When you look at a string instrument, the first thing you'll probably notice is that it's made of wood, so why is it called a string instrument? The bodies of the string instruments, which are hollow inside to allow sound to vibrate within them, are made of different kinds of wood, but the part of the instrument that makes the sound is the strings, which are made of nylon, steel or sometimes gut. The strings are played most often by drawing a bow across them. The handle of the bow is made of wood and the strings of the bow are actually horsehair from horses' tails! Sometimes the musicians will use their fingers to pluck the strings, and occasionally they will turn the bow upside down and play the strings with the wooden handle.
The strings are the largest family of instruments in the orchestra and they come in four sizes: the violin, which is the smallest, viola, cello, and the biggest, the double bass, sometimes called the contrabass. (Bass is pronounced "base," as in "baseball.") The smaller instruments, the violin and viola, make higher-pitched sounds, while the larger cello and double bass produce low rich sounds. They are all similarly shaped, with curvy wooden bodies and wooden necks. The strings stretch over the body and neck and attach to small decorative heads, where they are tuned with small tuning pegs.
Learn about each instrument in the string family:
Violin • Viola • Cello • Double Bass • Harp
Other instrument families:
Woodwinds • Brass • Percussion
The violin is the baby of the string family, and like babies, makes the highest sounds. There are more violins in the orchestra than any other instrument (there can be up to 30!) and they are divided into two groups: first and second. First violins often play the melody, while second violins alternate between melody and harmony. A typical-sized violin is around 24 inches (two feet) long, with a slightly longer bow. You play the violin by resting it between your chin and left shoulder. Your left hand holds the neck of the violin and presses down on the strings to change the pitch, while your right hand moves the bow or plucks the strings.
The viola is the older sister or brother of the violin. It is slightly larger, just over two feet long, and has thicker strings, which produce a richer, warmer sound than the violin. There are usually 10 to 14 violas in an orchestra and they almost always play the harmony. You play the viola the same way as you do the violin, by resting it between your chin and shoulder. Your left hand holds the neck of the viola and presses down on the strings to change the pitch, while your right hand moves the bow or plucks the strings.
The cello looks like the violin and viola but is much larger (around 4 feet long), and has thicker strings than either the violin or viola. Of all the string instruments, the cello sounds most like a human voice, and it can make a wide variety of tones, from warm low pitches to bright higher notes. There are usually 8 to 12 cellos in an orchestra and they play both harmony and melody. Since the cello is too large to put under your chin, you play it sitting down with the body of the cello between your knees, and the neck on your left shoulder. The body of the cello rests on the ground and is supported by a metal peg. You play the cello in a similar manner to the violin and viola, using your left hand to press down on the strings, and your right hand to move the bow or pluck the strings.
This is the grandfather of the string family. At over 6 feet long, the double bass is the biggest member of the string family, with the longest strings, which allow it to play very low notes. The 6 to 8 double basses of the orchestra are almost always playing the harmony. They are so big that you have to stand up or sit on a very tall stool to play them, and it helps if you have long arms and big hands. Like the cello, the body of the double bass stands on the ground, supported by a metal peg, and the neck rests on your left shoulder. You produce sound just like on a cello, using the left hand to change pitch and the right to move the bow or pluck the string.
The harp is different from the other stringed instruments. It's tall, about six feet, shaped a little like the number 7, and has 47 strings of varying lengths, which are tuned to the notes of the white keys of the piano. There are usually one or two harps in an orchestra and they play both melody and harmony. You play the harp sitting down with your legs on either side, with the neck of the harp leaning on your right shoulder. Each string sounds a different note (they come in different colors to help you tell one from another) and you play them by plucking the strings with your fingertips and thumb. Attached to the bottom of the harp are seven foot pedals, which change the pitch of each string and allow them to sound the pitches of the black keys on the piano.