Music, Styles, Instruments & the String Quartet

The urge to make music is ancient. We will never know when music began, for the first musical sounds must have been those of voices raised in primitive song. But eventually, people found that music can also be made with objects and the first musical instruments were born. They were simple constructions, the earliest known instruments being whistles made of hollow bones about 35,000 years ago.

Since then, people have invented all kinds of devices for making music. Yet all musical instruments played the world over, whether past of present and however primitive or complex, belong to seven main families of instruments. And these families are divided into acoustic and electric instruments.

Acoustic Instruments

Acoustic instruments are instruments in which the sound comes from the body of the instrument itself. The quality of sound therefore depends on the way it is handled by the performer. The enormous variety of sound that the best musicians can get from acoustic instruments enables them to produce music of great power.

There are five families of acoustic instruments: strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and keyboard instruments.

All string instruments contain stretched strings. To get a sound, the performer either plucks the strings or slides a bow across them. These actions make the strings vibrate and they give out sound. The vibrating strings cause the body of the instrument to vibrate as well, making the sound louder. String instruments include the violin, viola, cello and guitar.

String Instruments

The instruments of the string family can be divided into two main groups. The first group contains instruments such as the violin and cello that are mainly played with a bow. The second group contains instruments such as the guitar and harp that are played by plucking the strings.

The Violin Family

This family of instruments is widely played and they make up the string orchestra and string section of every symphony orchestra. Individually, they have a rich, noble sound while a full string orchestra has a wonderful soaring quality. The violin is the smallest member of the family. The others, in order of increasing size, are the viola, cello or violoncello, and double bass or bass. The violin and viola are held under the chin while the cello and double bass stand on the floor. All are normally played with a bow.

Each instrument has four strings except for the double bass, which may have five. The violin, viola and cello all have a bright full sound when played well. When you see string players in action, you will notice that they shake their left hands as they press on the strings. This produces vibrato, a variation in the note that improves the sound of the instrument. The may also use mutes which fit on the bridge and make the sound soft and silvery. Other effects used by string players are tremolo, when thy move the bow rapidly to and fro, and pizzicato, when they pluck the strings.


The Viols are bowed strings that were played before the violin family developed about 400 years ago. They are similar in shape and size, but have six strings and frets on the fingerboard. Frets are on the fingerboard that the player uses to find the right positions for the fingers. Viols are played upright, and they do not have as bright a sound as the violin family. You can hear them in concerts of early music. Viola de gamba is another name for a viol.


The violin is also a popular instrument with folk musicians in Europe and North America, who can play it with great dexterity. It is often called a fiddle instead of a violin. However, there are many kinds of bowed folk instruments similar to the violin that are known as fiddles. They vary greatly in shape and may have one or several strings. They are often played upright, resting against the chest or supported on a long spike.

How String Instruments Make Music

Most string instruments have a set of strings that lie over a fingerboard at one end of the instrument. The strings are of different thickness so that they produce different notes: the heavier a string is the lower the note that it sounds. The strings are stretched tightly between the bridge and the pegs at the end of the fingerboard. Stretching a string more tightly gives a higher note. The player tunes the instrument by adjusting the pegs until each string gives a particular note.

To play most string instruments, you use the fingers of one hand (usually the left hand) to press the strings down on the fingerboard. The notes that sound will depend on the length of string between your fingers and the bridge. The shorter the string, the higher the note. The other hand sounds the strings, either by using a bow or by plucking the strings. With string instruments, you can play one string at a time to give a tune or several strings at once to sound chords beneath a melody. A quartet is a musical compostition for four instruments or voices; also the group of four perfoormers. Although any music in four parts can be performed by four individuaals, the term has come to be used primarily in reffing to the string quartetazz, church music to classical.

The Violin The violin has four strings, stretching from the tailpiece across the bridge to the tuning pegs. The strings are normally played with the bow, but are sometimes plucked with the fingers. This is called pizzicato. There are several other effects the string player can use, including double-stopping – bowing two strings at once; tremolo – using short, quickly repeated movements of the bow; and con sordino – with a mute. A mute is a small comb clipped onto the bridge to damp the vibrations, muffling the tone.

The Viola The viola is slightly larger than the violin, and the strings are tuned fiver notes lower. The viola’s music is usually below that of the violin, where the tone is warm and rather dark. It can play quite high notes, well up in the violin rage, but the tone is less bright, less penetrating.

The Cello The cello is roughly twice as big as the violin, but is much deeper from front to back. The strings are longer and thicker, so that the notes are lower, and the tone full and rich. The cello used to be gripped between the knees, but towards the end of the last century a spike was added so that it can rest on the ground. The cello’s most characteristic sound is smooth and rich, yet penetrating.

The Double Bass The double bass has sloping shoulders. It is so large that the player must either stand up, or perch upon a high stool. The strings are very long and thick, so that the notes are very low. When played with the bow, the tone is rather ‘buzzier’ than that of the cello, but pizzicato notes are round and full.

