Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
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Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
While Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque chordophones typically had anywhere from three to eight strings, modern violin family instruments each have four. Historically, these strings were made out of the fiber from animal intestines but are made out of steel, nylon, or other synthetic materials today.
The violin family instruments are played with a bow, which is traditionally strung with horsehair. The friction of the horsehair against the strings creates the distinctive sound of these instruments. However, sometimes composers call for instruments to be played in different ways. For example, playing the strings with the wooden part of the bow instead of the horsehair is a technique called col legno, which literally means 'with the wood.' Occasionally, musicians do not even use the bow, plucking the strings with their fingers. This is called pizzicato, an Italian term that means 'pinched' or 'plucked.' Both techniques can be used for variety or special effects and significantly change the sound of the instruments, a quality known as timbre.
The typical Western orchestra positions the string family of instruments closest to the conductor. Facing the orchestra, the setup is usually as follows. From left to right in a semi-circle: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos. The double basses are often positioned directly behind the cellos. There are more string players than any other orchestral group. Professional orchestras may have anywhere from 45-65 string players on their payroll.
String players are usually assigned fixed seats. The violinist who occupies the outermost chair closest to the conductor is known as the concertmaster. The concertmaster holds the most prestigious title for an orchestral violinist. He or she is responsible for making sure that all the instruments are in tune before a concert and is often featured as a soloist.
Historically, composers wrote a significant amount of music that assigns the first violin section melodic roles in the orchestra, while the rest of the string section provides harmonic support. This is especially true of music written before 1900, although it is not always the case. Any of the string instruments may play melody or harmony.
Some orchestras are comprised of only members of the violin family. These are called string orchestras. Composers have been writing significant works for string orchestras since the Classical era (1750 - 1820 C.E.). For example, W. A. Mozart's well-known piece Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is scored for a string orchestra.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons