String section

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing with a jazz group. The string sections are at the front of the orchestra, arrayed in a semicircle around the conductor's podium. Chicago Symphony Orchestra 2005.jpg
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing with a jazz group. The string sections are at the front of the orchestra, arrayed in a semicircle around the conductor's podium.

The string section is composed of bowed instruments belonging to the violin family. It normally consists of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. It is the most numerous group in the typical Classical orchestra. In discussions of the instrumentation of a musical work, the phrase "the strings" or "and strings" is used to indicate a string section as just defined. An orchestra consisting solely of a string section is called a string orchestra. Smaller string sections are sometimes used in jazz, pop and rock music and in the pit orchestras of musical theatre.


Seating arrangement

One possible seating arrangement for an orchestra. First violins are labelled "Vln I"; second violins are "Vln II"; violas are "Vla"; and double basses (in German "Kontrabasse") are "Kb". Orchestra sections sv labels.png
One possible seating arrangement for an orchestra. First violins are labelled "Vln I"; second violins are "Vln II"; violas are "Vla"; and double basses (in German "Kontrabässe") are "Kb".

The most common seating arrangement in the 2000s is with first violins, second violins, violas and cello sections arrayed clockwise around the conductor, with basses behind the cellos on the right. [1] The first violins are led by the concertmaster (leader in the UK); each of the other string sections also has a principal player (principal second violin, principal viola, principal cello and principal bass) who play the orchestral solos for the section, lead entrances and, in some cases, determine the bowings for the section (the concertmaster/leader may set the bowings for all strings, or just for the upper strings). The principal string players sit at the front of their section, closest to the conductor and on the row of performers which is closest to the audience.

In the 19th century it was standard [2] to have the first and second violins on opposite sides (violin I, cello, viola, violin II), rendering obvious the crossing of their parts in, for example, the opening of the finale to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. If space or numbers are limited, cellos and basses can be put in the middle, violins and violas on the left (thus facing the audience) and winds to the right; this is the usual arrangement in orchestra pits. [3] The seating may also be specified by the composer, as in Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta , which uses antiphonal string sections, one on each side of the stage. In some cases, due to space constraints (as with an opera pit orchestra) or other issues, a different layout may be used.

"Desks" and divisi

In a typical stage set-up, the first and second violins, violas and cellos are seated by twos, a pair of performers sharing a stand being called a "desk", Each principal (or section leader) is usually on the "outside" of the first desk, that is, closest to the audience. When the music calls for subdivision of the players the normal procedure for such divisi passages is that the "outside" player of the desk (the one closer to the audience) takes the upper part, the "inside" player the lower, but it is also possible to divide by alternating desks, the favored method in threefold divisi. [4] The "inside" player typically turns the pages of the part, while the "outside" player continues playing. In cases where a page turn occurs during an essential musical part, modern performers may photocopy some of the music to enable the page turn to take place during a less important place in the music.

There are more variations of set-up with the double bass section, depending on the size of the section and the size of the stage. The basses are commonly arranged in an arc behind the cellos, either standing or sitting on high stools, usually with two players sharing a stand; though occasionally, due to the large width of the instrument, it is found easier for each player to have their own stand. There are not usually as many basses as cellos, so they are either in one row, or for a larger section, in two rows, with the second row behind the first. In some orchestras, some or all of the string sections may be placed on wooden risers, which are platforms that elevate the performers.

Numbers and proportions

The size of a string section may be expressed with a formula of the type (for example) 10-10-8-10-6, designating the number of first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. The numbers can vary widely: Wagner in Die Walküre specifies 16-16-12-12-8; [5] the band orchestra in Darius Milhaud's La création du monde is 1-1-0-1-1. [6] In general, music from the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750) and the Classical period (ca. 1720-1800) used (and is often played in the modern era with) smaller string sections. During the Romantic period (ca. 1800-1910), string sections were significantly enlarged to produce a louder, fuller string sound that could match the loudness of the large brass sections used in orchestral music from this period. During the modern era, some composers requested smaller string sections. In some regional orchestras, amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, the string sections may be relatively small, due to the challenges of finding enough string players.

The music for a string section is not necessarily written in five parts; besides the variants discussed below, in classical orchestras the 'quintet' is often called a 'quartet', with basses and cellos playing together.

Double bass section

The role of the double bass section evolved considerably during the 19th century. In orchestral works from the classical era, the bass and cello would typically play from the same part, labelled "Bassi". [7] Given the pitch range of the instruments, this means that if a double bassist and a cellist read the same part, the double bass player would be doubling the cello part an octave lower. While passages for cellos alone (marked "senza bassi") are common in Mozart and Haydn, independent parts for both instruments become frequent in Beethoven and Rossini and common in later works of Verdi and Wagner.


