk Road. There, it influenced the design and construction of the grandfather of the modern violin family: the Byzantine lyra.

Earliest known image of a Byzantine lyra. Carving made in ivory casket, circa. 900 - 1100 C.E.
Byzantine lyra carving

There were many different kinds of chordophones in use throughout Europe during the late Middle Ages and up through the Baroque era (1600 - 1750 C.E.), most of which can trace their ancestry to the Byzantine lyra. Out of these, the instrument that is generally considered to be the immediate forerunner of the modern violin is the lira da braccio. This instrument reached its peak popularity during the Renaissance era (1450 - 1600 C.E.), enjoying a brief period of supremacy as the preferred sting instrument used to accompany poetic recitations in Italian courts. It was gradually supplanted by the modern violin and virtually disappeared by the mid-17th century.

An illustration of a lira da braccio, created by 16th-century composer Michael Praetorious in his book Syntagma Musicum
16th-century sketch of a lira da braccio by composer Michael Praetorious

An even more popular Italian stringed instrument than the lira da braccio was the viola da gamba, ancestor of the modern cello. Viola da gambas also thrived during the Renaissance and were commonly used both as solo instruments and played together in small ensembles known as consorts. The names of both instruments refer to the way in which they are held while playing: braccio means 'arm,' gamba means 'leg.' Most viola da gambas had six strings and were supported with the calves and knees of the musician.

Composer Jean Baptiste Forqueray (1699 - 1782 C.E.) with his seven-stringed viola da gamba. Painting by Jean-Martial Fredou (1711 - 1795 C.E.)
Painting of Jean Baptiste Forqueray with viola da gamba

Development of Modern String Family

Although some scholars believe that the first instruments that can be classified as true violins were created in the early 1480s, most agree that the earliest version of the modern violin came into existence during the mid-16th century. The construction of the violin is very similar to that of the lira da braccio, but the violin generally has a rounder bridge and narrower fingerboard. The reason for this is because the lira da braccio was used mainly as an accompaniment instrument and was designed to be able to play chords, which are multiple pitches played at the same time to provide harmonic support for the melody. The violin was increasingly used as a melodic instrument and was therefore designed to minimize the possibility of accidentally playing two or more strings when the performer intends to play only one.

The parts of a modern violin
Diagram of a violin with labeled parts

The first great violin maker was Andrea Amati (1510 - 1577 C.E.). Amati lived and worked in Cremona, Italy, and is credited with designing the shape and key features of the modern violin, cello, and viola. In particular, some of his most substantial innovations included a slightly convex body, an ornate and carefully crafted scroll design, and the addition of a fourth playing string (many previous models had only three). Amati passed on his craft to his children and grandchildren, starting the first great Italian violin maker dynasty.

People who practice the art of crafting stringed instruments are known as luthiers, and the most famous luthier of all time, Antonio Stradivari (1644 - 1737 C.E.), learned his art through an apprenticeship with Nicolo Amati, Andrea's grandson. Stradivarius violins acquired a considerable reputation during the maker's lifetime but are even more in demand today. In 2006, a Stradivarius sold for over $3.5 million dollars. Through the work of Amati and Stradivari, the design for the modern violin family was perfected.

An artistic rendition of Antonio Stradivari in his workshop. Painting by Edgar Bundy, 1893.
Painting of Stradivari violin workshop.

As was common during the Renaissance era, most instruments were crafted in several different sizes in order to be able to play a wider variety of pitch ranges. These pitch ranges usually corresponded to the natural ranges of the male and female voice. In keeping with this norm, the Amati and Stradivari families and other luthiers built their signature design in several sizes. From Andrea Amati, surviving instruments include two violins of different sizes (corresponding to the soprano and alto ranges), a viola (tenor range), and the significantly larger violoncello, or cello (bass range).

Both the violin and viola are braccio instruments, designed to be rested on the upper arm or shoulder and supported with the arm. The cello, however, bears a closer resemblance to the viola da gamba and is held between the legs. Unlike the violin and viola, modern cellos have an addition called an endpin. This small rod is found at the base of the cello's body and helps to support its weight to allow for greater flexibility while playing. This addition became a standard feature of the instrument during the 19th century.

The largest member of the violin family is the contrabass, most commonly known as the 'double bass.' This instrument has the lowest range and can be found in several different sizes and some shape variations. When measured from the bottom of the body to the top of the scroll, the standard bass that is most commonly used in the Western orchestra stands at nearly six feet tall.

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