Chamber Music

Much music written by classical composers is played by small groups of musicians. This kind of music is called chamber music because it is suitable for performance in a chamber or room. There may be from two up to a dozen or so musicians, and the composers treats them all equally. No particular performer features prominently, and in chamber music all the musicians play intently together. It is rather like a musical conversation in which everyone has something to say. An exception is music featuring a singer, but this is called vocal music rather than chamber music.

Orchestras known as chamber orchestras exist, but these are really small symphony orchestras. The most important kind of chamber group is the string quartet, which has two violins, a viola and a cello. Many professional quartets exist, made up of players who stay together a long time and often dedicate their lives to chamber music. This is important because the music has to be played with great sensitivity that only comes with people who know each other very well.

Most other professional chamber groups are made up of players who get together from time to time. Professional string quartet and other groups usually play in small concert halls to listening audiences. They tour a lot and also make broadcasts and recordings. Chamber music is ideal for small groups of amateur musicians. It is necessary to be able to read music well bu the music a be very enjoyable to play because each part is important. There may not be an audience but great pleasure is to be had from making music together.

String Quartets

During the second half of the eighteenth century there was an enormous increase in the amount of music intended for day-to-day entertainment. Besides music for dancing there was music to accompany meals, music to be listened to beneath the trees of the Pleasure Gardens – music, in short, to fill every social need. It is to be found under a variety of names: SERENADE, NACHTMUSIK, CASSATION, DIVERTIMENTO, and so on. Though the movements might borrow from symphonic forms (treating them in an appropriately more superficial way), simple dance patterns make up the generality. Such works are the equivalent of the Baroque dance suite.

By the same token, music written for small groups of solo instruments was also in great demand – music, that is, for the intelligent listener. The chief media for chamber music, replacing the Baroque string fantasia, trio sonata, and solo sonata, were the STRING QUARTET, the VIOLIN SONATA, and the PIANO SONATA. Each made use of the conventional sonata plan – the string quartet developing as a four-movement work, and the violin and piano sonatas as three-movement works.

The string quartet is by far the most important of the three. It developed alongside the symphony, sharing its general structure, but necessarily exploring a more intimate kind of music. The problem of thinking in terms of four equal voices (two violins, a viola and a cello) was a challenge that only the greatest masters could rise to. Shoddy thinkers soon revealed the poverty of their ideas in such exposed conditions.  Inevitably, then, the greatest contributions came from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Similar in structure and method are certain other combinations: notably, the mixed quartet (three strings and one other instrument – a piano perhaps, or a flute); the string trio (violin, viola and cello); the mixed trio (violin, cello, and piano); the string quintet (two violins, two violas, and cello); and the mixed quintet. Each combination had its attractions and posed its own problems, but for one reason or another failed to suggest itself to most composers as the perfect medium for intimate, searching musical thought. The honour fell to the string quartet.

Famous String Quartets
Aeolina Quartet
Alban Berg Quartet
Amadeus Quartet
Arditti Quartet
Hungarian Quartet
Italian Quartet
Lindsay Quartet

Famous String Music

J.S. Bach                           Violin Partita No 3 in E                                        1720
Paganini                             24 Caprices                                                       1805
Beethoven                         Violin Concerto in D                                            1806
Mendelssohn                      Violin Concerto in E                                            1844
Bartok                               Sonata for Solo Violin                                          1903

Berlioz                                Harold in Italy                                                    1834
Debussy                              Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp                           1916
Walton                                Viola Concerto                                                  1927

J.S. Bach                              Suite No 3 for Cello                                           1720
Tchaikovsky                           Variations on a Rococo Theme                           1876
Dvorak                                  Cello Concerto in B Minor                                  1895
Richard Strauss                      Don Quixote                                                     1896
Britten                                 Suite No 1 for Cello                                            1964

String Quartet
Haydn                                   Quartet No 81 in G major                                   1799
Schubert                               Quartet No 14 in D minor                                   1824
Borodin                                 Quartet No 2 in D major                                    1881

String Orchestra
Mozart                                   Eine Kleine Nachtmusik                                    1787
Tchaikovsky                            Serenade for Strings                                        1880
Mahler                                   Adegietto (from Symphony No 5)                       1902
Vaughan Williams                     Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis                  1910
Stravinsky                              Apollo                                                             1928
Barber                                   Adagio for Strings                                            1936

Famous Musicians

Kyung-Wha Chung
Stephane Grappelli
Arthur Grumiaux
Jascha Heifetz
Yehudi Menuhin
Itzhak Perlman
Isaac Stern
Pinchas Zukerman

Pablo Casals
Pierre Fournier
Mstislav Rostropovich
Paul Tortelier

Ray Brown
Gary Karr
Scott LaFaro
Charlie Mingus
Niels-Henning Oersted Pedersen

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