Instruments of the Orchestra: The String Family | Sunday Observer

Instruments of the Orchestra: The String Family

14 February, 2021

Continued from last week…

As most of you study music we decided to have a look at the compostion of an orchestra and its instruments. Srimal Weerathunge, Musical Director of the Gustave Mahler Society takes you on this musical journey as part of the Society’s musical education program.


Even though the roots of the Violin can be traced to the Middle East and Asia, the closest instrument to the violin we see today was made by Andrea Amati in the northern Italian city of Cremona during the 1500s. This skill was passed down to his grandson Nicolai who later passed it down to his students Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri. They went on to make some of the greatest existing violins, which sell for millions of dollars at present.

The violin is the smallest and the highest sounding instrument of the string section. It has four strings which are tuned to the notes G, D, A, E (lowest to highest). It violin has a chinrest which helps the player to hold the instrument in place. Violin is played with a bow (arco) and the strings can be plucked with player’s fingers (pizzicato)

Music for the violin is written in the Treble Clef. A person who plays the violin is called a 'violinist'. Violins are often divided in to two sections as 1st violins who usually carry the sweet melodic lines and 2nd violins who collaborate with the 1st violins in beautiful harmony; However, these sections play different roles at the hands of different composers of different styles and eras.

While playing a major role in the orchestral setting, composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky among others have written brilliant solo repertoire for violin.



The viola is slightly larger than the violin and sounds much lower and darker than the violin. It also has four strings tuned to C, G, D, A (lowest to highest). Its lower strings give the viola its characteristic sound. The viola also has a chinrest and is held the same way as a violin and is played using a bow or by plucking the strings. Music for the viola is written in the Alto Clef but it also uses the Treble Clef when playing in higher registers.

A person who plays the viola is called a 'violist'. In early music the viola played more of a supporting role within the string section. However the viola writing evolved significantly with the later composers, starting from Beethoven to Elgar, Mahler and others. Some of the well-known solo repertoire for the viola were written by composers such as Bartok, Hindemith, Bruch, Walton among others.


The cello, also called the violoncello is significantly larger than the violin and the viola. It has four strings tuned to C, G, D, A (lowest to highest), one octave lower than the viola.

The cello is held between the player’s legs and it has an 'endpin' which extends to the ground to support the instrument. The cello is always played seated.

The cello, which is generally used as a bass instrument, has a very wide performing range and is capable of reaching the high range of the violin.

Hence, the music for the cello is written primarily using the Bass Clef but also uses the Tenor and Treble Clefs depending on the playing register.

The introduction before the famous Tenor aria E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s opera 'Tosca' is a brilliant example that demonstrates the range of the instrument.

A person who plays the cello is called a 'cellist. The cello was used as a bass instrument and also in a rhythmic purpose, often reinforced by the double bass by most composers of the Baroque and Classical period. Composers, however like the viola. The cello also started to acquire a more versatile role in the orchestra from the late classical era.

Apart from some of the most beautiful orchestral music, Cellists are also blessed with a massive range of Solo repertoire ranging from Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites to Haydn Concerti to Elgar’s deeply moving Cello Concerto.

Cello Double Bass

The double bass or contrabass is the largest instrument of the String family. It is played standing or seated on a high stool/chair. The double bass has four strings tuned to E, A, D, G (lowest to highest) but some instruments are capable of reaching down to a low C either with an extra string or using an extension to the E string. It also has an endpin to support the instrument.

Low C extension

It is also the only transposing instrument in the String Family, because the double bass sounds one octave lower than the written pitch. Music for the double bass is written using the Bass Clef. It is also played with a bow or by plucking the strings. The Bass bow is comparatively larger and shorter than the bows of the others.

The tuning pegs of Double Bass consist of special locking mechanisms to be able to hold the tense large strings once tuned.A person who plays the Double Bass is called a 'double bassist' or a 'Contrabassist'.

The double bass is frequently used as a bass instruments, in fact in basses used to play the same part as cellos from Baroque era into the Classical era. Beethoven was among the very first composers who started writing separate parts for the double basses and is also known for the extensive double bass writing in his Ninth Symphony. Gustav Mahler also wrote a notable passage for solo double bass in the 3rd movement of his first symphony.

Concerti by Dragonetti, Vanhal and Bottesini are frequently performed solo repertoire for the instrument.