How to write for Orchestral StringsYour Adventure with Strings

Do you love the sound of orchestral strings? From emotional solo strings playing beautiful lead melodies that are full of crystal clear expression…to big powerful motifs and themes with a full string ensemble…to lush and dynamic chord progressions with smooth and lyrical movement…all the way to rhythmic performances like comping, ostinatos, runs and arpeggios…

In this course, you will learn how to master the use of orchestral strings in your music compositions.

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  • Learn the Foundations & Guidelines
  • Explore the Sounds & Playing Styles
  • Discover Practical Tips & Secrets
  • Get Live Examples & Demonstrations
  • And Master the Beauty of Strings

My name is Mike, and I am a composer.
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I started making music back in 1998. And I love to educate, motivate, and inspire creative people, like yourself.

If you are ready to master orchestral strings for your music compositions. Then take action, and begin your learning adventure, right now!

The Amazing Beauty of Strings

Strings are the most expressive and versatile instrument family ever created. This means you can play strings in a huge number of performance styles. You can add expression, movement and variation in countless of ways. And the end result can be anything from big, bold, powerful and evil sounding…to mysterious and magic…to driving energetic intensity…to tear-jerking emotional beauty…The creative power you have as a composer, when writing for the strings family of instruments, is truly incredible.

Strings are so fundamental for orchestral and cinematic music, that I would consider it the most important instrument family to learn and master as a composer. Why are strings so amazing for music composition? Here is my personal top list of the power of strings:

  • Very Balanced Sound
  • Highly Expressive Tone
  • Amazing Dynamic Range
  • Very Agile & Adaptable
  • Super Flexible Legato
  • Beautiful Vibrato
  • Articulation Heaven

You will learn all these aspect in depth and details in this course, from guidelines, practical tips, demonstrations and live examples. But I want to start by giving you a couple of live examples of just how amazing strings can be for your music.

Rhythm on Strings

You can play strings from very percussive short notes, to powerful accented notes, to long vibrant sustains. This means that you have great flexibility in writing rhythmic performances on strings.

Here are some examples of Rhythm on Strings:

  • Light Pizzicatos
  • Runs & Arpeggios
  • Driving Ostinatos
  • Rhythmic Harmonies

You can also add so much variation with note lengths, articulations, dynamic phrasing, transition control etc. This makes strings very agile and adaptable to create any type of rhythmic groove and performance. Let’s check out a complete live example of rhythmic arrangement played on strings.

Harmony on Strings

Whenever you want to write chords and harmony in orchestral and cinematic music, strings will probably be your first choice. Simply because they have such an amazing dynamic range to create movement and motion curves with. And that the tonal balance in the instrument family is so consistent, which makes the arrangement of the voices much more coherent.

Here are some examples of Harmony on Strings:

  • Full Chords
  • Backing Harmonies
  • Melodic Harmonies

If you want to open up the true potential of writing chords and harmonies on strings, you want to separate the voices into individual tracks and instruments in your DAW. Meaning basses, cellos, violas and violins 1 and 2. Because that means you can add individual variation in tone, performance techniques and expression on a track per track basis. This is in my opinion when strings show their true beauty and emotional expression. Let’s check out a complete live example of a chord progression played on strings.

Melody on Strings

When you use strings for your leading melodies, themes and motifs, you can really open up the full tool box of articulations and playing styles that strings are so famous for. The most important aspects of expression being: dynamics, legato and vibrato.

Here are some example of Melody on Strings:

  • Powerful Motif
  • Main Theme
  • Leading Melody

Your leading melodies, themes, motifs etc. should in almost all cases be the point of focus and attention to the listener. That is why layering is so important when arranging your voices on the strings family. Most common is that violins 1 and 2 play the leading melody voice an octave apart.

If you want a darker tone, you might for example have the cello and viola play the main theme together. And you can also choose to layer harmonies instead of octaves. Sometimes even in unison, even though that is more common when layering against other instruments outside the string section. Let’s check out a complete live example on a main theme played on strings.

The Strings Family

As with all main sections of an orchestra, the strings family is divided into specific ranges suitable for each instrument. I personally divide instruments by their focus range: Low, Low-Mid, High-Mid and High. This is my range guide for the orchestral strings family:

  1. LOW: Double Basses
  2. LOW-MID: Cellos
  3. HIGH-MID: Violas
  4. HIGH: Violins 1 + Violins 2

Now let’s explore the different instruments in the strings family.

