There are more strings in the orchestra than all the other instruments put together, and they are very often at the heart of the music.
The strings family has four members – they all look the same but are very different in size and the sound that they produce. Each of the instruments has four strings, made from gut, steel or nylon, held in place by a piece of wood called the bridge.
They are played by drawing a bow across the strings or by plucking them. The bow is a long stick of wood that has hair stretched tightly across it. The hair comes from a horse's tail. When the hair on the bow is pulled across the strings the sound is made.
The four instruments that make up the strings section of an orchestra are the violin, cello, viola and double bass.
The violin is the smallest member of the strings family and is able to play the highest notes. The word 'violin' comes from the Latin word 'vitula' meaning stringed instrument. It is also sometime called a fiddle. There are more violins that any other type of instrument, and sometimes there are more than 30 in an orchestra. Violins get divided into two groups - first and second – with the first group often playing the melody.
The instrument's sound is high, bright and sweet. It is played by tucking it between your chin and shoulder. Your left hand presses down on the strings to change the pitch. Your right hand either plucks the strings or moves the bow. A standard violin is around 24 inches long and the violin bow is around 29 inches long.
The harp has the distinction of being one of the oldest instruments, dating back to more than 4000BC, and was played in Ancient Egypt and in Roman times. It has a big, triangular wooden frame, across which stretch about 45 strings stretch, from top to bottom. As these strings are all different lengths and thicknesses, they play different notes. There are 1 or 2 harps in an orchestra.
The harp strings are plucked by the harpist, so that they make a sound. At the bottom of the harp are seven pedals, which allow each string to sound three different notes. A standard harp is 6 feet tall and weighs 80 to 90 pounds.
This may look like a violin, but the viola has a larger body and longer strings. Its voice is in the middle of the range of stringed instruments and makes a deeper, richer sound. There are 10-14 violas in an orchestra and they have two important jobs to do: they play harmonies, but also get great solos from time to time. A viola can be played by bowing, plucking and can also be strummed!
Like the violin, you play the viola by tucking it between your chin and shoulder. Your left hand presses down on the strings to change the pitch, and your right hand moves the bow or plucks the strings.
A standard viola is around 27 inches long and the bow is 29 inches long.
The cello looks like a violin and a viola - but bigger. It makes a wide range of beautiful sounds, from warm low notes to rich high notes, and is regarded as being the closest sounding instrument to the human voice. There are 8 - 12 cellos in an orchestra.
You couldn't hold this under your chin! As a standard cello is around 4 feet long, it rests on a spike which sticks into the floor and is held between the player's legs and played with a bow.
To play it, you sit in a chair with the body of the cello between your knees, and with the neck of the cello on your left shoulder. The cello rests on the ground, supported by a metal peg. With your left hand, you press down on the strings to change the pitch, and with your right hand, you move the bow or pluck the strings.
The double bass is the biggest member of all the strings family. It plays a very deep sound, and its rumbly voice helps to keep the strings section of an orchestra together. It is also used in jazz, rock and roll, country and folk music ensembles.
It looks very much like an enormous cello. Like the cello, it is played standing on its end on a spike which rests on the floor. The sound is made by stroking the strings with a horsehair bow and the notes are changed by holding the strings down against the fingerboard. When standing up, the top of the double bass is about 6 feet off the ground. Unlike the cello player, who is sitting on a chair, the double bass player has to stand up, or to sit on a high stool.