The string family explained in 7 easy points

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 07/20/22 •  8 min read

The string family is also made up of four different instruments; Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass. Violin being the smallest and Double Bass being the largest. The Harp and Guitars are also considered to be part of the string family.

The string family is the largest family in the orchestra with up to 60 string players in total. This is largely to do with the actual volume of the instruments. For example, a single brass instrument is much louder than a single stringed instrument so more players were added in the string sections to make up for this discrepancy. 

It’s really vital for you to have an idea about these instruments as we as cinematic composers will use them on a daily basis. Knowing how they are played, what sounds they can make, and what they are good/bad at mean that we can best utilize them in our compositions and make the best music possible.

Where did string instruments originate?

The impressively long history of stringed instruments dates back as far as 4 thousand years and depending on what part of the world you are in the development would have differed slightly for a great many reasons.

When it comes to the stringed instruments of the western classical orchestra it wasn’t until the renaissance and baroque periods that the design of stringed instruments became consistent and largely resembling the instruments we see today.

What are stringed instruments made from?

The string instruments are made out of wood. Most commonly spruce, maple, rosewood, willow and ebony. The type of wood is used according to its acoustic characteristics.

What is in the string family? (Meet the instruments)

Violin 

The Violin is the smallest of the stringed instruments and as a result produces the highest notes. It is about 14 inches (36cm) in length. It is played by placing the body of the violin on your left shoulder, holding it in place with your chin on the chin rest. Your left hand then holds the neck of the Violin whilst your right hand holds the bow.

Viola

The Viola is the second smallest of the stringed instruments. The size of a Viola can vary from 15-18 inches (about 45cm). It is played by placing the body of the violin on your left shoulder, holding it in place with your chin on the chin rest. Your left hand then holds the neck of the Violin whilst your right hand holds the bow.

Cello

Cellos are much larger than Violins and Violas at around 48 inches (122 cm) so they are played differently. The cellist sits down and places the Cello between their legs. The left hand of the player holds the neck of the instrument whilst the right hand holds the bow.

Double Bass

Double Basses are the largest stringed instrument. They are about 6 feet (180 cm) in size. The player can either sit on a high stool or stand up to play them. The right hand of the player will be holding the bow whilst the left hand will be holding the neck and supporting the instrument against the players body.

Harp

The harp, or pedal harp, is 6 feet (1.8m) tall. It is played with the player sitting down on a chair with the harp held close to the body. Both hands of the player then pluck the strings of the harp. The strings are color coded to make it easier for the player to identify octaves and fifths.

How do string instruments work? 

String instruments work by exciting the strings by either plucking, hitting, or dragging a bow across them. Each way of playing creates its own unique sound. This is one of the most important things that you can learn, the different sounds any instrument can make.

The right hand (usually) of the player will pluck or bow the string to create the sound whilst the left hand of the player will be changing the pitch of the note produced by applying pressure to the string along the fingerboard. The shorter the string becomes then the higher the note produced and vice versa.

String family ranges – highest to lowest pitch

It’s a really good idea to get to know the ranges of all the orchestral instruments so that you can better utilise the sounds they make. This translates to knowing where they sound best and what notes they can actually produce. I mean it’s all well and good writing a piece in A but if your Double Basses can’t play A1 then it’s no use.

The Violin’s range is G3-A7 and it is written on the treble clef.

The Viola’s range C3-E6 and it is written on the alto and treble clef.

The Cello’s range C2-C6 and it is written on the bass, alto, and treble clef.

The Double Bass’ range C2-C5 and it is written on the bass clef.

String Family Characteristics

Articulations

These are all the different ways that you can play a stringed instrument. IT is good for you to become familiar with all of the articulations and playing techniques of whatever instrument you are writing for as you will then be able to take full advantage of what that instrument can do.

Double stopping

Double stopping is when the string player drags the bow across two strings at the same time therefore producing two notes at the same time. This can be handy when you want to create a fuller harmony without getting more players in. However you do have to be mindful of what note combinations are physically possible for the players.

Arpeggios

Arpeggios are when the notes of a given chord are played separately. Playing in this way is a really simple tool to show the harmony of your cue but also to add movement. In trailer music we often use simple arpeggios to drive the second act of the trailer cue, we can then use the same arpeggio perhaps an octave higher or even a two octave arpeggio to make the track really feel like it has opened up.

Mutes

Also known as “con sordino”. These are little plastic objects that sit behind the bridge of the instrument. When the player needs to play with a mute they then move the mute onto the bridge so it stops the bridge resonating in the same way, muting the sound somewhat. The resulting sound is duller, quieter and softer. You would use a mute to play sweet legato lines or to allow the string section to feel softer. 

Bowed

The correct musical term for bowing the strings is ‘Arco’. This is simply when the player drags the bow across the strings which creates friction which then makes the string vibrate. There are quite a few more articulations within bowing like staccato, legato, harmonics, spiccato etc. All of these articulations are resulting from dragging the bow across the strings.

Plucked

This is called “pizzicato” and it is when the player plucks the string with one of the fingers of their right hand. It has a “cheeky” and playful feel to it but can be used to create rather ominous pulses.

Fast/slow

One of the most fantastic things about the stringed instruments is their ability to play incredibly fast and incredibly slow. This means that they can articulate drones and 32/64th note runs with relative ease. 

Textures

If you allow the string players to get a little more playful with their instruments then you can create some amazing textures really easily. For example when I recorded a cello section we got them to play their instrument with small packs of sugar and little wooden coffee stirrers. The results were fantastic. Other things you can do might include treating the string sections like swarms of individual players and getting them to each play a single not slightly differently, you then get these amazing pads that can create intense cinematic effects.

FAQ

How many instruments are in a string section?

Within a string orchestra there are five sections; first Violins, second Violins, Violas, Celli (plural of Cello), and Double Basses. 

What are the 5 instruments in the string family?

The five instruments in the string family are Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, and Harp. You can of course include guitars in there too but that’s up for debate depending on who you speak to.

Why do I need to know the string ranges?

This is for orchestration purposes. When writing music for the string players it is good to know what notes they produce so that you can give the right note to the right instrument.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).