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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Writing for Strings

The strings are one of the most versatile instrument families: Violins, violas and cellos are
as adept at providing sustained harmonic support as they are at executing rapid virtuosic
passages. As a result, they are used in almost all genres of music. This lecture will
explore the types of material best played by strings including conventions of notation.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

What to Write for Strings

The Material - Texture Model

From this point, we should adopt the following model when tackling any arranging task:


• Compose the material to be played by the given instrument(s):

o Melody

o Counter Melody

 Thumb line
 Obligato
 True Counter

o Accompaniment

 Pads
 Figures
 Riffs
 Ostinato

• Select the appropriate texture to apply to that material:

o Unison

o Octaves

o Homophonic Harmonisation

o Voiced in three or four part (depending on number of instruments

available) using:

 Closed position voicings

 Drop two voicings
 Drop two drop four voicings
 Complex voicings*.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Idiomatic String Writing

The term idiomatic is used to describe something which is characteristic of a specific

language; that is, a typical utterance. In the context of this class, idiomatic string writing
should be taken to mean the kind of musical material that strings usually play.

To best understand the capabilities of the string section, listening to and analysis of
idiomatic string writing is essential. Let’s explore some examples now.

You will notice from listening to these examples that strings are capable of playing
extremely virtuosic passages. This is not to say that you must attempt to write highly
complex passages for strings, it is simply to suggest that you consider writing string parts
that involve more than just long notes. Remember, accomplished strings players have
spent thousands of hours perfecting their technique: To place a page of long notes in front
of them is like asking Picasso to paint your bathroom. By the same token, you must
consider the available rehearsal time when arranging for any ensemble: If the available
musicians will be sight-reading, you may have to tone down your demands.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

How to Write for Strings

This section of the lecture outlines the range of common string instruments, conventions of
notating music for strings, and common string effects.

Range and Open Strings

Below is listed the range (without harmonics) and open strings for each common
instrument of the string family:
w w
G String D String A String E String

& w w
w w

w w
C String
w G String w D String
A String
B w w &

C String
G String w D String
A String
? w
w w &

w w
E String
w A String D String
G String
w w &
Double Bass

*Note 1: The Double Bass sounds one octave lower than written. All other strings sound
at the written pitch.

*Note 2: Be aware also that open strings have a different sound quality to stopped strings:
As open strings have no impedance to vibration, they sound richer and more stark that
stopped pitches. As it is impossible to apply vibrato to an open string, they sound ‘dryer’
than stopped pitches.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis


The placement of slurs in string parts greatly affects the resulting sound. For example, the
following passage for violin utilises no slurs: It will be played using a change of bow
direction for each note:

# j
& 44 ˙ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ ˙
œ œ

The resulting sound will include slight gaps (brief moments of silence) between each note.

In the following passage, however, the notes under each slur will be played with a
continuous movement of the bow, changing direction only at the point where the previous
slur ends and the new slur begins:

#4 œ œ œ œ j
& 4˙ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ ˙

Notice that in the third bar the slur does not begin until beat two. This is because it is not
usual practice* to articulate two or more consecutive occurrences of the same pitch with a
single movement of the bow.

When deciding where to include slurs, you must consider the tempo and dynamic of the
passage: Louder passages will require a faster, more pressured bow; the slower the
tempo, the fewer notes will fit under a single bow.


In order for a string section to play together with precision, string players must agree on
the direction of the bow movement at the beginning of each phrase. There are two
possibilities: an up bow ( ٧۷ ) or a down bow ( ).

Current arranging conventions recommend that marking of bowings is best left up to

performers, unless the arranger requires a specific effect. However, for your edification,
the general qualities of the two bowing types can be summarised as:

• Up bow
o Associated with ‘up’ beats, or anacruses.
o Less weight than down bow.
o Results in natural crescendo.

• Down bow
o Associated with ‘down’ beats.
o ‘Heavier’ than up bow
o Results in natural decrescendo.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Articulation, Dynamics and Descriptive Markings

Most strings players are trained through traditional methods centred on the performance of
works from the Western orchestral canon. As such, the focus of their learning is to
reproduce notated music as faithfully as possible. Unlike commercial musicians, who will
automatically apply idiomatic articulation and nuance even if it is not notated, orchestral
musicians (as a general rule) will play only what is written. It is up to the arranger, then, to
include all of the necessary information when writing for strings. Specifically, this includes
how each note is to be articulated, the volume of each passage, and the type of
expression with which to play the music.