Double Bass

This is the grandfather of the string family. At over 6 feet long (180cm), it is a huge instrument, and the long strings makes it possible to play very deep notes.

The role of the double bass is almost always to provide to tonal centre of the harmonic progression, meaning the root note of the chords.

Tuning: E1, A1, D2, G2 (lowest string often tuned down to C1)

Common Range: C1 to G4

Cello (violoncello)

The second lowest register in the string family is the cello section. At around 4 feet (120cm) it is like the double bass, too big to hold. Both the double basses and the cellos stands on the floor, supported by a metal peg.

The role of the cellos is very often to support the double basses, by playing an octave above the double basses. This creates a stronger and more focused low-end.

However, the cello has an amazing range, and they can be used very effectively to play melodies or counter melodies with an amazing warm and lush tone.

Tuning: C2, G2, D3, A3 (same tuning as violas, but 1 octave lower)

Common Range: C2 to A5

Violas

The viola is the older sister of the violin. Slightly larger, and with thicker strings, than violins. An interesting aspect of the viola is that the tuning is actually too low compared to the physical size of the instrument, when compared with the tuning vs size of the double basses, cellos or violins. This forced lower tuning creates a very unique, sharp and characteristic tone.

The role of the violas is usually to provide the middle harmony voice of the chord progression, and rarely takes the role of the leading melody. Basically to fill out the chords, as harmonic support. Perhaps this is why the violas has a somewhat less glorious reputation than the rest of the string family.

Tuning: C3, G3, D4, G4 (same tuning as cellos, but 1 octave higher)

Common Range: C3 to A6

Violins

The violin is the highest register instrument in the string family. The violins are so important in the orchestra, that they are divided into two sections, called: 1st Violins and 2nd Violins. And together the violins have the most players of any single instrument in the whole orchestra. 

Often these two violin sections play together in the same co-operative way that double basses and cellos play together. Meaning, doubling each other in octaves, or sometimes playing in harmony.

For example: the 1st violins section playing the leading melody, and the 2nd violins adding some extra crispness and focus by doubling the line an octave higher.

The role of the violins is most often to be the shining spotlight in the string family of the orchestra. They usually play the leading melodies and all parts that are in focus, mainly because our ears focus on higher frequencies more than lower. And we tend to love those shimmering, crisp and silky high tones that the violins create.

Tuning: G3, D4, A4, E5

Common Range: G3 to A7

Dynamics

What dynamic level you play with on your performances on strings, and how you change it over time, is one of the most fundamental ways to add expression and change the tone of your string parts in your composition. Let me give you my top tips on dynamics on strings:

  • Always add Dynamic Movement
  • Use the Entire Range (ppp to fff)
  • Arcs, Crescendos and Diminuendos
  • Articulations focusing on Dynamics
  • Dynamic Variation on Short Notes

Voice Leading

The importance of voice leading is always important in music. But since strings have an amazing ability to smoothly flow from note to note, I would say voice leading is extra important on strings compared to the other instrument families in the orchestra. Here are some of my top tips for voice leading with strings:

  • Avoid Chords below C3
  • Space out the Voices
  • Shorter Intervals for Flow
  • Top Voice is the Focus
  • Use Transition Chords
  • Contrary Motion for Interest
  • Double the Bass & Melody

Expression

Strings are capable of so much diversity in expression. In my opinion, they have the most expressive versatility of all instrument families, unless you count the human voice. There are of course countless of ways you can add expression by all the various articulations you can play on strings, but here are my personal top tips to add expression to your performances:

  • Dynamics
  • Legato
  • Vibrato
  • Accents
  • Articulations

Sound Design

How can you design the overall tone and character of your strings? Let’s explore some of the most common sound design options.

  • Section Size
    Solo vs Small Ensemble vs Full Orchestra
  • Acoustics and Microphones
    Room Size, Placement and Microphone Mix
  • Stereo and Depth
    Stage position, Extra Reverb, Panning
  • Production and Mixing
    EQ/Filtering, Compression, Saturation and Production Techniques
  • Bonus Tip – Layering
    Sample Libraries, Presets, Articulations, Tonal Characters etc.

