MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

MT: Tuesdays 11:10 - 2:05 in Room 6-170
UR: Thursdays 6:05 - 9:00 in Room 6-170

Instruments Guide: Strings
This unit will cover some info on the family of modern bowed string instruments. Here at the top of the page there is a video lecture that covers the material the way I usually would in class.

In case you don't want to rely on the video presentation, the same info is laid out for you below in text with individual video examples that you can click on at your own pace.

After you've looked at all of this it is time to do Exercise 11 which is a mix of reading comprehension-type questions and listening questions.

Video Lecture

The Violin Family

Starting in the Baroque we start to see the emergence of what we consider to be the modern violin family. The old viola da gamba of the Renaissance (meaning "viol for the legs") recedes and the more familiar viola da bracchia (the "viol for the arm") becomes popular. This is what we now simply call the violin.

A Renaissance-style viola da gamba

A Baroque-era violin made by Stradivari, 1703

The most famous maker of violins, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was active in the Baroque, and surviving 18th-century instruments are highly valued by professional musicians and collectors today.

The Violin

I feel like we are all at least somewhat familiar with the violin, the main workhorse of Classical music. It covers the high end of the musical spectrum.

Here is the violinist Jenny Koh playing a work for solo violin written by J. S. Bach.

The Viola

The viola is the larger, deeper and more mellow cousin to the violin. It covers the middle of the musical world.

In this clip Maria Strojniak is playing a Modern piece for viola by Igor Stravinsky. This includes lots of double-stops, places where she must play on two strings simultaneously.

The Cello

The cello (or violincello) is of course the member of the violin family that is usually played sitting down. It has a range that is very similar to a male singer.

Here is famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the first movement from Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No. 1.

The String Quartet

Starting in the Classical period (1750-1820), the String Quartet becomes a very popular format for music. This is a standard combination of two violins, viola and cello. Both Haydn and Mozart actually played in quartets with their friends, and they wrote dozens and dozens of pieces for this kind of group. One could argue that the string quartet was one of the most important influences shaping the way composers wrote and thought in the Classic period.

Here is the Argus Quartet playing some Haydn.

The Orchestra

Now let us look at the layout for a typical symphony orchestra. The core of the group is still four string sections - first and second violins, violas, and cellos. One could argue that an orchestra is really a string quartet made large, with whole sections of musicians playing a part that would have only been covered by one musician in the string quartet.

For this reason, it is sometimes possible to play a piece written for string quartet with a large orchestra and vice versa.

[It would be really cool if I had a clip here that flips back and forth between string quartet and a full symphony orchestra]

The Double Bass

Of course, we can't completely ignore the double bass. This is the largest and deepest member of the string family, usually played standing up (or sitting on a high stool). The double bass (or contrabass) was originally used in the orchestra to play the same notes as the cellos, only an octave lower. This "beefs up" the bass line and makes it sound more substantial.

I made this fake cello line on my computer:

And here it is with imaginary double basses added. As you can hear, it becomes a little more exciting.

In more modern orchestral music the basses often act independently from the cellos, but their essential doubling function is still pretty important.

Because the double bass plays so incredibly low, it tends to sound a bit muddy and unclear when played by itself.

Special Techniques: Vibrato

Many of our classical-type instruments are capable of creating a wavering effect called vibrato. This makes the sound oscillate up and down a little bit in both pitch and intensity. Musicians seem to think that notes with vibrato sound more "human," like an opera singer.

Here is an internet demo showing how string players roll the fingers on the left hand back and forth to create the effect of vibrato.

In the 1950s and 60s it was fashionable for string players to play with lots of vibrato, all the time. Here is an old-school clip from the Julliard String Quartet (with two guests) where they really pour on the vibrato.

In more recent decades string players have discovered that vibrato can be more effective if it is used sparingly. Here is a clip from the the Salomon Quartet where they play with a mostly straight tone.


At the beginning of this course we learned that the violin family belongs to the category of "bowed strings." However, sometimes it is fun to pluck them with your fingers instead of using the bow. This is called pizzicato playing (and playing with the bow is technically called arco.)

Here is a string quartet by Modern composer Ravel that alternates between pizzicato and arco.


One more special effect that is easy to create with string instruments is the tremolo, which involves moving the bow back and forth as fast as possible to create a "nervous" sort of sound. Here is a mashup I made of two internet videos - the first is a guy explaining how to do tremolo and talking about a particular moment in Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. It then fades into the real symphony so you can hear how the tremolo strings contribute to the overall sound.

Telling the difference between string instruments by ear

We will experiment with identifying violin, viola, cello and double bass by ear. This is usually just an issue of distinguishing between high, medium, low or super-low sounds. To make it easier I will limit the number of choices for each question, so rather than guessing between all four options there will only be two.

OK, now that you are an expert on violins and such it is time to do Exercise 11. I would strongly recommend opening this link in a new tab so you can flip back and forth between the exercise and this reference page.