Scoring for Strings:
Violin I | Violin II | Viola | Cello | Bass
One of the most amazing things about writing music for symphony orchestra is the sheer power, beauty, and possibilities of orchestral strings. With dozens of players making up the first and second violin, viola, cello, and bass sections — string writing and scoring literally defines most symphonic music. That said there are many issues to have in mind when writing for strings.
SYMPHONIC STRING ORCHESTRATION CONSIDERATIONS
- The entire string “choir” or section blends so well together that essentially writing for strings is like writing for one giant instrument from the lowest contrabass pitch (E, or C with the extension) to the highest notes and harmonics in the violins. You can find many ways to give these blended sounds other textures and add fullness to the writing, but when they all play arco (with or without the mutes) they mix together seamlessly.
- The colors and timbral variations available for strings are based on attack, bowings, effects, and other factors — but they should not be overused. In fact, layers of diverse timbres is often more effective than global performance directions.
- “Distribution of difficulty” is something that beginning composers and orchestrators don’t always take into account. If you have ridiculous challenging passages for the first violins, while the second violins, violas, cellos, and basses play whole notes — the whole passage can sound odd. There are strategic ways to get the same effect of the virtuosic top-line without taxing one part of the string section more than others. Obviously, the violins (as instruments) are more agile than the contrabass — so idiomatic writing is the key.
- Strings often get the immediate tag of “lush” and are often used only this way in writing and scoring. But strings can be “fierce, energetic, and heroic” as well if used correctly.
- And of course bowings, divisi writing, balance, dynamics, articulations, and parts and page turns (V.S.) are all special areas for attention when scoring for strings.
- Composers and orchestrators can learn a lot about string writing through study (and composition) of string chamber music. They possibilities and fullness of a string quartet (whether it’s Beethoven or Bartok), will greatly inform your writing for orchestral strings.
- Attention to detail is key! This cannot be stressed enough… Since the largest number of musicians performing your music or orchestration will likely be the strings you must make those written parts work very well, and make them very clear in terms of what you want. If you imagine a large modern orchestra hiring for example: 16-14-10-12-6 musicians, you could have nearly sixty string professionals playing your music – sixteen and fourteen first and second violins respectively, ten violas, a dozen cellos, and six contrabasses. The detail in the writing is so important!