> This symbol denotes an accent. It results in emphasis of the beginning of the
note it affects.

^ This is a hard accent. It places even more emphasis on the beginning of the note

it affects.

- This is a tenuto sign. It signifies that the note it affects is to sound for its full
length. (Remember that unmarked phrases for strings will be automatically
performed slightly detached).

. This is a staccato symbol. It signifies that the note it affects will be significantly
detached from the subsequent note. Be aware that this symbol does not mean
‘short’: the length of notes marked staccato is determined by the speed of the
passage; it is the resulting detachment that implies shortness of note.
Dynamics: While string players do not respond to dynamic markings any differently than
other musicians, it may be useful to review the order of dynamics (presented from softest
to loudest):

ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff.

There are some common combinations of the above dynamic markings, the most useful of
which is fp. A forte-piano usually accompanies an accented note, which demands that the
note be articulated at a high volume with attack, and then dropped immediately to a soft
dynamic. The forte-piano is effectively employed on notes of long duration. It is very
common to follow a fp with a crescendo for increased dramatic effect.

Note that dynamics are always written in italicised bold lower case. Also be aware that it is
best to reserve the more extreme dynamics (ppp and fff) for extreme (very rare)

A passage not marked with a dynamic will be played at the dynamic last played. It is
therefore not necessary to assign a dynamic to a phrase that is to be played at the same
volume as the end of the previous phrase.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Descriptive Terms: It can be very helpful to describe to string players the emotive
objective of a piece or phrase. These descriptive terms are written in italics beneath the
stave. Depending on the nationality of the composer (or publisher) it is not uncommon to
find such markings in orchestral scores written in French, German or Italian. It is common
protocol for arrangers throughout the world to communicate musical and descriptive terms
in Italian. Here is a list of common terms, their abbreviations and meanings:

a By
accelerando (accel.) Becoming gradually faster
agitato Agitated
animato Animated, spirited
con With
calmato Quieting, calming
cantible In a sung fashion
crescendo (cresc.) Becoming gradually louder
diminuendo (dim.) Becoming gradually softer
e And
espressivo (espress.) Expressively
giocoso Humorously
grandioso Grandly, majestically
gusto Style, zest
lamentoso Mournful
leggierio Light, delicate
maestoso Majestic
mezzo Moderate
misterioso Mysteriously
molto Very
moto Motion
niente Nothing, silence
passionato With passion
pesante Heavy
piu More
poco Little
ritardando (rit.) Becoming gradually slower
rubato Flexible tempo
sempre Always
simile (sim.) Continue in a similar fashion
subito (sub.) Suddenly
tranquillo Tranquil, quiet

*Note 1: While including terms of expression in your arrangements can prove helpful in
communicating mood and intent, overuse of such terms is pointless: Only include
descriptive terms if you think it will help the performer understand how you want a phrase
to be played

*Note 2: The term ‘normale’ should be used to cancel a previous term of expression; to
instruct the player to return to playing in a regular fashion.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Common String Effects - Pizzicato

Pizzicato is the technique whereby the string is plucked rather than bowed. This effect is
notated by writing the abbreviation pizz. above the stave where the effect is to begin. To
cancel pizzicato, the term arco (bowed) should be used. It is essential that you leave
ample time (about 1 second) for a player to move between arco and pizz. playing. It
is also essential to consider that playing pizzicato greatly reduces the speed at which
pitches can be sounded; one cannot pluck a string repeatedly as quickly as one can draw
a bow. Pizzicato passages are also significantly quieter than if they are played arco.

Common String Effects - Tremolo

Tremolo is created by alternating rapid strokes of the bow for the given duration of the
note. It is notated by crossing the stem of the note (or below the note if it has no stem)
with three parallel angled lines. Below is an example of tremolo notation:

æ æ æ j æ
œæ œæ œæ æœ œ™ œ ˙æ
& 44 æ˙ ææ ææ
œ œ
ææ ææ
œ œ œ
æ æ

Common String Effects – Multiple Stops

Multiple Stops is the name given to the technique of sounding more than one note
simultaneously on the violin, viola, cello or double bass. Arrangers who are not overly
familiar with the orchestral strings should use caution and common sense when writing
multiple stops: Above all, the physicality of these instruments must be considered.
Double stops are those in which 2 notes sound simultaneously. Triple stops are those in
which 3 notes sound simultaneously. It is possible for advanced players to produce rapidly
arpegiated quadruple stops, but they are beyond the scope of the requirements of most

The easiest (and therefore most reliable) double stops are those that utilise one open and
one stopped string. Double stops using 2 stopped notes are possible, but the strings
required must be adjacent and the finger span demanded must be physically possible.

