You might consider that an easy question to answer. What is Considered a String Instrument isn’t going to tax the mind too much. So, just how many string instruments are there? Over 300 if you want to count them. I won’t go there.
What also might surprise you is how long they have been around. The history of what’s considered a string instrument is long and fascinating, as we shall see.
An early form of the Lyre was found in the Middle East that is five thousand years old. Even earlier in Europe, there were stringed instruments that date to approximately 4000 years BC.
They were also being used by Native Americans and Mexicans in the 1600s. Of course, by then, Europe was in the grip of Baroque music. And Bach and others were composing great classical works on stringed instruments.
Quite an extended family…
From those earliest days through to the Romantic period of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and others, the instrument developed. You now only have to look at an orchestra to see that the stringed instrument has quite an extended family.
Only the ones we know…
And the orchestras only include the instruments we are familiar with. There are over 250 stringed instruments that are not included. Of course, some of those have been confined to history. But there are some stringed instruments specific to different parts of the world. We shall look at some of those a little later.
And this one?
And you might be surprised to know that the piano must be included. It fulfills the description of a stringed instrument. It has strings that are struck by tiny hammers. But what is that description? Let’s try and get a definition of a string instrument.
Before we start on that one, ask yourself the question. What is the link between Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page to Mozart or Beethoven? The answer is they all play or played stringed instruments.
Put in basic terms; a stringed instrument is an instrument that gets its sound from the vibrations made from stretched strings. It doesn’t matter what they are made of, and there are plenty of natural and artificial options. Also, it doesn’t matter how the string is struck. It could be plucked, bowed, or slapped either by hand, fingers, or an object like a bow.
The object is to create sound by a series of complex vibrations. These are caused by the contact that is made while the string is in a set position.
How do we hear it?
In the majority of stringed instruments, you are relying on the design of the instrument. The quality of the sound will rely on this design and the quality of the woods used. Plus, of course, the skill of the master builder.
We won’t go into the qualities of various woods and designs. Suffice to say that most stringed instruments, even the piano, rely on sound holes or boxes. These are either cut into the body in the shape of those familiar F-holes found on guitars and violins or purely in the design as in a grand piano.
In today’s world, some stringed instruments use amplification. Being solid-bodied, you wouldn’t hear them without it.
The Evolution of String Instruments
It is almost impossible to know when the first string instruments appeared or where. We have plenty of pictorial evidence they existed, however. Drawings in the most ancient civilizations seem to show some form of Lyre-like instrument. These are found in various places in Egypt and the Mesopotamian regions.
Dating physical evidence is only a representation of what we can see. It is quite possible they existed well before then. The earliest example of a string instrument we can ascertain for certain came from what is now Iraq.
Have instrument will travel…
As peoples and armies began to travel, their instruments would have been taken with them. This introduced them to whole new civilizations who may or may not have had their own versions.
These naturally continued to evolve and improve through the Byzantine period. By the time the Middle Ages arrived, there was a range of instruments that had begun to be quite sophisticated.
Instruments for a purpose…
As the orchestra developed new instruments, some hardly known were developed. One such monster was the Octobass. This was created in Paris in the mid-1800s during the Romantic period.
That was a time when the orchestras were getting larger, as was the sound expected by composers. Boundaries were being pushed. The Octobass was developed to give a booming bottom end.
Two to play it…
There aren’t many instruments that require two people to play them, but this did. It made even the Contrabass look small. One player performs the finger positions on the strings the other plucks or uses a bow. It even had foot pedals.
The evolution continued and, in some cases, still does. The Octobass, though, never really became a viable proposition.
The Style of Playing
Stringed instrument players in just about every environment use three techniques to create the sound. These are Bowing, Plucking, or Striking. When trying to determine “what is considered a string instrument?” these playing styles are a good indicator.
Is what we most associate visually with orchestral stringed instruments. The playing surface of the bow is often made from Mongolian horsehair. However, there are various synthetic options. They are stretched very tightly from one end of the bow to the other.
When they are drawn across the surface of the instrument’s strings, it creates a sound. That sound can be short or have length, depending on the technique used in the bowing action.
Instruments are plucked either by using a finger or thumb or using a pick designed specifically for the purpose. The plucking action can be aggressive or gentle, which will determine the type of tone and volume created from the string.
Orchestral instruments can be plucked in certain passages of the music at the composer’s direction. This will create an alternative expression to the Bowing action.
In some cases, the pick can be applied across all the strings at the same time, depending on the instrument. Today this is known and described as strumming and is, of course, common on the guitar.
Best suited to some instruments…
The plucking techniques, as we said, can be used on any stringed instrument. They are though well-known for use on the banjo, mandolin, sitar, as well as the classical and electric guitar and bass guitar.
There are a few instruments that rely on their sound being created by striking the strings. The Piano is the perfect example where small hammers strike the strings when your fingers are in contact with the keys.
Instruments that use a bow can also be used with a striking technique. This is accomplished by using the wood side of the bow rather than the side with the hair. This is known as a “col legno” technique.
A modern way of striking stringed instruments
Today there is another striking style used on the bass guitar known as the “slap bass” technique. This produces a specific sound allowing the player to utilize rhythms in the sound they create.
Instrument Design Shapes
Regardless of origin, there are three kinds of string instruments that fall into these design categories.
