String Instruments of the Orchestra
All shades of expressiveness are possible through the violin and the tone may be varied in volume from the most delicate pianissimo to a full, brilliant and powerful fortissimo. The symphony orchestra usually has 30 violins with 16 assigned to the first violin part and 14 to a second violin part. A full-size violin is 60cm long. There are three-quarter and half-size violins which can be played by young students. The violin has three relatives in the instrument family -- the viola, cello and bass.
The viola is the alto instrument of the strings family. It is slightly larger than the violin and measures 62.5cm long. It is pitched a fifth lower than the violin and is used generally as a harmony instrument in string ensembles and in the symphony orchestra.
There are usually 10 violas in the string choir of an orchestra. It's general somberness and depth of tone when allowed to predominate serve for effects that border on the sad or melancholy character.
The cello is the bass voice of the string choir. It is also a fine solo instrument in the hands of a good performer. It is an octave below the viola and has a full, rich sonorous tone. The cello is one of the most versatile and expressive of all instruments. The word "cello" comes from the Italian way of saying double bass: "Violoncello". In a symphony orchestra the number of cellos is usually within two to ten.
The Double Bass
The deepest member of the violin family is the double bass (also called the bass). It is also the largest in size measuring over 6ft in height. Since the bass is so tall, a bass player must stand or sit on the edge of a stool while playing.
The double bass evolved from the viol in the 1500s. Since that time, many body sizes and shapes have been designed to make playing the bass easier. You can look for the double basses behind the cellos, to the right of the conductor.
The harp is a beautiful stringed instrument which has been featured in many art pieces throughout history. It is among the oldest of the instruments dating as far back as ancient Egypt (3000 BC) but only became an orchestral instrument in the 1800s. The harp of today's symphony orchestras has 47 strings and measures about 6 feet high. It is played by plucking with the fingers of both hands but the little fingers are never used.