Similarly, triple stops are quite easy if two of the required notes are open strings. If only
one string is open and the others are stopped, the arranger must ensure the stopped notes
are possible within the bounds of a normal hand span. Triple stops requiring 3 stopped
notes are quite difficult, and their use is not recommended to inexperienced arrangers.
Note that, to combat the natural arc of strings, the bow must be applied with greater
pressure than usual when playing triple stops. Therefore, triple stops are difficult, if not
impossible to perform at a soft dynamic.

Ultimately, it is the players themselves who know the most about the capabilities of their
instruments: I strongly urge you to consult a string player before including any multiple
stops in your arrangements.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Common String Effects – Sul Tasto and Sul Pont

Sul tasto and sul pont are effects of tone colour that require musicians to bow in unusual
parts of the strings. String instruments are usually bowed in the area between the
fingerboard and the bridge. Placing the instruction sul tasto above a passage asks that it
be bowed further down the fingerboard, toward the nut of the instrument. The resulting
sound is darker and warmer than usual. Placing the instruction sul pont above a passage
asks that it be bowed closer to the bridge of the instrument. The resulting sound is rich in
high, wild, uncontrollable upper partials. The sound derived from sul pont might be
described as ethereal, or eerie.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Common String Effects - Harmonics

Harmonics can be described as the isolated overtones of a complete tone. They are
generally pitched quite high and have a ‘dry’, somewhat ‘glassy’ timbre. There are two
types of harmonics available to strings players; natural and artificial. Natural harmonics
are those created using open strings; all others are artificial harmonics.

An understanding of harmonics must include an understanding of the harmonic series.

When an open string of a violin is bowed, notes other than the fundamental note are
heard, with varying degrees of audibility: Those closer to the fundamental are more easily
heard than those further away. These ‘other’ notes are called overtones. Thus, inherent
in the sounding of a violin’s open G string are the following overtones:

œ œ œ œ
& œ
The order and ratio of this pattern of intervals of overtones is called the harmonic series.

These overtones sound because the vibrating of a violin string is not just a single wave
pattern, but the conglomerate of several waves of different wavelengths vibrating
simultaneously. The following diagram demonstrates the harmonic series as individual
waves. When a violin string is set vibrating, each of these wavelengths occur


1st overtone – sounds an octave above fundamental

2nd o.t. – sounds a perfect fifth above the 1st o.t.

3rd o.t. – sounds a perfect fourth above the 2nd o.t.

4th o.t. – sounds a major third above the 3rd o.t.

5th o.t. – sounds a minor third above the 4rd o.t.

6th o.t. – sounds a minor third above the 5th o.t.

The point at which a wave cycle ends and begins again is called a node.

To create natural harmonics, the string player bows while lightly touching the string at a
node. This prevents the fundamental and other overtones from sounding, leaving only the
overtone at the node touched audible.

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

The position of nodes correlates to the division of a vibrating string: The node found at the
midway point of a vibrating string will isolate the 1st overtone; the node found at the 3:1
division (from either end) of a string will isolate the 2nd overtone; the node found at the 4:1
division (from either end) of a string will isolate the 3rd overtone. Use of harmonics
above the 5th overtone is not generally recommended as they are difficult to
produce, and therefore significantly less reliable.

To notate a natural harmonic, simply indicate the desired sounding pitch with a small o
(found in the fourth numerical keypad menu in Sibelius) above it:

œ œo
& 44

On none of the orchestral stringed instruments are all 12 chromatic pitches available as
natural harmonics, as only those inherent in the harmonic series of each open string are
possible. To create harmonics other than these, a player can ‘stop’ a regular note with
one finger whilst using another to touch a node at an appropriate division above the
stopped note. The resulting harmonic will sound relative to the ‘new’ length of the stopped

For example, if an open D string is touched at the 3:1 node, an A one octave and a fifth
above will sound. If an E flat is stopped on the D string (a semi-tone higher), the length of
the string is essentially shortened. If the player then touches the node point 3:1 (according
to the ‘new / stopped’ string length), a B flat one octave and a fifth will sound: This is an
artificial harmonic.

The strongest and most commonly used artificial harmonics are those at the 3:1 and 4:1
nodes (of the stopped note).

