Writing for strings on a Keyboard

Throughout history, many composers have been primarily keyboard players yet have still written magnificent works for stringed instruments. They were able to do this by leaving the keyboard behind and gaining such a profound understanding of how a stringed instrument works that it was as if they were highly accomplished string players themselves. Many were associated with or had close friends who were famous performers and often concertos were written with help and collaboration from a specific player. One famous example would be the Brahms violin concerto which had much input from the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim.  The point behind this is that the great composers took a lot of time and often went to great lengths to gain knowledge of the workings of an instrument they did not play themselves.

The big problem with scoring music for say, a string orchestra on a piano or other keyboard is that the writer will be necessarily limited by their hand span. Therefore, chords will be written that feel comfortable within the span of the keyboard players’ hands, but do not necessarily relate to the end product when played on stringed instruments. This is particularly true when strings are incorporated into a larger track where they are only one element within the whole. Here, the spacings of the strings need to be measured against the existing harmonies and textures within the track – it may well be that in a certain passage, low cellos and violas are accompanied by very high violins leaving a massive gap in the middle. This would be perfect in a song which had a thick middle register, but if the pitch of the track suddenly changed, the strings would need to adapt and move with it so as not to leave a gaping hole in one of the registers. Potentially if this was written on a keyboard, the composer or string arranger may be limited by the way their hands naturally fall so intervals of e.g a major 10th which could be exactly what the music needed might not be written as it was awkward for the hand span of the keyboard player.

Another problem with arranging strings on a keyboard is that notes are necessarily depressed in a vertical direction as the keys are pushed downwards in a percussive way because the piano is a percussion instrument with ‘attack and decay’ in each note. This is not what is replicated on say a violin where the sweep of the bow and swing of the fingers can often take place in a more horizontal fashion, so a midi file played on a keyboard which is notated exactly for strings may end up with gaps between each chord that are not in keeping with the natural life and movement that strings would normally have. On a stringed instrument, a note can come out of the silence and fade in softly, growing and swelling before fading away – you cannot replicate this on a keyboard because on a piano, the note is always at it’s loudest at the beginning when it has just been played. Whichever instrument the composer writes on, they need a good knowledge of articulations and markings that are specific to stringed instruments, otherwise the music will lack detail and not come ‘alive’ when played. This can end up being a waste of resources as top session musicians are called upon to perform undetailed music that doesn’t lift the track as intended.

Perhaps one reason that synthesised strings (even the very expensive libraries) can sound so artificial is not necessarily the poor quality of the sampled sound but the fact that they have been composed and inputted by someone who is not thinking like a string player.

In the next blog I’ll be writing more on this subject as many people don’t realise that so much more can be achieved with strings when the composer gets away from the keyboard or midi and starts to think like a string player.