Before I start to compose my list of string instruments in an orchestra, I need to decide on what should be included and what shouldn’t; in other words, what are the string instruments in an orchestra?
You can classify instruments in an orchestra into four distinct groups:
The most common of those are the string instruments. And they are also the instruments that are usually the most prominent in just about every orchestra you will find.
Within this article, I will only be talking about string instruments, but there is a problem. There is some defining to be done before deciding what are stringed instruments in an orchestra and what are not.
There is sometimes a disagreement in some circles as to whether this is a string instrument or a percussion instrument. You could argue that it is a little bit of both. There are strings involved in creating the sound.
But, to make the sound, you have to hit the keys, which causes hammers to hit the strings. On that basis, in my view, it is a percussion instrument.
An Extra Consideration
The piano is not a part of an orchestra anyway. It is at the forefront and the soloist when pieces are written for it. But, it is not usually included in the orchestra when it is not the featured instrument. Therefore, for this article, I shall exclude the piano from the list of stringed instruments.
This is a stringed instrument, but one that is rarely seen in an orchestral setting. The reasons for this are the number of compositions purely for guitars. There are some classical pieces, and that is when they will make an appearance. But, it is not there as a regular instrument in an orchestra.
Placed in the middle of an orchestra, it wouldn’t be heard unless there was a quieter section that allowed it to come to the forefront. Or, of course, it was amplified.
For that reason, I will be excluding the guitar from the ‘mainstream’ of those instruments classified as strung. However, we shall look at the Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, and the Harp. And it is with the harp I shall start.
Along with the flute, the harp is one of the oldest instruments that has been played by humans. We have no way of knowing the moment when they first appeared. But, we do have records that they existed in Sumerian times in 3500 BC.
In those days, and for centuries after, the instrument was called a lyre. But, by the 8th century, the harp as we know it had begun to change shape. In Europe, a different design appeared, which included a central pillar to support the strings and the soundbox.
Today, there is a range of different harps used in varying circumstances. But the harp has become a permanent fixture in music. It has also become a political entity, and it features on flags and logos, as in Ireland.
The Playing Action Remains The Same
Despite the passing of thousands of years and numerous variations, the action used to play it has not changed. The basic principle is that the strings are still plucked by your fingers.
The modern harp today, or the “concert harp” as it is known, is a sophisticated instrument that also uses pedals. The inclusion of pedals gave the harp a much wider operational performance. And it was from then that it became a near-permanent fixture in many orchestras.
There are usually 47 strings on a concert harp that are made of steel, gut, or nylon. Other harp variations have different string designs depending on the sound required. And these days, you might often see two harps in an orchestra.
The Harp Concerto
Specialized pieces have been written for the harp so that it becomes the solo instrument. An example is the Harp Concerto in B flat Major Op. 4 No. 6 by George Friedrich Handel.
In The Orchestra
You will find the harp positioned in the orchestra as part of the string sections, usually behind the violins. The harp is normally tuned to C major. This allows it to comfortably play any of the seven modes, depending on the key.
A classic instrument with a wonderful, almost ethereal tone. Its contribution to the overall sound of the orchestra on certain pieces cannot be overestimated.
It is a difficult task to identify exactly when the violin came into existence. There have been similar instruments in existence since the Byzantine period. These were two-stringed instruments similar to the Lyre.
The Rebab came across from North Africa in the 9th Century and was redesigned and became the Rebec. The early developers of what became the violin borrowed designs from all these instruments to build their own. One such instrument was the Vielle in France around the 14th Century.
In the Lombardy region of Italy, at the foot of the Alps, is Brescia. It is a beautiful place to visit and sits on the shores of Lake Garda. In the music world, it is significant and has a glorious history. It was here that the violin we know today took shape sometime between the 14th and 16th Centuries.
I say between because there was a school in Brescia in the late 14th century. But, it was in the 16th Century that it all started to happen. And what occurred in that period is still admired and cherished even today.