Now go ahead and practice all these aspects to design the sounds of your strings. And remember that you can control both the individual strings, as well as the mixing bus for the entire string group.

Assignment – Sound Instinct

Congratulations! You have now learned the core fundamentals, guidelines, sounds and colors of strings in music. Now it’s time for your final assignment of this module. Because in order to level up and evolve as a music composer, you will have to develop a good ear for music and sound by listening and analyzing professional productions.

Your Assignment – Sound Instinct
Your assignment is therefore what I call “Sound Instinct”. Meaning listening to music with your full attention, and analyzing everything that is going on. In this case your focus will of course be emotional music. Make sure to listen to as many details you can hear in the music.



I will now give you a list of great examples of specific compositions focusing on an emotional vibe in the music, which you can use as a starting point for this exercise:

Music Compositions for Sound Instinct Assignment

  • The Lord of the Rings – Concerning Hobbits (Howard Shore)
    Which features a light solo violin vs lush string melody. Listen to the interplay between flute vs violin. And how the lush strings come in for support and variation.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean – He’s a Pirate (Hans Zimmer)
    This composition focuses on very energetic and rhythmic strings. Ostinato spiccatos vs bold staccatos.
  • The Da Vinci Code – Chevaliers De Sangreal (Hans Zimmer)
    Extremely passionate, moving and expressive strings, mainly driven by backing rhythmic strings vs a soaring main melody.
  • Main Theme from Schindler’s List (John Williams)
    Beautiful and emotional solo strings. Very Strong vibrato, and the theme includes some big intervals which makes it more memorable.
  • Harry Potter – Hedwig’s Theme (John Williams)
    This theme features very agile and intense strings. Full of fast runs and phrases, which shows how much energy and flare strings are also capable of.
  • Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (Ludwig van Beethoven)
    A very powerful motif, that is probably one of the single most famous musical motifs of all time. It also has many agile string phrases, and the entire composition is full of variations and lots of contrasts. Overall it has an amazing dynamic range as well.

Now go ahead and do this ear training exercise to develop your ear and instinct for how strings can be used in music compositions.

Master the Articulations

How you play the music, has more impact, than what notes you play. This is something I teach over and over, since it is so incredibly important for you to learn as a composer. Meaning the playing style, performance techniques and instrument articulations. From variations of short note articulations…to variation and movement in your long notes…to special color and/or tension articulations.

We are now going to explore all the fundamental articulations and playing techniques in the strings family. These are the articulations you will see in software instruments and sample libraries for strings.

And since music is all about variation, movement and ornaments, you should learn how to use all types of articulations. And you should train yourself to not be lazy as a composer and only use legato for one track and spiccato for another. Because there is so much variation you can add to your musical phrases to add expression and emotion.

We are now going to explore all the fundamental articulations and playing techniques in the strings family. So let’s continue your journey in strings, right now!

Percussive Articulations

Let’s explore Percussive Articulations. Now I call these articulations “percussive”, even if not all of them truly are. But the end resulting sound has that sharp attack, and you can not let it sustain since it just fades out naturally after the attack. Here are the most common Percussive Articulations:

Col Legno

Striking the strings with the wood of the bow, for a percussive effect. Often used as powerful accents and stabs. Very useful in combination with true percussion. It can even be used for creating a driving groove with this articulation.

Pizzicato

Plucking the strings with your fingers instead of using the bow. Has a very light sound, and the release of the sound is very short compared to let’s say an acoustic guitar or even a harp. This is perfect for light rhythmic parts.

Bartok Pizzicato

This is also known as “Snap Pizzicato”. It means that you are plucking the strings so hard that they hit the wood of the instrument, creating a dramatic percussive effect. It becomes sort of a noisy tuned percussion sound, which makes it great for accents.

Short Articulations

Now let’s explore some of the most common short note articulations on strings, which are great for rhythmic parts, accents, and fast phrases.

Richochet

A bouncing bow stroke in which the bow is thrown on the string and allowed to rebound and bounce again, several times, either in the same direction or toward a different bow direction. Great for very fast repetitions, and super short notes, since it has that short almost percussive sound.

