Modern Instruments – Strings

Strings

The Violin Family - The violin and the other instruments of its type were the instruments that were the most played during the Baroque period. The violin section is at the heart of practically every type of orchestra, whether it plays ballet, opera, religious music or purely “orchestral” music.

ViolinThe violin acquired its principal characteristics in Italy during the second half of the 16th century. These charactersitics are the curved belly and back piece, the instrument’s typical shape, the different woods used (maple for the back piece, the sides and the neck, spruce for the belly), the four strings tuned a fifth apart, and, as some would have it, secret varnishes. The violin was greatly popular with both performers and the public from the beginning of the 17th century in Italy, although it was to encounter difficulties in the rest of Europe. England and France both remained faithful to the viol until the middle of the 17th century, some contemporary authorities going as far as to say that the violin was “only good at providing music for dancing”.

ViolaThe casual observer may mistake the viola for the violin because of their similarity in size, closeness in pitch range (the viola is a perfect fifth below the violin), and identical playing position. However, the viola's timbre sets it apart: its rich, dark-toned sonority is more full-bodied than the violin's. The viola's mellow voice is frequently used for playing inner harmonies, and it does not enjoy the wide solo repertoire or fame of the violin.

CelloTuned an octave lower than the viola, the violoncello (or cello, as it is more briefly known), uses the bass range. Even though it reproduces the basic characteristics of the violin on a larger scale, its proportions are slightly different; the sides are proportionally higher than those of a violin, creating a greater resonance space and thereby facilitating the playing of the lower notes. The baroque cello was gripped between the calves, the modern spike being an innovation of Romantic virtuosi.

BassThe double bass (also known as the string bass) is generally regarded as the modern descendant of the viola da gamba family of instruments, a family which originated in Europe in the 15th century, and as such it has been described as a "bass viol." Before the 20th century many double basses had only three strings, in contrast to the five to six strings typical of instruments in the viola da gamba family or the four strings of instruments in the violin family. The double bass's proportions are dissimilar to those of the violin and cello. For example, it is deeper (the distance from top to back is proportionally much greater than the violin). In addition, while the violin has bulging shoulders, most double basses have shoulders carved with a more acute slope, like members of the viola da gamba family. Many very old double basses have had their shoulders cut or sloped to aid playing with modern techniques. Before these modifications, the design of their shoulders was closer to instruments of the violin family.

Other String Instruments

Classical GuitarThe classical guitar (a.k.a. acoustic guitar) is typically a Spanish-derived, six-stringed instrument played using a plectrum (pick) or the finger-nails, with frets set into the fingerboard. The guitar family gradually supplanted the lute which had come to prominence during the Renaissance. Traditionally, guitars have usually been constructed of combinations of various woods and strung with animal gut or more recently, with either nylon or steel strings.

Electric GuitarPopular music tends to use amplification for both six-stringed instruments and the four-string bass guitar. Electric guitars can have solid, semi-hollow, or hollow bodies, and produce little sound without amplification. Electromagnetic pickups convert the vibration of the steel strings into electrical signals which are fed to an amplifier through a cable or radio transmitter. The sound is frequently modified by other electronic devices or the natural distortion of valves (vacuum tubes) in the amplifier.

BanjoThe banjo is a stringed instrument that is part of the lute family. It has four or five strings stretched from the head to the body supported by a bridge across the body. The banjo's body is usually made of hide stretched across a wooden hoop, but it can also have a metal top. The banjo is common in folk, country, and bluegrass music where the player usually fingerpicks or strums it. Its twanging sound is the banjo's unique characteristic. The origin of the banjo is uncertain, but some think that it originated from West Africa. Others think the name "banjo" is a corruption of "bandore," which is another instrument in the lute family, and the instrument is a form of bandore.

HarpThe harp is one of the most ancient instruments in existence. It is thought to have been around for over four thousand years. The modern harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals which control the pitches of the strings. The harp is played with both hands with four fingers from each hand. The natural key of the harp is C major, but by use of the pedals, string pitches can be altered up to two half-steps. Therefore, the harp can play all the notes of a chromatic scale. Harpists can play individual notes as well as chords, but they usually play the notes of a chord in rapid succession instead of all of at once.