The Cremona School
It was here at Andrea Amati’s school that some of the most prized possessions in the world began their life. Through the school went the likes of the Amati family members, the Rugeri family, the Guarneri family, and, of course, the Stradivari family.
There were other violin-making schools that produced fine instruments. But, it was here that some of the world’s finest ever were made in the “Golden Age” of the violin. The last violin sold at auction that was made by Antonio Stradivari went for more than $15 million.
Say Orchestra, Think Violin
When asked, the majority of people will say the violin is the most common string instrument in an orchestra. They are not wrong, But there is nothing “common” about the violin.
It is the smallest of the stringed instruments but with the most adherents. And you will not only find it in the Classical orchestral setting. It is prominent in Folk and Country music, Jazz, Pop, and even Rock music.
Very Little Change
Since the days in Italy, it has seen very little in the way of change. The woods are similar, and the construction is nearly identical. There have been some small improvements in tuning, etc. But, the cosmetics and the playing action remain the same.
The four strings are set up to be tuned in perfect 5ths. The range of pitch is quite wide and stretches from G3 to E7. Higher notes can be achieved by using techniques like artificial harmonics.
The body length is 14 inches or 356mm, though there are different sizes produced for younger players. These are described as being ½, ¾, and ⅞ in size.
In The Orchestra
Usually, a symphony orchestra will have more violins than any other instrument, somewhere in the region of 30. These are often split into two groups that have different roles to play with the music. You will find some playing the melody while others are taking harmonies.
Certainly, it is one of the finest instruments on the planet. It is capable of providing excitement and all the emotions we can experience. From pure joy all the way down to deep despair.
Almost identical to the violin, the viola is a little bigger at a body length of 17 inches. The viola certainly doesn’t get as much attention as the violin, which is a shame. Like its cousin, it is a beautiful sounding instrument.
They appeared at about the same time as the violin and probably also in Northern Italy. There is some dispute about that as it is thought by some that they were originally from France. The Vielle, as we have seen when looking at the violin, had some of its origins in France.
Therefore, it’s possible that the basis of the viola may have been established in France. But, the instrument we know today was improved and created in Lombardy. What we do know is that they appeared as a recognized instrument at about the same time as the violin.
The Same But Different
The viola is played the same way as the violin, plucked or by using a bow. The actual action of playing both instruments is also the same.
The tuning is both the same but different. The principle of how it is tuned is the same. Perfect 5ths mirroring the violin. But the range is different, with the viola having a lower pitch. It is tuned one perfect fifth down at C3, G3, D4, and A4.
In The Orchestra
In today’s symphony orchestras, you will find anywhere between 10 and 15 Violas. Although, depending on the orchestra, this can vary. As I have said, you will notice that in the main most of the violins will play the melody, and some the harmony. The viola usually plays just harmonic lines.
The reason for this is that the viola is not considered a virtuosic instrument like the violin. That may appear like the instrument is being relegated to a less important role. But that isn’t the case.
The viola plays an important role in the creation of the ‘whole’ sound. And sometimes, the harmonies can be just as important as the melody lines in creating the piece.
Are There Works Specifically For The Viola?
Yes, there are, but nowhere near as many as for the violin. However, the pieces that have been written for viola are standout works.
Mozart’s Concerto for Violin and Viola is one, as is Louis-Hector Berlioz’s Viola Concerto. There are also works from the Baroque period by Johann Sebastien Bach and George Frideric Handel.
A great instrument that stands alone in the quality of its sound. Making it essential to a list of string instruments in an orchestra.
An instrument that is the favorite of all the stringed instruments for many people. It also appeared around five hundred years ago and was possibly designed to be the larger-sized, deeper-pitched version of the violin and viola.
The first thing you notice is the size and how it is played. This is not something that you can play positioned under your chin. They are about four feet long and are played with the instrument supported by a steel peg that sits on the floor.
