Hello good people and welcome back to our orchestration series! Grab a fresh cup of coffee and get ready!
Strings are, and have always been the backbone of the orchestra. Good string writing can add a lot to a cue, whether you are scoring a fast-paced action movie or an over-the-top romantic scene. I will try to present the material as concisely and laconically as possible, giving you the essence without all the extra ‘syrup’!
A. Instrumentation Notes
Let’s get the basics out of the way so that we can talk about the interesting bits later!
1. Ranges and String Tunings
2. String Characteristics
Here are some of the most important characteristics of the violin, viola and cello strings :
- G3 :the thickest and most sonorous string of the violin
- D4 : has a mellow character, especially in the Eb4 – A#4 range
- A4 : the range A#4 – C5 presents the characteristic sound of the violin A-string. The range from C#5 upwards is particularly suitable for lyrical passages.
- E5 : has a ‘brilliant’ character; can be very effective in quiet and mysterious passages played piano
- C3 : the most characteristic viola sound lies in the C3 – A3 range.
- G3 – D4 : both suitable for non-obtrusive accompaniment lines due to their dark quality.
- A4 : suitable for melodic playing or for doubling melodies in woodwinds, trumpets (soft) and trombones.
- C2 : the lowest string of the cello is a rather sonorous bass and can be used to play basslines if a double bass in not available.
- G2 : the weakest cello string
- D3 : most of the lyrical, warm and greatly captivating melodies we hear being played on the cello are usually played sul D.
- A3 : a rather brilliant and piercing sound
3. Basic String Techniques
Strings are capable of producing a vast variety of articulations, ranging from soft legato to loud percussive sounds. The following table presents the most commonly used techniques any composer should be aware of :
B. Orchestrating a Melody within the String Section
Now that we got the boring stuff out of the way, it’s time to start tackling the real essence of orchestration. Get up, do some stretches, grab some fresh air and a fresh cup of your favourite beverage and let’s get started!
The string family is the most homogeneous family of the orchestra. Its four members blend beautifully with each other and when combined, produce a wonderful wall of sound. The old adage of “the sum is greater than its parts” is really applicable here. While each section sounds wonderful on its own, when you are after a the “Big Hollywood Sound”, you cannot go wrong by giving the melody to the strings playing in octaves.
In the following sections we will explore some of the most commonly used techniques for orchestrating a melody within the string section. These techniques are by no means exhaustive but provide a good starting point when you are pressed for time and need to get started right away. On other hand, for when you have plenty of time to experiment, remember that orchestration is not only following rules like 1+1=2; it’s all about creative imagination.
A final thing before we look at these techniques…bear in mind that there are three basic roles an instrument (or group of instruments) can have in an orchestration :
- playing a melody (either the main melody or counter-lines);
- playing the harmony (either as block chords or in counterpoint format);
- playing various effects here and there (trills, runs, crescendi, chord attacks etc).
Let’s explore the various ways in which strings can carry a melody.
1. Strings Carrying the Melody in Single Sections
- Violins : violins are the obvious choice for a melody in the soprano-alto register (G3 – C6). We have several choices when we want the violins to carry the melody alone : Violins I only; Violins II only (when Vln I are otherwise occupied); Violins I and II in the form of a dialogue and Violins I and II in unison or octaves (usually for extra strength).
- Violas : being slightly nasal in quality, are better suited for short melodies or phrases that exploit the characteristic viola sound. If the viola section is to play a melody in the alto-tenor register (F3 – A4) alone, it is best to double with woodwinds to help the melody come through.
- Cellos : Aside from melodies in the tenor register or basslines, cellos can be entrusted with passionate, cantabile melodies written for their top string (A3 – G5).
- Basses : While the obvious choice here is the bassline, basses can also play cantabile melodies. However, in this case it is best to double them with cellos, bassoons or contra bassoons to help the melody come through. The usual ‘role’ of arco basses is to double the cellos (either octave below or in unison) or play short notes or accents, strengthening the bassline played by the cellos.
2. Strings Carrying the Melody in Unison
As a general rule, the ‘safest’ doublings in unison are those of adjacent string sections (i.e. Vln-Vla, Vla-Vlc, Vlc-C.B, etc). Doublings of non-adjacent sections should be used on material that we want to be prominent because they usually have a distinctive character.
- Violins I + Violins II : Such a combination gives power and richness to the melody and leaves the colour of the instruments unaltered. A melody played by Vln I and II in unison is often doubled in some woodwinds to enrich and amplify the still prevailing violin tone.
- Violins + Violas : provides a full and rich sound but the violin sound prevails over the violas’.
- Violas + Cellos : again, provides a full and rich sound where the cello quality is prevalent. Cellos are sometimes doubled by the English Horn in unison for extra power.
- Violins (I+II) + Cellos : quite close in quality to the Vla-Vlc combination, but with a fuller sound. Again, the cellos can be doubled with an english horn.
- Violins (I+II) + Violas + Cellos : such a combination is only possible in unison in the alto-tenor register (F3-A4). It produces a unique tone colour that is particularly suitable for full piano passages and forte tense passages.
- Cellos and Double Basses : a combination used occasionally for phrases in the very low registers.
3. Strings Carrying the Melody in Octaves
- Violins I + Violins II playing 8vb : a common grouping, especially for melodies in the very high register that need ‘support’ to pull through an orchestration and not sound detached from the accompanying orchestra.