To notate an artificial harmonic, you must:

• Indicate the ‘stopped’ note using a regular note head

• Indicate which node is to be touched using a hollow diamond note-head
• Indicate the desired sounding pitch using a stemless note-head in brackets.

bœ ˙ œ
& bbœO Ȯ œO

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

To notate an artificial harmonic in Sibelius:

• Create the sounding pitch note in voice 1 using notehead type 8 for a stemless
• Use the second numerical keypad menu to change them to cue sized notes and
add brackets.
• Create the ‘stopped note’ in voice 2 and add the ‘node node’ above.
• Change the ‘node note’ to a hollow diamond notehead (notehead type2).
• To ensure only the harmonic pitch sounds during playback, select the notes in voice
2, and uncheck ‘play on pass 1’ in the properties window.

In order to correctly notate artificial harmonics the arranger needs to know the correlation
between node ratio and notated pitch. The following table shows the interval above the
open string required to notate the specified node:

Node Interval Above Stopped Pitch Interval of Harmonic above Fundamental

2:1 1 Octave 1 Octave
3:1 Perfect 5th 1 Octave and a Perfect 5th
4:1 Perfect 4th 2 Octaves
5:1 Major 3rd 2 Octaves and a Major 3rd
6:1 Minor 3rd 2 Octaves and a Perfect 5th

*Note 1: Harmonics and multiple stops are more cumbersome to produce than regular
notes: For this reason I recommend that you use them sparingly for effect: Avoid rapid or
moving passages that demand the use of harmonics or multiple stops.

*Note 2: The term ‘normale’ should be used to cancel a previous effect; to instruct the
player to return to playing in a regular fashion. The exception to this rule is the
cancellation of the pizzicato effect, which is indicated using the term arco (bowed).

For a more thorough treatise on string effects (including notation), consult either:

• Blatter, A 1997, Instrumentation and Orchestration, 2nd edn, Schirmer Books, New
York. (In my opinion, the best general orchestration text available)

• Strange, P and A 2001, The Contemporary Violin: Extended Performance Techniques,

UCP, California. (An extremely comprehensive text on extended string techniques)

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Folio Task 6A: Writing for Strings (Draft)

• A leadsheet (with additional information) for Carole King’s It’s Too Late can be
found on Moodle. It is to be used for this assignment.

• You are to arrange this piece for:

o String quartet - violin 1, violin 2, viola and violoncello

o Rhythm section - guitar, piano, bass and drums (stipulate whether the
required guitar and / or bass are electric or acoustic)
o Solo voice or instrument - your choice.

• Your arrangement is to follow the form prescribed by the leadsheet. You do not
have to use the DS al CODA map – you may through compose your arrangement if
you wish.

• This assignment is to create an original arrangement of the song, not a

transcription. This said, you are encouraged to listen to recordings of the song to
gain ideas.

• You must write and notate for the rhythm section in the ways studied last semester:
The rhythm section must be integrated into the arrangement using slashes, slashes
with stems (figures) and traditional notation.

• The melody is to be assigned to the solo voice or instrument.

• The string quartet component of the arrangement will consist primarily of

accompaniment to the melody. Consider the types of accompaniment we have
previously discussed, including counter melody, ostinato, ‘pads’, figures, etc.

• You are expected to use several textures in the strings: Choose from unison,
single-part harmonisation and four-part harmonisation (closed and open).

• You must include slurs, articulations, dynamics and descriptive terms (if
appropriate) in your score.

• These assignments will be played (using Sibelius) and discussed next week in

• Submit electronically only, using only your student number as the file name. Do
not include your name anywhere on the score. This is to ensure anonymity
when assignments are examined in class.

• This assignment must be submitted by 4:00pm on TUESDAY September 2nd.

Aim to submit a complete draft by this time, but you must submit something. Failure
to submit a draft by this time you will attract a 10% penalty on Folio Task 6B
(Writing for Strings Final).

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Higher Education

MUS205 Arranging Principles 2 and Music Analysis

Strings Vs. Rhythm Section

A string quartet, even when adequately amplified, cannot compete with the
volume of a rhythm section that includes an amplified bass and an amplified guitar
in a performance setting. Sibelius does not portray this adequately. You should
create space in your rhythm section writing to allow the string section to ‘shine’.
You can do this by:

• Thinning out the texture (taceting instruments)

• Using appropriate dynamics (p in rhythm section, but f in strings).

Pizzicato is a particularly soft effect, and should be reserved for very quite,
spacious moments.

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