The playing position is unique for string instruments of this nature. It is played seated with the body of the Cello placed between your knees. The neck then sits on your shoulder. The bowing action is the same, but the position of the hands and wrist are different from the violin and viola.
In The Orchestra
The Cello forms a very important part of the sound of the orchestra. Its role is to produce the higher notes of the lower frequencies. In today’s symphonic orchestra, you will usually find between 8 and 12 cellos positioned behind the violins.
That certainly is the name of the game. Not only has it got a beautiful sound when it is played as a solo instrument, but it also thrives on providing lower middle frequency sounds. Cellos can be used for both melody and harmony.
Of all the stringed instruments in the orchestra, the cello is the one that is closest to the human voice. The tonal color is similar, and the range of notes goes from C2 to C6. But, those four octaves can actually reach five in the hands of an experienced player.
Away from The Orchestra
Besides being predominantly a classical instrument, it can also be found in popular music. It has been used by several well-known artists on a variety of songs. It is worthwhile noting a few. By listening to them, you can hear the impact of the cello. This is why it was chosen to play the parts:
- The Beatles – Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever.
- Cher – Bang Bang.
- Beach Boys – Good Vibrations.
- Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother album.
- Genesis – Foxtrot album.
Over and above those selected, the Cello has been extensively used by ELO, Coliseum, Aerosmith, and Nirvana. There are even cello Rock bands that feature this instrument, like Apocalyptica, a metal band from Finland.
As I said earlier, it is a versatile instrument, but it is more than that. The sound it can give you is why it is one of the most popular instruments around.
As someone once said, “It’s just a big violin.” I suppose that’s one way of putting it, visually, it is, in design and the materials it is built from. But that is where the similarities end.
The double bass is the largest string instrument in an orchestra. And, the size means that you have to play it standing up. There are some physical requirements to playing the double bass that do not exist with either violin, viola, or cello.
You need to be quite tall and have arms long enough to reach all the positions on the neck. It is also different from the others in another way. The proportions of the build are not the same as the other members of the string family, especially in the depth.
It is accepted that the double bass appeared around the same time as the violin and other such stringed instruments.
Unlike the violin, viola, and cello, the double bass is tuned in fourths. That has made this instrument popular in other musical activities. For example, it has become essential in every jazz band and jazz orchestra, where it is often called an acoustic bass. But, it has gone quite a bit further than that.
It was quite a spectacle to see at the time. Joe Mauldin, who played with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, or Marshall Lytle with Bill Haley, both rolling all over the floor playing them. Plucking at the strings like there was no tomorrow.
In the world of pop and early rock n roll, it lost favor as the volumes went up and the Fender Precision arrived. But, in the orchestra, and some jazz circles, it is still vital.
In The Orchestra
There will often be 5-8 double basses in a symphony orchestra, and most of the time, they will be playing harmonies. Just like the violin, viola, and cello, they are played using a bow.
Resources for Potential Orchestra Members
Interested in learning to play one of these stringed instruments? Here are some fantastic products that would all find a place on this list of string instruments in an orchestra.
Eastar is a company that makes very good instruments for those on a budget. A great package for a beginner is this Eastar Violin 4/4 Full Size for Adults and Beginners. Likewise, there’s this classically designed Eastar Acoustic Cello 4/4 for Beginners Adult.
Want to Learn More About String Instruments?
We can help. Take a look at our comprehensive articles on What is Considered a String Instrument, Torn Between Two Strings: Violin or Viola, How Many Strings Does a Harp Have, How Are Violin Strings Made, and Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of for more information.
And if you are looking for great orchestral instruments, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Violin For Kids, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Violins, and the Best Electric Cellos you can buy in 2023.
List of String Instruments in an Orchestra – Final Thoughts
These are what you might call the fabulous four plus one. The plus one is the harp. They dominate the orchestra and its sound. Providing both the lead and the platform for virtually everything an orchestra does.
Until next time, may the music always play.