- The Neck design – These are instruments where the strings are supported by a neck. They include the Violin, Viola, Cello, and also the Sitar and the Guitar.
- In the Frame Design – Some instruments have their strings set within the frame of the body. The Harp is a good example.
- On the Body – These are where the strings are attached directly to the body. As an example, the piano.
Stringed instruments come in a wide spectrum of sizes, from the very largest grand pianos to the smallest Violins. The size will usually determine the tonal range.
Smaller instruments tend to play higher frequencies. Large instruments have lower frequencies and usually play the bass notes. One exception being the Piano, whose 88-key range covers all of them.
Fulfilling a role
In many cases, the sizes of stringed instruments in an orchestra setting can determine the role it plays. As an example, most melodies and the main solo parts are often taken by the violins.
There can be up to 20 and sometimes more Violins in an orchestra. They are distinguished as “first” and “second” violins. The “first” violins taking the more esteemed roles. Other string instruments, especially the Viola, will take supporting harmony roles.
From East to West and Back Again
Whilst it would appear that where stringed instruments originated was in the East, they made just as big an impact in the West. But are they the same? Not at all. In many cases, the only thing that is the same is that they both have strings. This is another reason it is never easy to answer the question, “What is Considered a String Instrument?”
This is a stringed instrument native to and very popular in Japan. It has a striking resemblance to the Guzheng from China and the Dan Tranh from Vietnam. Also, the Yatga from Mongolia and Gayageum from Korea.
The Koto has 13 strings and 13 separate bridges. It can be plucked or played with a striking style. But it is the sound as well. It is light and airy with a much higher tone and pitch than you might imagine.
How Does it sound?
The sound is thinner and not as full as Western stringed instruments. This is mainly due to the strings. They are thinner and can be easily manipulated to form the note slides and tones prominent in Japanese music.
And George’s favorite?
The sitar has been around since the 16th century but largely only on the Indian subcontinent. George Harrison brought the playing and composing skills of Ravi Shankar to people’s ears in the west. The sitar suddenly became in vogue.
This is most apparent in the tuning of the instruments. Different numbers of strings mean different approaches. The sitar, for instance, has either 18, 19, 20, or 21 strings.
But only 6 or 7 of those are played; the others are what are known as sympathy strings. They run under the main strings and resonate with the played string. Tuning one is an interesting experience.
I had the opportunity to play one once in the presence of a westerner who knew how to play it. After a little instruction, I tried. Oh, dear. It wouldn’t have been on Beethoven’s list of instruments to include in the fast-growing size of his orchestra. But this guy could make it sing. Oh well, that is talent, I suppose.
Isolated communities and countries often developed distinct tuning systems. The Arab system divided the octave we know, into 24 equal divisions. Each note has a quarter tone. They had their own names for notes and scales. Many instruments are tuned to the Pentatonic or Diatonic scales.
So many we have never heard of…
There are so many instruments from the East and the Far East we have never even heard of before. The reason is that they weren’t part of the western repertoires.
But still, we eventually gained knowledge of them. None, except the sitar, took hold. That came from east to west, courtesy of George, and has now largely gone back again.
In the West
Well, we know them and are familiar with them. But even they went through a period of development and experimentation. There were three-string Violins and seven-string Cellos. It was finally settled on a four-string fretless instrument, most tuned to the 12-tone chromatic scale.
From Baroque until today…
These instruments have remained largely of similar design. No changes were needed; we had the sound that suited the western ear. From the Baroque of Bach to the Classical of Mozart, and on to the Romantic of Beethoven, to this day, the stringed instruments remain the same.
But aren’t we missing something?
There is something we should not forget and must include. The most popular stringed instrument today is the guitar. And how they have developed in a short time. Through the Jazz Age to the Pop and Rock ‘n’ Roll eras. The guitar, and not forgetting the bass guitar, have come a long way fast.
And please bear in mind, there are so many other stringed instruments we haven’t even mentioned here. The development of musical styles has driven them on, just as in the days before Bach and Mozart. And even today, they are still evolving to suit certain styles.
Stringed instruments cross barriers…
The great thing about stringed instruments is they cross barriers, create emotions, and tear down walls. Music has been at the forefront of great social change, and it was always driven on by stringed instruments.
They remind us of great deeds and tell us how good we could be if we try. But they can also warn us of the future. All human life is encapsulated in the stringed instrument. And the more people that play them, at every level of competence, the better. Why not have a go?
In terms of recommendations for beginners, I would suggest the Cecilio Violin For Beginners, the Cecilio Cello for Beginners, and the Yamaha C40II Classical Guitar as three excellent value for money choices.
Looking for more great Stringed Instruments?
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And take a look at our comprehensive reviews of the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Mandolins, the Best Tenor Ukuleles, the Best Electric Ukuleles, the Best 12-String Guitars, and the Top 3 Takamine 12 String Acoustic Guitars currently on the market.
Plus, don’t miss our detailed Traveler Guitar 6 String Escape Mark III review, our Cordoba Guitars 4 String Acoustic-Electric Bass Guitar Review, as well as our reviews of the Best 8-String Guitars and the Best 5-String Bass Guitars available right now.
What is Considered a String Instrument? – Final Thoughts
There aren’t too many things we as humans can be proud of, but the stringed instrument is one. It crosses musical boundaries and is an essential part of so many styles of music. From bluegrass and country to Mahler and everything else in between, string instruments play a role.
Come and join the party.