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 standard 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

Darius Milhaud's La crèation du monde has no parts for 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 Handel's coronation anthem#Handel's coronation anthemss, 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

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arrangement</span> Musical adaptation of a previous work

In music, an arrangement is a musical adaptation of an existing composition. Differences from the original composition may include reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or formal development. 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". In jazz, a memorized (unwritten) arrangement of a new or pre-existing composition is known as a head arrangement.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cello</span> Bowed string instrument

The cello ( CHEL-oh), or violoncello ( VY-ə-lən-CHEL-oh, Italian pronunciation:[vjolonˈtʃɛllo]), is a bowed (sometimes plucked and occasionally hit) 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Double bass</span> Bowed string instrument

The double bass, also known as the upright bass, the acoustic bass, or simply the bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched chordophone, in the modern symphony orchestra. Similar in structure to the cello, it has four or five strings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Musical ensemble</span> Instrumental and/or vocal music group

A musical ensemble, also known as a music group or musical group, is a group of people who perform instrumental and/or vocal music, with the ensemble typically known by a distinct name. Some music ensembles consist solely of instrumentalists, 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 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Orchestra</span> Large instrumental ensemble

An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which combines instruments from different families. There are typically four main sections of instruments:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Violin</span> Bowed string instrument

The violin, colloquially known as a fiddle, is a wooden chordophone, and is the smallest, and thus highest-pitched instrument (soprano) in regular use in the violin family. Smaller violin-type instruments exist, including the violino piccolo and the pochette, but these are virtually unused. Most violins have a hollow wooden body, and commonly have four strings, usually tuned in perfect fifths with notes G3, D4, A4, E5, and are most commonly played by drawing a bow across the strings. The violin 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Viola</span> Bowed string instrument

The viola ( vee-OH-lə, Italian:[ˈvjɔːla,viˈɔːla]) is a string instrument that is usually bowed. Slightly larger than a violin, it 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 higher) and the cello (which is tuned an octave lower). The strings from low to high are typically tuned to C3, G3, D4, and A4.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Orchestration</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">String instrument</span> Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

In musical instrument classification, string instruments or chordophones, are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pizzicato</span> Playing technique for string instruments

Pizzicato is a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of a string instrument. The exact technique varies somewhat depending on the type of instrument:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">String orchestra</span> Musical ensemble

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 is a tuning of a string 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Double stop</span> Playing two strings at once on an instrument

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Concertmaster</span> First violinist and second leader of the orchestra

The concertmaster, first chair (U.S.) or leader (U.K.) is the principal first violin player in an orchestra. After the conductor, the concertmaster is the second-most significant leader in an orchestra, symphonic band or other musical ensemble.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Violone</span>

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Violin family</span> Class of wooden bowed stringed instruments

The violin family of musical instruments was developed in Italy in the 16th century. At the time the name of this family of instruments was viole da braccio which was used to distinguish them from the viol family. The standard modern violin family consists of the violin, viola, cello, and (possibly) double bass.

In musical terminology, divisi, or as typically printed div.,” is an instruction to divide a single section of instruments into multiple subsections. This usually applies to the violins of the string section in an orchestra, although violas, cellos, and double basses can also be divided. Typically, 4-part French Horn sections include divided sections if Horns 1/2 and/or 3/4 are not playing the same music ("a2"). Other brass instruments can also be divided but it is not as frequent as with the Horn section. Woodwinds - especially Flutes and Clarinets - also utilize "divisi" to divide music between parts and even between players of the same part.

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. Ferdinand Simon Gaßner  [ de ], Dirigent und Ripienist (Karlsruhe, Ch. Th. Groos, 1844)[ page needed ]. 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. 49ff
  5. Millington, Barry (2006). The New Grove Guide to Wagner and his Operas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 290.
  6. Svend Brown (2006). "Program notes". Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Archived from the original on 2006-10-01.
  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. F. G. J. Absil (2010). "Size of the String Section in Popular Music Recordings" (PDF).