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Musical Elements

Performing Media | String Instruments

Peter Kun Frary


A musical instrument is a device used to make musical sounds. Musical instruments have existed since the dawn of our species, but materials used for construction, e.g., animal skins, bone, wood, etc., were not durable and, thus, few artifacts have survived across the untold millennia. The oldest musical artifact, the Divje Babe Flute, dates back 67,000 years and is believed to have been made by Neanderthal man.

Guitar | Honybal Sosa in the Leeward Theatre | The guitar is the world's most popular plucked string instrument.

Instrument Classification

Western musicians group instruments into six categories: strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, keyboards and electronic. These categories are based on a mishmash of playing technique, construction materials, sound production and tradition. The advantage of this system is the terms and instruments are familiar to most Westerners.

Hornbostel-Sachs System

Ethnomusicologists use the Hornbostel-Sachs system to classify instruments according to how sounds are produced, a consistent and logical system insofar as describing diverse instruments. This system divides instruments into five main groups: idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, aerophones and electrophones. The disadvantage of Hornbostel-Sachs is few people outside of ethnomusicology understand the quasi scientific terms used to classify instruments.

We'll examine each of the above instrument categories in detail during the next few sessions.

String Instruments

The string family encompasses a huge array of instruments but all have one thing in common: sound is created by a vibrating string set in motion by fingers, bow or pick. Ethnomusicologists classify these types of instruments as chordophones (literally, string-sounds). The string family is divided into two broad categories: bowed and plucked. Bowed string instruments create sound by drawing a bow across the strings and include instruments like the violin, viola, cello, double bass and rebab (spiked fiddle). Plucked string instruments create sound by plucking the string and include instruments like the pipa, koto, guitar, mandolin, ukulele and harp.

String instruments, like brass and wind instruments, are often produced in multiple sizes, roughly approximating SATB vocal ranges. For example, the guitar family includes the bass guitar, baritone guitar, guitar, requinto (alto) and piccolo guitar (soprano).

Japanese Women Playing Koto and Biwa c. 1815 | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Both the koto and biwa are chordophones.

String Instrument Techniques

Techniques significant to the unique sound of string instruments include: vibrato, harmonics, double stop, tremolo and pizzicato.

Vibrato is created by pressing the string on the fingerboard and rapidly shaking or rocking the finger. This technique causes the pitch to fluctuate slightly sharp and flat, thereby enhancing and sweetening the tone. Observe the vibrato, i.e., left hand shakes, in video below:

Torija (Torroba) | Peter Kun Frary

Double stop is the technique of playing two notes simultaneously; triple stop means three notes are played, and so on. It is a difficult technique on bowed instruments such as violin or cello but relatively simple to execute on guitar or ukulele. Triple stops begin at 0:16 in the video below:

Billie Jean (2:11) | Michael Jackson (1899-1963) | Barcelona Guitar Trio & Paquito Escudero (percussion)

Harmonics on string instruments are high pitched bell-like tones created by touching, but not pressing, a string at nodal points. Listen while I play harmonics on my guitar (last five notes):

Guitar c. 1790 | Jean-Baptiste Champion (active 1783–1808) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Late 18th century guitar with 5 courses (5 doubled strings), gut frets and ivory fiction pegs.

Tremolo is created by repeating notes with rapid down-up bow strokes in the violin family or repeated strokes with a finger or pick on plucked string instruments such as the guitar.

El Ultimo Tremelo (3:25) | Augustin Barrios (1885-1944) | Kyuhee Park, guitar

Pizzicato means to pluck the string with a finger. This term is used for instruments normally played with bows. Guitars, mandolins, ukulele, harps, etc., are always played pizzicato!

Cello Pizzicato | Portland, Oregon | Although he is holding his bow, this street cellist is using his left hand fingers to pluck the strings.

When bowed instruments such as the violin are plucked, the resulting tones are soft and short in sustain:

Bowed String Instruments

In classical European music, string instruments played with a bow—a stick with horse hair strung across it—belong to the violin family and include the violin (soprano), viola (alto) cello (tenor/bass) and double bass. Bowed string instruments, along with the guitar and lute families, were introduced to Europe from the Middle East during the Middle Ages.

Rebab (Persian, Kamanche), c. 1860 | Metropolitan Museum of Art

The rebab, or spiked fiddle, is a bowed chordophone invented in Persia (Iran) during the Middle Ages. It quickly spread across the Middle East, Europe and Asia, taking on many forms and variations. The rebab is played upright like a cello but small enough to be held on the lap. It was known in Europe as the rebec and remained popular well into the Renaissance, eventually developing into the viol and violin families of bowed chordophones. Although the rebab has faded from Western use, similar instruments are popular in Asia and the Middle East. In China the rebab developed into an instrument known as the erhu (二胡).

The Great Race (4:40) | The Hsu-nami | Modern Chinese erhu (二胡) music.

Violin | Wikimedia Commons | Most violin part names are the same for the cello, viola and double bass. The cello and double bass lack the chinrest but have a peg leg or spike for use on the floor.

Listen to Mr. Visontay discuss the role of the violin, its sound and technique:

Violin (8:39) | Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay introduces the violin.

Cellist Tina Guo | Photo courtesy Tina Guo | The cello is the bass member of the violin family.

Here's the traditional sound of the solo cello:

Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 (2:34) | J. S. Bach (1685-1750) | Tina Guo

Oogway Ascends (4:30) | Tina Guo | from Kung Fu Panda | Fancy East meets West video with Tina Guo playing both cello and rebab.

The sound of the entire violin family playing together is a more blended sound than a orchestra of mixed instruments—like a string choir—and was a popular combination in Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque eras:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3: 1. Allegro (6:01) | J. S. Bach (1685-1750) | Voices of Music


chordophone, vibrato, tremolo, harmonics, double stop, triple stop, pizzicato, rebab, erhu, guitar, violin, cello, viola, double bass, Hornbostel-Sachs system

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved