Rhythmic Detail in String Parts

I remember a colleague of mine saying that rock and pop arrangements for strings fell flat and didn’t seem to work, yet arrangements of other styles were often successful. I think the reason she said this was that many published arrangements fail to take into account the intricacies of the percussion (or drum kit), rhythms and regularity of accents which often fall on the second and fourth beats. Once these are taken out of an arrangement, the song does frequently sound dull and lifeless.

This doesn’t just apply to re-creating pop and rock covers for string quartet or string orchestra, but in any string arrangement where percussion is going to be absent or less prominent. Some bands or songwriters might want to experiment with recording a track that has no conventional percussion section, but replacing the rhythmic pulse with effects created on stringed instruments or an orchestra. In this way, the sound could be acoustic with very little electronic input, yet still retain all of the energy and impact of a standard rock and pop track. So what are the techniques a string arranger might use when orchestrating a self sustaining rock track?

There are four markings that can be added to notes to convey differences in length and emphasis.

Firstly, if dots are added (underneath or over the note heads), this would give a very short and spiky staccato feel to the music. Alternatively, the addition of lines to the notes give them a brushed sound with a greater length. I often write both a line and a dot to denote somewhere between the two, where the notes are separated but are a little bit longer than a staccato dot. This can be ideal for imitating rhythm guitars where essentially the note is plucked so is not fully legato.

Another marking which can replace the rhythmic drive of a drum kit are the accent (<) which can punctuate a note and if added to the second and fourth beats give the music it’s regular emphasis as a drum beat would. The final notation could be an ‘sfz’ which is an abbreviation of the word sforzando. This is a way of marking in a stronger accent and means a sudden loudness – I sometimes notate this with an accent to produce a much more violent, raw note which again when added regularly can give a really strong drive, particularly in a string orchestra.

In terms of instruments, these accents and rhythmic effects can be added to any of them but generally to give the feeling of the interplay between bass guitar and drums, would be used to best effect in the double bass and ‘cello sections (or the ‘cellos and violas in the absence of double basses).