What Kind of String Instruments Are There?

The string instrument family is among the most virtuosic and versatile set of instruments in the orchestra. String instruments are plucked, bowed and strummed to create their characteristic sound. Composers, musicians and audience members alike should be able to discuss the instruments of the string family to gain a better appreciation for the music they enjoy.


The guitar is used in popular, folk and jazz music.

The guitar comes in many forms. There are electric guitars, acoustic guitars and even sitars that are used in ethnic music. Guitar instruments produce their sound through plucking the individual strings. Bows are not used on guitars, as the front of the guitar is flat and would not support the curvature of the bow.


The violin is known for its extreme range and ability to carry a melodic line.

The violin is the string instrument capable of playing the highest notes in the orchestra. In terms of vocal range, the violin is considered to be the soprano of the bowed string family. It can play several octaves above the staff and has a combined range of more than four octaves.


If the violin is the soprano of the bowed string family, the viola is the alto. The viola plays just below the violin and, like the violin, produces its sound by pulling a bow across the strings. The curvature of the viola body makes this possible by allowing the instrumentalist to rock the bow back and forth to create sound.


The cello is the second-largest bowed string instrument.

The cello is considered the tenor of the bowed string family, and it plays an octave below the viola. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma has helped to promote this mellow instrument's popularity. The cello is significantly larger than the viola and uses a standard to help support the instrument.


The bass is the largest bowed string instrument.

The bass is the lowest instrument in the bowed string family and correlates to the bass in a choir. This is the only transposing string instrument and sounds an octave lower than written. The bass is often used in jazz ensembles plucking out the bass line or in orchestras to support the low brass and provide a foundation for the strings.


Harps have been used for centuries for their powerful bass and lilting melodies.

The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments. When people think of the harp, they're often reminded of Ireland. However, historians don't actually know the origins of this instrument except that it has been used in several different locales including England, Mexico and even the Middle East. This instrument is capable of playing melody and harmony simultaneously due to the user's ability to use two hands to pluck the strings.


UreMusic: Instrumentation [http://uremusic.com]

Alison Vardy: Harp History [http://www.alisonvardy.com/harp-info/early-harp-history.htm]

Adler, Samuel: The Study of Orchestration [http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-97572-7/]


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