|For thousands of years musicians have used many
different kinds of instruments which use strings, such as harps and lyres. The string
section has been a major part of the orchestra for 200 years; the "glue" that
holds the orchestra together.
There are two types of stringed instruments, bowed and plucked. Bowed strings are played with a bow, and are the violin, viola, cello and bass. Plucked strings include the harp, guitar, lute, mandolin, banjo, and others. The harpsichord also has strings that are plucked. The piano has strings that are actually hit by small mallets, so it is considered a percussion instrument.
Sound is made by plucking or bowing on a stringed instrument, causing it to vibrate. The tone and range from a stringed instrument depends on the size of the body, and on the length and thickness of the strings. The bigger the body of the instrument and thicker the strings, the lower the sound it makes, like a bass. A violin on the other hand, has a small body and strings which are thin, thus producing a high sound.
When we make a sound through our vocal chords, our throat, chest and head give strength and tone to the sound. The same thing happens with a string. A single string on its own makes a only a weak sound. The frame not only stretches out the strings, but is also hollow to conduct the sound. This makes it fuller and more powerful. The frame is usually made of wood, which is excellent for this purpose because it vibrates well. It is the construction of the frame, not the strings themselves, that give us the wide variety in stringed instruments. Sometimes, in countries around the world, stringed instruments also use gourds or the rind of a large fruit as a frame to stretch the strings over.
The strings were originally made out of cat gut, just as tennis racket strings used to be made out of. The point being cat gut is stretchable to special lengths, and makes an enjoyable, agreeable tone (agreeable to everybody but the cats surviving family, that is). The reason the violin companies stopped constructing violins in this order was that they produced a softer sound than could be heard in great concert halls.
Composer Rimsky-Korsakov emphasized to his students that instruments with strings have many more ways of producing sound than any other instrument group, with the ability to come from one shade of expression and passing to another better than other instruments.
The bow is essential to the violin, viola, cello and bass, for these four are played with the bow. How does this work?.
The bow consists of a stick, nut (sometimes called a frog), horsehair or nylon strands, and a tip (sometimes called a head). This add-on to the instrument is placed diagonal to it, and is pulled across the strings. This makes a smooth, continuous sound.
The horsehair (or nylon) strands are slicked down with rosin, which is most often made from the gum of pine trees. The gum (rosin) makes the hairs sticky so that they cling to the strings and cause it to vibrate, which in turn produces a pleasant sound.
Another way of producing a different kind of sound in bowed stringed instruments is to pluck the strings, which is called pizzicato.
© Copyright 1999 ERCHA.