Orchestrating for Strings – Techniques and advice

The string section is considered by many to form the backbone of the modern symphony orchestra and it’s easy to see why. Stringed instruments are the one section that can play for an extended period of time and still sound complete. Many orchestrators, arrangers and composers tend to write the core of their music for strings, with the woodwind often creating additional interest in the high registers and the brass thickening up the texture in the more climactic passages. This was turned on its head in the late nineteenth century when composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler expanded the palette of the orchestra by laying more emphasis on the wind sections, but generally a lot of melodic interest will still occur in the strings.

When writing for strings then, context is everything. If writing a soundtrack for a large scale film with epic scenes, then the amount of strings used will be on a large, orchestral scale. If writing for a historic drama set in the days before orchestras became quite so large, then the more intimate sound of a chamber orchestra may be more appropriate. On smaller budget projects, or when trying to create a more intimate feel then a chamber ensemble or even a string quartet could be perfect. Here are the typical sizes of string sections in each:

Symphony orchestra: 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, 10 double basses

Chamber orchestra (size will vary according to repertoire): 8 first violins, 6 second violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double basses

Chamber Ensemble (difficult to define but probably no more than 12 players in all): 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 double basses

String Quartet: 1 first violin, 1 second violin, 1 viola, 1 cello

If the players in the recording sessions have exceptionally good tone and phrasing, they can make even a small string group sound complete and rich. ‘Fullness of sound’ however more often stems from in the skill in the writing itself. Very often, session string players are presented with orchestral parts to record that have many passages written in unison or octaves without much inherent harmony. This is a shame as it doesn’t make the most of the professional players who will end up recording the music in the studio. The sonorities of stringed instruments best emerge when they are blended together and this is most effectively achieved through different instruments taking on different pars of a given chord.

Here are eight tips for getting the best out of a string orchestra:
1. To get the biggest sound from your musicians you need to write really full harmonies. This means that in major and minor tonalities all three notes of the chord should be represented in the main and for diminished or seventh chords four notes. For more complex harmonies this can of course be increased.

2. It may sound obvious, but make sure that each individual part can be taken out and played as a distinct melody in its own right. So instead of writing ‘vertically’ in blocks of chords on a keyboard, think of writing ‘horizontally’ as each player would naturally play their individual line of music. This will make for interesting bass lines and inner parts as well as opening up the possibilities for counter melodies and engaging interaction between parts.

3. When writing for a smaller number of musicians, composers in the past have created greater impact through the use of arpeggiation. If you break up a chord of say, three notes and play it as an arpeggio on a single instrument, this one instrument will in effect give the impression of three because it will play all three notes of the chord. In this way, the sound seems instantly a lot fuller as well as giving inner parts (such as the second violins and violas) more movement and dynamic interest.

4. Always keep it varied and change the textures regularly. This is where knowledge of string techniques (slurrings, staccatos, accents, spicattos, harmonics, double stoppings, etc.) becomes helpful. For composers who are non string players themselves, it may be worth employing a specialist string arranger or copyist who can help with this. Many of the great composers of the last 2 centuries worked collaboratively with string players when writing and developing pieces which were written with particularly prominent string solos.

5. Understand what it’s like to play the piece you are writing on a stringed instrument. Imagine you’re a pianist and a composer who played say, a flute sent you a solo piece to record. When you put the music on the stand, you might find that all of the notes were in the treble clef range of the flute, that there was a complete absence of chords and everything was in a single line. Part of you would probably feel that the composer hadn’t fully exploited the potential of the piano. And you’d also feel that with a greater understanding of the instrument the piece of music could have been so, so much better – and so it is with string orchestras. What works well on a keyboard as a string ‘patch’ or ‘pad’ does not necessarily work so well with real instruments and scores produced in this way via midi may not even be physically playable. When writing chords for stringed instruments (and they can play up to four notes that sound simultaneous, though spread) composers need to bear in mind that the strings are tuned a fifth apart (and a fourth apart on the double bass).

6. Experiment with the spacing of chords and harmonic writing. ‘Closed chords’ are ones where each note is adjacent to the next. ‘Open chords’ however are when the notes are spread out (leaving gaps between them) and this can affect the texture and sonority of the string writing considerably. Experiment with clustering the notes close together near the bottom of the violin range (so that the violins, violas and cellos are close together), then try writing for the violins and violas close together in a high register with the cellos and basses close together in a low one (so with a sizeable gap between the two). Both will create very different effects, the first being a dense and clashing sound and the second capable of sounding very ominous and uneasy (listen to Jean Sibelius’s orchestral tone poem ‘Tapiola’ for an excellent example of this).

7. In point 4, the need for detailed scoring (including articulations) was briefly mentioned. When orchestrating for strings, composers can really exploit dynamic markings. Knowing how to use crescendos and diminuendos can create powerful and stunning orchestral effects. The use of a well judged subito marking (where the dynamics suddenly change to loud or soft) can add real drama to a score. As can an awareness of the difference between an sfz (sforzando) and an accent. The more knowledge composers gain of these, the bigger their sound palette becomes and the more interesting the music can sound.

8. Once a composer has a good grasp of articulations and dynamics, then they can move into the realms of more advanced string techniques such as the different harmonics (both natural and artificial), left hand pizzicatos, ricochet bowings and up-bow staccatos. A great example of modern string writing combined with weird and wonderful combinations of instruments occurs in Bela Bartok’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’.

When it comes to recording, composers have the option of using mainly, synthesized strings, hiring a real orchestra or the increasingly popular choice of a combination of the two. Many film and television soundtracks are now created using a background carpet of synthesized strings with a few very good professional players layered over the top to sound more convincing and to enable the composer to exploit the many sounds and effects which are only possible with the real thing.