Notations: The Blog of Composer Malcolm Caluori

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Stuff You Never Knew About Music: Violin Strings

Competant orchestration comes with many joys. I simply love the fine details marked in a score that indicate things that people just wouldn't even think about! This is what "Stuff You Never Knew About Music" is all about.

I'm sure you could figure out that the four strings of a violin (or any of the instruments in its family) plays the low notes on the low string (G) and the highest notes on the high string (E), and moves from the lower strings to higher strings as the music gets higher, right? But did you know that sometimes a composer will specifically indicate that a passage of music be played on a particular string? You may have heard of Bach's "Air on the G String" (the violin piece, not a fan blowing a bikini). Why would a composer do this?

Well, firstly, a violinist can play most notes in more than one way, unlike a piano where you can only make middle C sound if you hit the ONE correct key on the keyboard. If for example, a violinist wishes to play the F on the top line of the music staff, it can be played on ANY one of the four strings. The lower strings simply require that the hand move further up the fingerboard in order to make the string short enough to produce the higher note. Simple enough, right? But the question is "why"?

Primarily, there are two reasons. Did you ever think about the fact that since the lower strings are thicker than the higher strings, yes they all sound like a violin, but they each have their own subtle character. Without analyzing them individually here, let it be broadly stated that a thicker, wound chord of catgut (like the lowest string, G) will generally produce a ... fuller ... richer sonority than a thin string (like the highest string, E, which is practically a wire). Makes sense.

But if you recall that playing a particular passage of music on a lower string requires your hand to move up the fingerboard to a higher "position", thereby shortening the string, you will instantly understand that a short string vibrates much faster than an "open" string, and thereby tends to express a much more intense energy in its sound than if you played the very same notes on a higher string but with the hand in a lower position. Get it?

Since there is not usually only one way to play a passage of music on a violin, the performer is generally free to sort through the available options when playing through the music, in order to facilitate the easiest or most effective manner to do the job. But, sometimes the composer will specifically ask for a passage to be played on a particular string, in order to ensure a particular intended result.

Other reasons include the fact that, since the fingers are also used to create vibrato, by wiggling the hand while playing a note, if you play a note on an open string, where the fingers are not used, then you cannot produce vibrato. This dry effect is sometimes also specifically intended, and so a performer will be instructed to play the note without vibrato, or on the open string. But this is also another time that the sheet music might ask for playing on a lower string. If, say, a passage contains alot of E's, or sustains a held E for a while, and the composer does NOT want that dry sound of the open string to interrupt the continuity with the other notes in the passage, but wishes to ensure that a pleasant vibrato may be sounded, then he will be sure to mark the music so that the passage is played elsewhere than on the E string, so that the fingers must always be used. Did you ever think about that? Very clever.

5:23 am edt          Comments

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