String section without violins

In Haydn's oratorio The Creation , the music to which God tells the newly created beasts to be fruitful and multiply achieves a rich, dark tone by its setting for divided viola and cello sections with violins omitted. Famous works without violins include the 6th of the Brandenburg Concerti by Bach, Second Serenade of Brahms, the opening movement of Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem , and Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten . Fauré's original versions of his Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine were without violin parts, there being parts for 1st and 2nd viola, and for 1st and 2nd cello; though optional violin parts were added later by publishers. Some orchestral works by Giacinto Scelsi omit violins, using only the lower strings.

String section without violas

String section without violins or violas

Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms has no parts for violins or violas. [8]
Gubaidulina's Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings has no parts for violins or violas.

Third violins

Richard Strauss' Elektra (1909) and Josephslegende , the third movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and some of George Handel's coronation anthems, are notable examples of the violins being divided threefold.[ citation needed ]

In other musical genres

"String section" is also used to describe a group of bowed string instruments used in rock, pop, jazz and commercial music. [9] In this context the size and composition of the string section is less standardised, and usually smaller, than a classical complement. [10]

Related Research Articles

Arrangement Musical reconceptualization of a previous work

In music, an arrangement is a musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It may differ from the original work by means of reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or development of the formal structure. Arranging differs from orchestration in that the latter process is limited to the assignment of notes to instruments for performance by an orchestra, concert band, or other musical ensemble. Arranging "involves adding compositional techniques, such as new thematic material for introductions, transitions, or modulations, and endings. Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety".

Classical period (music) Genre of Western music (c. 1730–1820)

The Classical period was an era of classical music between roughly 1730 and 1820.

Cello Bowed string musical instrument

The cello ( CHEL-oh; plural celli or cellos) or violoncello ( VY-ə-lən-CHEL-oh; Italian pronunciation: [vjolonˈtʃɛllo]) is a bowed (and occasionally plucked) string instrument of the violin family. Its four strings are usually tuned in perfect fifths: from low to high, C2, G2, D3 and A3. The viola's four strings are each an octave higher. Music for the cello is generally written in the bass clef, with tenor clef and treble clef used for higher-range passages.

Double bass Acoustic stringed instrument of the violin family

The double bass, also known simply as the bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. The Double bass has a similar structure to the cello.

Musical ensemble Group of people who perform instrumental and/or vocal music, with the ensemble typically known by a distinct name

A musical ensemble, also known as a music group or musical group, is a group of people who perform instrumental or vocal music, with the ensemble typically known by a distinct name. Some music ensembles consist solely of instruments, such as the jazz quartet or the orchestra. Other music ensembles consist solely of singers, such as choirs and doo wop groups. In both popular music and classical music, there are ensembles in which both instrumentalists and singers perform, such as the rock band or the Baroque chamber group for basso continuo and one or more singers. In classical music, trios or quartets either blend the sounds of musical instrument families or group together instruments from the same instrument family, such as string ensembles or wind ensembles. Some ensembles blend the sounds of a variety of instrument families, such as the orchestra, which uses a string section, brass instruments, woodwinds and percussion instruments, or the concert band, which uses brass, woodwinds and percussion.

Orchestra Large instrumental ensemble

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which combines instruments from different families, including

Violin Wooden bowed string instrument

The violin, sometimes known as a fiddle, is a wooden chordophone in the violin family. Most violins have a hollow wooden body. It is the smallest and thus highest-pitched instrument (soprano) in the family in regular use. The violin typically has four strings, usually tuned in perfect fifths with notes G3, D4, A4, E5, and is most commonly played by drawing a bow across its strings. It can also be played by plucking the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) and, in specialized cases, by striking the strings with the wooden side of the bow.

Viola Wooden bowed string instrument

The viola ( vee-OH-lə, alsovy-OH-lə, Italian: [ˈvjɔːla, viˈɔːla]) is a string instrument that is bowed, plucked, or played with varying techniques. It is slightly larger than a violin and has a lower and deeper sound. Since the 18th century, it has been the middle or alto voice of the violin family, between the violin (which is tuned a perfect fifth above) and the cello (which is tuned an octave below). The strings from low to high are typically tuned to C3, G3, D4, and A4.

Orchestration Study or practice of writing music for an orchestra

Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra or of adapting music composed for another medium for an orchestra. Also called "instrumentation", orchestration is the assignment of different instruments to play the different parts of a musical work. For example, a work for solo piano could be adapted and orchestrated so that an orchestra could perform the piece, or a concert band piece could be orchestrated for a symphony orchestra.

String instrument Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

Chamber music Form of classical music composed for a small group of instruments

Chamber music is a form of classical music that is composed for a small group of instruments—traditionally a group that could fit in a palace chamber or a large room. Most broadly, it includes any art music that is performed by a small number of performers, with one performer to a part. However, by convention, it usually does not include solo instrument performances.