Spiccato

Playing very short notes by lightly bouncing the bow on the strings, but in a controlled fashion compared to a richochet. It also has one note per bow stroke as opposed to richochet. This articulation is perfect for driving ostinatos and short note phrases.

Staccato & Staccatissimo

Playing short notes which are sharply detached, meaning the performance includes space in between each note. Staccatos are great for adding an accent in a driving ostinato, or use for rhythmic comping.

Staccatissimo is basically a shorter version of a staccato. Perfect as a way to add variation in note length in a short note phrase.

Long Articulations

Now let’s go through some of the most common long note articulations. An important aspect of long note articulations is the dynamic level and change in beginning of each note. You can then add an expression curve over the duration of the note.

Sustain (Arco)

The normal bowed sustaining note, played with no legato. Sometimes called “Arco” which means “play with bow”.

Legato

Playing the transition between the notes so that it is smooth, with blurred note attacks. Basically connecting the notes with a smooth flow. There are many different types and lengths of legato, from slur to finger legato, all the way to portamento. The fundamental articulation for lyrical voice leading and leading melodies.

Vibrato

A slight pitch variation above and below a note. Adding anything from light, to medium to heavy vibrato to the sustained note.

Marcato

An accented note (heavy accent), with a sharper attack than the surrounding notes. Excellent for powerful motifs and accents.

Sforzato

This is a very strong accent. A variation of this articulation is sforzando, which is the loudest and strongest accent you can add. Both of these “accent” articulations can be great for powerful motifs, or whenever you want a very strong accent.

Fortepiano

Starts the note on a loud fortissimo dynamic, and immediately dives down to piano dynamics. Good when you want to emphasize for example a chord change.

Tension Articulations

Now let’s explore some articulations that can add tension, intensity and energy just from their sound and playing style.

Harmonics

Playing the harmonic overtone without the fundamental being present, which results in an airy and eerie tone. This articulation is also sometimes called “Flageolets”. Excellent for long sustained high notes that provides a shimmering and magical character.

Tremolo

Playing in a rapid repetition style for a “trembling effect”, like the note is vibrating. It is the classic soft tension effect, without being as obvious as for example a trill.

Trills

Rapidly alternating between 2 notes. Amazing for adding scary tension with a half tone trill, or uplifting excitement with a whole tone trill. Or you can of course explore other intervals to do trills on.

Bends

You can perform various types of falls, bends and glides to add tension with strings. And if you want to increase the tension even more, you can have a string section start out of tune with each other and then bend into unison.

Out of Tune

Having the strings be slightly out of tune, and drift back and forth in pitch, is an incredible technique for adding tension. Almost like they are dancing, and teasing, around the true pitch…but never settling and resolving on it.

Clusters & Effects

Finally you have infinite ways to perform various types of special tension effects and dissonant cluster sounds using a full string section or even the entire ensemble. From short stabs, to ornaments, stings and textures. And clusters and textures in particular are amazing for tension type underscores.

Color Articulations

You can also play strings in different ways to shape the tone color. What I call “color articulations”. Here are some of the most common:

Con Sordino

Play with a mute on the strings. This creates a darker tone with reduced harmonics. Amazing for rich warm string chords and harmonies.

Sul Tasto

Play the strings over the fingerboard, which creates a softer sound with less body and harmonics. The final sound is warmer and more intimate, which like con sordino, can be great for backing chords and harmonies.

Flautando

Flautando means “flute like”, because of the soft and airy sound this articulation creates. A very featherlike sound, which is also very low in dynamics and level. Amazing for soft underscore strings, or whenever you want to add that ambient and atmospheric type of string sound.

Sul Ponticello

Play the strings as close to the bridge as possible. As a result, higher harmonics are increasingly excited and an overall sharp tone is produced. This is basically the opposite to the soft sound of the flautando or “sul tasto”. Sul Ponticello is perfect if you want a more piercing tone.

Master the Performance Styles

Strings can be used in so many ways in your music compositions. Basically you can create performances that cover all the colors of music. From driving rhythms, to beautiful harmonies, to emotional melodies…and in countless of variations. Let’s explore these colors of performance styles with strings, right now!