- Violins I + Violins II divisi : due to the splitting of players in half, this combination is not to be preferred when a full sound is what we are after. It can, however, be used when we want a transparently thin melody to be played in the background or when strings are doubled by woodwinds.
- Violins I+II + Violas playing 8vb : violas are usually added an octave below when the melody goes beyond the lowest (G) string of the violins. In such a combination it is rather common for Vln I to play the top line and Vln II + Vla to double octave below, thus giving the lower part a fuller sound.
- Violas + Cellos playing 8vb : when the violins are otherwise employed, we can use the violas and celli to play a melody in the alto register.
- Violins + Cellos playing 8vb : such a combination on melodies in the soprano-alto register ‘forces’ the cellos to play on the A or D strings which is particularly suitable for lyrical and expressive passages. It is a more ‘powerful’ combination than Vla+Vlc 8vb. We can also double the Cellos with Vln II in unison.
- Cellos + Basses playing 8vb : a very common combination, especially in basslines. When the bassline is too complex for basses, it is common for basses to be given a simplified version.
4. Strings Carrying the Melody in Octaves, Doubled in Unison
Such groupings are usually suitable for a melody that is in the middle of the orchestral range and is not doubled in other sections of the orchestra and we want it to be able to pull through the mix.The most common such grouping is Violins I + II in unison, doubled 8vb by Violas + Cellos in Unison that produces a full sound suitable for melodies with a ‘severe’ character that really want to make a statement. Another very common method of assigning the melody to the strings in octaves and unisons is to use divisi strings, but this is a topic we will cover in the next installment!
5. Strings Carrying the Melody in Two (Double) Octaves
- Violins I + Violins II 8vb + Violas or Cellos 8vb : this combination is useful in tense forte melodies.
- Violins I + Violins II 8vb + Cellos and Basses 8vb : particularly useful in ‘tough’ and sever musical passages when we want the lower register of each instrument brought forward.
6. Strings Carrying the Melody in Three and Four Octaves
- Violins + Violas 8vb + Cellos 8vb + Double Basses 8vb or in Unison with cellos : this combination presents several problems and should be used only when supported by wind instruments.
- Violins I + Violins II 8vb + Cellos 8vb + Double Basses : the BIG HOLLYWOOD SOUND!!! Great for soaring melodies that are supported by brass and woodwind harmonies.
- Violins + Violas 8vb + Cellos 8vb : another common arrangement for when we want the string orchestra to carry the melody alone.
7. Strings Carrying the Melody in Thirds and Sixths
- Strings in 3rds : each part of the interval should be orchestrated with strings of the same quality (e.g. Vln I + Vln II divisi).Also, each part of the interval can be further doubled in octaves.
- Strings in 6ths : in contrast to combinations in 3rds, when writing for strings in 6ths, we can use instruments of different timbres.
C. Orchestrating a Melody within the String Section doubled in the Woodwinds
As a general rule, all combinations of strings and woodwinds are good because the strings soften the sound of the woodwinds and the woodwinds amplify the sound of the strings so it is a win-win situation!
1. Combinations in Unison
As Mr.Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, the best and most natural combinations are those between instruments with corresponding registers :
- Violins + Flute, Picco, Bass Flute, Oboe, Clarinet. A very effective technique to soften a harsh violin melody is to double with a piccolo playing at a softer dynamic, in unison.
- Violas + Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Bassoon
- Cellos + Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Bassoon
- Basses + Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Contra Bassoon
2. Combinations in Octaves, Thirds and Sixths
Doublings of strings in octaves with woodwinds in octaves are common and can be used according to the combinations mentioned above. However, since they create a rather big wall of sound, they should only be used when a particular effect is desirable (such as tutti) rather than for an entire musical passage!
Another concept worth mentioning here is heterophonic doubling. This is Mr.Korsakov’s solution to the loss of transparency arising from doubling a melody in too many different instruments. Heterophonic doubling essentially means employing a slightly varied version of the melodic line in each doubling instrument. Variations can be of rhythmic or melodic nature, as long as the ‘essence’ of the melody remains unaltered.
D. Orchestrating a Melody within the String Section doubled in the Brass
Due to the ‘special’ nature of brass instruments, string-brass combinations are not as smooth as string-woodwind ones. In such combinations, each family can be clearly heard (e.g. in a violins-trumpets combinations, the listener can easily discern the violins and trumpets).
As with string-woodwind combinations, when we want to double strings with brass instruments it is best to choose instruments of ‘relevant’ registers :
- Violins + Trumpets
- Violas + French Horns
- Cellos + Trombones
- Basses + Tubas
However, since rules are being formed to be broken, one of the most beautiful orchestral sounds is Cellos + French Horns! These two families blend beautifully together; the cello adding a ‘mournfulness’ to the sound of the horn and the horn adding nobility to the sound of the cello.
String-Brass combinations are also useful when we want to make counterlines more present in an orchestration. For example, when a Viola or Cello countermelody is too weak, we can bring it out by doubling it with French Horns.
E. Orchestrating a Melody in Strings + Woodwinds + Brass
String-Woodwind-Brass combinations are usually employed in unison rather than in octaves and the woodwinds play the role of the ‘mediator’ between strings and brass, helping them blend better with each other. A melody doubled in all three sections is effective in loud passages and should again be used as a special fx rather than as a regularly-employed technique.
Are you tired yet? You can let out a very long sigh of relief…WE ARE DONE!!! At least for now!
At the next installment of the orchestration series we will look at ways in which we can orchestrate the harmony within the string section, including a discussion on divisi vs double-stop writing. Until then, stay well and seize the day!