String orchestra

A string orchestra is an orchestra consisting solely of a string section made up of the bowed strings used in Western Classical music. The instruments of such an orchestra are most often the following: the violin, which is divided into first and second violin players, the viola, the cello, and usually, but not always, the double bass.

Scordatura[skordaˈtuːra] is a tuning of a stringed instrument that is different from the normal, standard tuning. It typically attempts to allow special effects or unusual chords or timbre, or to make certain passages easier to play. It is common to notate the finger position as if played in regular tuning, while the actual pitch resulting is altered. When all the strings are tuned by the same interval up or down, as in the case of the viola in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, the part is transposed as a whole.

Double stop

In music, a double stop is the technique of playing two notes simultaneously on a stringed instrument such as a violin, a viola, a cello, or a double bass. On instruments such as the Hardanger fiddle it is common and often employed. In performing a double stop, two separate strings are bowed or plucked simultaneously. Although the term itself suggests these strings are to be fingered (stopped), in practice one or both strings may be open.

The concertmaster is the leader of the first violin section in an orchestra and the instrument-playing leader of the orchestra. After the conductor, the concertmaster is the second-most significant leader in an orchestra, symphonic band or other musical ensemble. Another common term in the U.S. is "first chair." In the U.K., the term commonly used is "leader."

Chinese orchestra

The term Chinese orchestra is most commonly used to refer to the modern Chinese orchestra that is found in China and various overseas Chinese communities. This modern Chinese orchestra first developed out of Jiangnan sizhu ensemble in the 1920s into a form that is based on the structure and principles of a Western symphony orchestra but using Chinese instruments. The orchestra is divided into four sections - wind, plucked strings, bow strings, and percussion, and usually performs modernized traditional music called guoyue. The orchestra may be referred to as Minzu Yuetuan or Minzu Yuedui in mainland China, Chung Ngok Tuen in Hong Kong, Huayuetuan in Southeast Asia, or Guoyuetuan in Taiwan, all meaning Chinese orchestra.


The term violone can refer to several distinct large, bowed musical instruments which belong to either the viol or violin family. The violone is sometimes a fretted instrument, and may have six, five, four, or even only three strings. The violone is also not always a contrabass instrument. In modern parlance, one usually tries to clarify the 'type' of violone by adding a qualifier based on the tuning or on geography, or by using other terms that have a more precise connotation. The term violone may be used correctly to describe many different instruments, yet distinguishing among these types can be difficult, especially for those not familiar with the historical instruments of the viol and violin families and their respective variations in tuning.

Steven Dann is a Canadian violist.

The section principal in an orchestra, as well as any large musical ensemble, is the lead player for each respective section of instruments. For example, there are multiple sections in an orchestra. The strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections all have subsections. The first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, French horns, tubas, and percussion are all subsections, each led by a principal player. The principal for each section is normally the most skilled and valuable player, selected through an audition process.

<i>Orchestral Works by Tomas Svoboda</i> 2003 album by the Oregon Symphony

Orchestral Works by Tomas Svoboda is a classical music album by the Oregon Symphony under the artistic direction of James DePreist, released by the record label Albany in 2003. The album was recorded at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon during three performances in January and June 2000. It contains three works by Tomáš Svoboda, a Czech-American composer who taught at Portland State University for more than 25 years: Overture of the Season, Op. 89; Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, Op. 148; and Symphony No. 1, Op. 20. The album's executive producers were Peter Kermani, Susan Bush, and Mark B. Rulison; Blanton Alspaugh served as the recording producer.


  1. Stanley Sadie's Music Guide, p. 56 (Prentice-Hall 1986). Nicolas Slonimsky described the cellos-on-the-right arrangement as part of a 20th-century "sea change" (Lectionary of Music, p. 342 (McGraw-Hill 1989).
  2. [ author missing ] (1948). "Orchestra" in Encyclopedia Americana, OCLC   1653189 ASIN   B00M99G7V6 [ page needed ].
  3. Gassner, "Dirigent und Ripienist" (Karlsruhe 1844). Rousseau's Dictionnaire de musique (1768), however, has a figure showing second violins facing the audience and principals facing the singers, reflecting the concertmaster's former role as conductor.
  4. Norman del Mar: Anatomy of the Orchestra (University of California Press, 1981) weighs the various merits in the chapter "Platform planning", pp.49-
  5. Millington, Barry (2006). The New Grove Guide to Wagner and his Operas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 290.
  6. "Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra" (program notes), Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 1999, webpage: SPCO-98 Archived 2006-10-01 at
  7. Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, online edition, article "Orchestra", section 6.
  8. Paul Griffiths, Stravinsky (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1992): 104. ISBN   9780460860635
  9. "The String Section - studio strings or online session musicians".
  10. "Size of the String Section in Popular Music Recordings, F.G.J.Absil, 2010" (PDF).