Understanding Instrument Families: The Strings

What are string instruments? 

Young woman playing the violinIn general terms, string instruments are a family of musical instruments that produce sound by vibrating strings. String instruments make up the largest family of orchestral instruments and include the violin, viola, cello and double bass. Other string instruments that are not traditionally considered orchestral instruments include the guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele and harp. 

What are the key elements of string instruments?

Most string instruments generally have the same basic parts, with some having a few unique elements. The basic elements of string instruments include the tuning pegs that tighten or loosen the strings, a head where the tuning pegs are affixed, a neck that the strings and fingerboard run alongside, a fingerboard where the strings are pressed down to make sound, a body, where the sound resonates and is amplified, a bridge where the string vibration ends, and a tailpiece where the strings end. Most string instruments have sound holes or f-holes, where the sound exits the body of the instrument. However, solid body electric guitars and electric basses do not have any sound holes. The orchestral strings have a scroll, a peg box, and fine tuners, where just violins and violas also have a chin rest.

What are string instruments mostly made of?

String instruments are mostly made of wood with metal and some plastic appointments. The head, neck, fingerboard, and body are all made of wood. The strings on a stringed instrument can be made of a variety of materials like nylon, steel, or gut. Most orchestral string instruments are played with a bow made of wood and plastic, and the strings of a bow are made from actual horse hair. 

How do string instruments work?

String instruments work by essentially vibrating the strings which produce sound that resonates within the body and amplifies upon it’s exit of the instrument. The strings can produce sound by either being plucked with fingers, struck with a plectrum, or bowed with a bow. 

What instruments are in the string family? 

Violin – Violin is the smallest of the orchestral string instruments with the highest range. It makes up the largest instrument group in the orchestra and is often responsible for playing the melody. The violin is held by resting the lower bout between the chin and the left shoulder while the neck is held by the left hand. To play the violin, the left hand also will press down the strings while the right hand is responsible for using the bow to vibrate the strings.

Viola – The viola is slightly larger than the violin and looks very similar in almost every way, except for the size. The sound produced is a bit fuller and the range is slightly lower than that of a violin. The viola is held the same way as a violin and played similarly as well. 

Young boy playing the celloCello – The cello looks similar to the violin and viola but is much, much bigger. At approximately four feet in length, the cello is far too big to rest between your chin and shoulder. The cello usually sits on the ground, propped by an end pin or peg that is placed on the floor. The cellist is seated with the cello leaning back against the body. The left hand will press down the strings on the fingerboard while the right hand is responsible for using the bow to create sound. 

Double Bass – The double bass, or sometimes called upright bass, is the largest of the orchestral string instruments. The double bass stands upwards of six feet tall and has the lowest range of the string family. The bassist will stand up to play the instrument, leaning it back on the body slightly, and reach around with the left arm in order to press the strings down on the neck and fingerboard. Like the violin, viola, and cello, the right hand is responsible for using the bow to produce the sound. 

Guitar – The guitar is probably the most popular string instrument. It’s generally not found in orchestral settings, but found in most modern, popular and contemporary music. The guitar is built similarly and has similar parts as its orchestral brethren, with some significant differences. Guitars will have frets, raised metal bars placed across the fingerboard that separate the notes. While some guitars have two sound holes, or f-holes, on the left and right side of the body, many acoustic guitars have a single sound hole directly beneath the strings. Solid body electric guitars do not have sound holes, but have built-in electronics that deliver the audio signals to an amplifier that digitally amplifies the sound. To play the guitar, the lower bout of the body rests on the right leg of the seated guitarist, while the left hand reaches underneath and around the neck to press down the strings. The right hand either uses fingers or a plectrum to strike the strings, producing the desired sound. 

Person playing a ukulele

Ukulele – The ukulele is a very small version of the guitar with only four strings. An argument can be made that the ukulele is the easiest of the stringed instruments to learn. Increasingly popular because of its size, portability, and recent inclusion in popular songs, the ukulele is an excellent instrument for young students who wish to make music but lack the size, strength, and skills to tackle guitar. Like acoustic guitars, the ukulele has almost all the same construction but tuned differently. It is played similarly as well, but requires far less strength and coordination to produce a sound. 

Banjo – The banjo is a very unique member of the string family. Banjos can come in 4-string, 5-string, and even 6-string versions. The body of a banjo is made of a wood and/or metal circular rim with a tensioned head made of synthetic materials, much like a drum head. This produces a very unique sound commonly found in country and bluegrass music. Banjos can be tuned in a variety of ways, and the versatility of the instrument rivals the guitar. It’s played similarly as well, either rested on the leg of the seated performer, or held by a strap around the body when standing. 

Mandolin – Mandolins come from the lute family of stringed instruments and consists of 3 types that include the round-back mandolin, arch-top mandolins, and flat-back mandolins. The arch top mandolin is commonly found in American folk and bluegrass music. Built with frets similar to a guitar and ukulele, the mandolin typically has 8 strings, in four groups of two tuned in unison. The mandolin is held and played similarly to its string relatives, with the left hand pressing the strings on the frets and the right hand plucking the strings or using a plectrum. 

Harp – One of the most unique stringed instruments of all, the harp, stands about 6 feet tall with 47 strings of varying lengths. The strings are tuned the same as the white keys on the piano. There are seven foot pedals which allow the harpist to change the pitches of the strings by half steps, so the harp can produce all the notes on the staff, including all sharps and flats. The harp is held in a seated position with the performer’s legs on either side, while leaning the harp gently on the right shoulder of the harpist, and played with the fingers and thumb plucking the strings to produce the sound. 

If you’re ready to take the first step towards learning a string instrument, then Forbes Music is here to help. We work to find prospective students the best teacher for their needs. Contact us today if you’re interested in taking advantage of all the benefits music has to offer.