In today’s lesson we are going to look at last major family of instruments, the string family (chordophones – instruments that produce sound by vibrating a string).
There are three main types of string instrument: bowed (played with a bow), plucked (pulled), and struck (hit with ‘hammers’ or beaters).
The first group of instruments we will look at are the bowed strings – specifically, the orchestral strings that make up the viol family.
From left to right (smallest to largest): violin (x2, in this picture), viola, violoncello (usually abbreviated to cello), contrabass (often called double bass).
Unless they’re all next to each other so you can see the size difference, it can be very confusing to tell some of these instruments apart. However, you can get a very basic idea with this video (ignore the harp for now):
As a composer (somebody who writes music) I do a lot of string writing myself. I would like to share some with you today so you can hear the string section in action! Here is a song I wrote for a film a few years ago, for piano and string quartet (two violins, one viola, and one cello). It’s called The Dancer.
In this composition I only used 4 bowed strings, but orchestras often use 60, which results in a different sound texture. Check out the first two minutes of this next video, and then skip to 15:56 to hear some other ‘techniques’ (ways of playing string instruments), for example: tremolo (fast repeated notes), pizzicato (plucked, like a guitar).
Here’s another song of mine called Amor Fati. This one also features a guitar and a double bass alongside the piano and string quartet. That’s six different instruments altogether, some of which produce very different sounds: piano, guitar, violin (x2), viola, cello, and double bass. You only need listen to the first four minutes or so. When you get to 2:48 listen carefully – can you hear the string quartet playing pizzicato (plucked)?
Another string instrument that is a common feature of modern orchestras is the harp. These are plucked rather than bowed. See one in action here (watch to 2:38, then again from 5:27 to 5:57).
It’s common for bowed instruments like the violin to be plucked, but less common for plucked instruments to be bowed. It is possible though! Here’s a rare but famous example of a bowed guitar, by Sigur Rós (starting at 1:48).
Of course, guitars are usually played with fingers – the left hand presses down strings, which makes them sound higher by shortening the length of the strings, while the right hand pulls the strings to make them vibrate, which is what produces the sound.
We’ll come back to electric guitars soon. First, let’s see the original, acoustic (non-electric) guitar. Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquín Rodrigo is an example of the acoustic guitar being played in classical music.
Acoustic guitars are also used a lot in flamenco music – a type of folk music from Spain – like this song by Cameron de la isla and Paco de lucia, called Bulerias.
Here’s an acoustic guitar playing a completely different type of music, with a cover of Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd.
Electric guitars work much the same way as acoustic guitars, except they can go through amplifiers to make them much louder and to add effects. This means it’s possible to make it sound nothing like an acoustic. Here’s a song called Violet Hill by Coldplay, which uses a acoustic guitar and an electric guitar.
The bass guitar is an electric guitar which is much lower sounding and has fewer (four) strings. In bands it often has a supporting role (rather than being a lead instrument), but here’s a solo which shows off what it can do!
And here it is in a band setting in the song Hysteria by Muse, which voted the best bassline of all time! The bass in this song is heavily processed with effects to make it sound like a synthesiser, but it is a live bass (contains flashes).
There are too many guitar-like instruments for us to look at all of them here, but here’s one more before we move one: the ukulele, which is like a small guitar with only four strings. Here’s a mashup of Stairway to Heaven and Fuer Elise by ukulele virtuoso Taimane.
Finally let’s look at some struck strings. These aren’t as varied as their bowed and plucked counterparts, and really consist only of piano and dulcimers. The piano is very commonly used, and we’ve covered that in previous lessons, but dulcimers aren’t seen that much in bands or orchestras.
Dulcimers works in much the same way as a piano, except the performer hits the strings with the ‘hammers’ themselves instead of using keys. Here’s some traditional music on the Santouri (Greek hammered dulcimer). If the performer uses soft hammers it sounds very similar to an upright piano, but usually dulcimer hammers are a harder than those used in pianos. The result is a more metallic sound than the piano.
Have a quick look at how it works here, just for a minute or so.
And here is a full CD so you can hear it in better quality (just a couple of minutes is fine).
Although the dulcimer isn’t used as often as other string instruments in music we hear in the UK, electronic musicians do occasionally use it in their tracks to great effect. Here’s one such track by Four Tet (one or two minutes is enough).
And another by Lamb (again, one or two mins):
If we continue doing video lessons next term, we will look a bit more at traditional instruments from other countries then.
Now you’ve been introduced to the string family, let’s see how many you can pick out in these songs! Some are quite long, you only need to listen to 3 or so minutes from each but can listen longer if you’re enjoying it!
In this song, Primavera by Ludovico Einaudi, the entire orchestra is made up of string instruments – how many different types can you find?
Which string instrument is being played here in this song by George Formby called “When I’m Cleaning Windows”?
Is it just me or does it sound like he’s singing “When I’m Cleaning Winders?” 😁
One of mine written for a film – there’s no video here so you’ll just need to use your ears. Can you guess which 3 string instruments are playing in this song?
Which four string instruments that we’ve looked at can you hear Resist by the band Rush?
What are the two string instruments heard here in Fratres by Arvo Pärt? (just need
This song – Blurred by Kiasmos – is an example of orchestral instruments being used in electronic music. Which string instruments can you hear?
Finally, how about this song by the Beatles, called Here Comes the Sun? You’ll need to use your ears for this one!
I hope you enjoyed looking at the different instrument families this half term! Here’s the answers for this lesson.
- Primavera is written for piano, harps (which you can see but are quite hard to hear on this recording), and string orchestra (violins, violas, celli, and double basses).
- George Formby was a famous ukulele player.
- One Last Time features piano, guitar, and viola (you can also have a point if you said cello instead of viola, since they sound quite similar and have the same range it would be extremely difficult to tell the difference. You can also have a point if you said violin – again, the sounds is similar but a violin can’t actually play notes that low).
- Resist featured acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and – if you listen very carefully to the beginning – a hammered dulcimer.
- Fratres, by the minimalist composer Arvo Pärt, is performed here on piano and violin. This composer is also very well known for the song Spiegel im Spiegel (for piano and viola), which you may recognise.
- Blurred is built around a piano and violins.
- Here Comes the Sun features lots of strings: acoustic guitar, electric guitar,and bass guitar, as well as orchestra strings: violas, celli, and a double bass. You can also have a point if you said violin.
Have a lovely Easter!