Rhythm on Strings

Even though strings are most famous for their lush lyrical legato melodies and sweet smooth voice leading for harmonies, they actually have an excellent range of performance styles for rhythm and comping parts. And I’m not even talking about ostinatos now! The reason for their great rhythmic capabilities is that you can cover the full range of dynamics and note lengths for the short notes, to create lots of variation in the performance. Here are my top tips for recording great rhythmic parts on strings:

  • Dynamic Variation
  • Timing Variation
  • Remember the Accents
  • Articulation Variation
  • Pay Attention to Range

Harmony on Strings

Strings are the most common, and my personal favorite, family of instruments in the orchestra to perform the chords and harmonies on. An important reason for this is the amazing dynamic range, how smooth they can do the voice leading, and the fact that they share the same tonal character but cover different ranges of notes. Let me share my top tips on writing chords and harmonic progressions on strings:

  • Focus on Voice Leading
  • Dynamic Movement is Essential
  • Sound Design for the Background
  • Expressive Variation per Voice

Melody on Strings

Strings are also amazing for leading melodies and main themes, since you can add so much emotion and expression to them. You can also design the tone and character a lot with section sizes and layering. And with melodies, motifs and themes, the incredible range of articulations strings can perform comes to its full potential. Here are some of my top tips for writing various types of melodies on strings:

  • Top Voice for Clarity
  • Octave Layering for Focus
  • Focus on Legato Variation
  • Focus on Great Expression
  • Add Articulation Variation

Accents on Strings

Adding strong accents on various beats in your music compositions can be very powerful, especially when you do it with more than one instrument. Sometimes the entire orchestra joins in to create a mega powerful accent. Strings can perform a variety of accent articulations. Let’s explore some of my best tips to create those accents:

  • Fortissimo Dynamics
  • Bold Accent Articulations
  • Brief Attack Articulations
  • Percussive Articulations

Ostinatos on Strings

Strings can play very rapid rhythmic bow strokes, and continue for a long time without the players needing a break to breath, as with brass or woodwinds. And since they can control the note length and dynamic variation to create a groove, they are a fundamental part of creating driving rhythms in your music. And one of the essential rhythmic styles on strings, is ostinatos. Which basically is the equivalent of chugging rhythms on electric guitars. That pulsing groove that provides more rhythm than harmony, and is excellent for adding energy and intensity to your composition. Here are my top tips for writing ostinatos on strings:

  • Focus on Dynamic Variation
  • Add Accents with Layering
  • Use Fills to Spice up the Groove
  • Create Variation with Articulations

Arpeggios on Strings

Arpeggios is a mix of ostinatos with harmonic comping rhythms. Their character is more focused on flow, since they run up and down on the harmonies. But they can also provide an energetic pulse vibe due, especially if it is a faster arpeggio. Let me share my top tips on writing arpeggios on strings:

  • Straight Rhythm is More Safe
  • Note Length based on Speed
  • Follow the Chord Progression
  • Add Scale Notes for Spice

Runs on Strings

String runs are incredibly efficient in adding a boost of energy, most often as fills and spices throughout your music. Sometimes layering with woodwinds, since they are also agile enough to perform fast runs. They can go up, down, or a pattern formed as an arc. Most often they go through then notes of the scale, which is why this technique is often called a “scale run”. But sometimes you can perform a shorter run, for example ending on the perfect fifth instead. Here are my top tips on writing scale runs on strings:

  • High Range for Shimmer
  • Choose Direction (Up, Down, Up/Down)
  • Slur/Legato to Blur the Runs
  • End on a Down Beat
  • Variation for Human Feel
  • Low/Mid Dynamics
  • Add natural “accents”

Tension on Strings

Now this is one of my favorite aspects of strings. The fact that even though strings have so much beauty and expression with their lyrical playing styles, sweet legato, and emotional vibrato, you can do a lot of cool things with articulations and sound design to create tension with strings. Just listen to any soundtrack from a dark, evil or horror movie score, and you will hear what I’m talking about. Here are some of my favorite ways to add tension with strings:

  • High Airy Articulations
  • Pitch-Drifting
  • Intense Tremolos
  • Energetic Trills
  • Bends & Glides
  • Effects & Clusters

Mikael Baggström - Composer and Sound DesignerMy name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist and educator.

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