Scoring for the String Orchestra

A standard string section offers five independent groups: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and basses. Any of the instrumental groups may be divided, although this is not always advisable with the basses. When arranging music with a four-part harmonic texture (SATB), there are numerous doubling possibilities.

  1. The soprano line is often doubled an octave higher by the first violins, and the bass line is doubled an octave below the cellos by the contrabasses.
  2. For a full texture both inner lines might be doubled an octave above. However, it is not often advisable to double just one of the inner parts and not the other.
  3. The soprano line might be doubled an octave lower in the cellos divisi.
  4. Assigning both the alto and tenor lines to the violas divisi is usually weak.
  5. The range and difficulty of the music and the players’ ability are important factors in most scoring decisions.

The orchestrator should rely on the natural dynamics found in various registers of the instruments for best balance and mixture (i.e., a viola can be placed above the violins in a texture where it has the prominent melodic content, and the result will be very effective and striking). A theme given to the cellos in their upper register will dominate the ensemble if the violins and violas are in middle or low registers. The string section is more forgiving of wide spaces between voices than are the wind sections, due to the rich overtone content of the string timbre.

Several segments of orchestral scores are included in the Excerpts in Score, illustrating exemplary string section scoring. Refer to:

  1. "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," W. A. Mozart
  2. Overture to Der Freischutz, C. M. von Weber
  3. L’Arlesienne, Bizet (note cello range)
  4. Symphony No.5, Beethoven
  5. Symphony No.6 (Pathetique), Tchaikovsky


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