: This writeup contains information on the family of bowed string instruments. These are western (European) instruments, I do not have enough knowledge about similar instruments from the rest of the world to include them here, although it would be preferrable. If you have that knowledge, and want to see it included here, feel free to /msg me and I'll do something about it.
The term bowed string instrument usually includes the following instruments:
Bowed string instruments are mostly used in a classical symphony orchestra, the violin is also used a bit in folk music styles, where it is commonly called fiddle. The double bass is used extensively in jazz, bluegrass, and a variety of other musical styles.
In a symphony orchestra, the instruments used are the violin, viola, cello and double bass. An orchestra has two groups of violins and one of each of the others. A full-size orchestra has around sixteen first violins, fourteen seconds, twelve violas, ten cellos and eight basses, although this is in no way a required number.
A string orchestra is, as the name implies, an orchestra composed only of string players, and simply
indicates that no other instruments than strings are included. The size can vary a bit, anywhere from 15 to 40 players is common.
A bowed string instrument is played with a bow, the bow is moved across the strings, whose
vibrations cause the body (resonator) of the instrument to vibrate. The violin is the smallest instrument, the viola is somewhat larger, the cello quite a bit larger and the double bass is by far the largest instrument of this kind. The violin bow is the longest, slimmest and lightest, and is also used on the viola. A cello bow is somewhat shorter, wider and heavier, and the bass bow is quite a lot shorter, wider and heavier than the rest. This reflects the difference in weight needed from the bow onto the strings, as a bigger instrument requires more physical exertion than a smaller one. Rosin is used on the bow to create the necessary friction.
These instruments are all constructed in a similar way. A body made of wood (commonly spruce and maple), a neck with a fingerboard of ebony or another hard wood, a bridge of wood that sits (unfastened) on the top of the instrument, over which the strings are strung. The strings are held on one end by the tailpiece, a carved piece of wood that is fastened to one end of the instrument (opposite the fingerboard). On the other end, the strings are fastened on tuning pegs that are installed in the instrument's head. On some cellos and double basses, the head is carved into an exquisitely crafted figure, representing a human or animal head. On the violin, viola and cello, the tuning pegs are not fastened, and rely on friction to hold the strings taut. On the double bass, a mechanical system is used, where a separate screw is used to turn a cogwheel on the peg itself. This is because the pull from the thick strings would make it impossible to tune the strings without a mechanical device.
Today, all strings have metal windings, and most have a metal core, although some have a gut core, which was usual for a long period of time. Gut strings were being used as late as the 1960's in Germany. Gut strings have a softer, mellower sound, but project less and lose their tuning very easily.
The violin, viola and cello all have four strings, tuned in fifths. The double bass usually has four as well, tuned in fourths, although five string basses are quite common in Europe. A device known as an extension is a good alternative to adding a fifth string.
The violin and viola are held on the player's shoulder, almost always the left shoulder. The left hand is used to
press the strings onto the fingerboard, thereby regulating the pitch and sound, while the right hand moves the bow. A shoulder rest is often used to raise the instrument somewhat. The cello and double bass are played in an upright position. They have an endpin, to which the tailpiece is fastened, of adjustable length, which holds the instrument vertical above the ground. The cello is the only instrument that has to be played sitting down.
There are two main playing techniques on bowed string instruments: playing with the bow and without. Playing with the bow is called arco (it. bow), and without (plucking the strings) is called pizzicato, often
abbreviated pizz. There are a lot of different arco techniques, the most important are detaché, martelé (or martellato), spiccato, tremolo and col legno, while variants of pizzicato include Bartok pizzicato. In music from the Baroque era, pizzicato is quite rare. It is more common in the classical era, and in music from the romantic and contemporary eras, it is quite often heard. A number of special techniques have surfaced in the 20th century, too numerous to include here.
When the double bass is used outside of classical music, it is nearly always played pizzicato, only a
few musicians use the bow occasionally. Pizzicato in jazz differs from a "classical" pizz. in that the
string is pulled toward the fingerboard instead of away from it, thereby producing a more growling, sustained
The fiddle is a standard violin used in folk music styles. The technique is the same as on a normal violin, except the musical style. The Norwegian Hardanger fiddle is somewhat different, and has its own writeup.
The viola da gamba, (often called gamba) viola d'amore and violone are rare today, and saw the height of their use in the Baroque era. The viola da gamba (it. knee violin) is the predecessor of the modern cello, and the violone (it. large viola) that of the double bass. An instrument called viola da braccia (it. arm violin) was the predecessor of the modern-day violin and viola, but this instrument is not used today. The viola d'amore has not had significant influence on the development through the history. These instruments have a varying number of strings, up to seven or eight. The sound is softer, more mellow and designed for more intimate locations. Nowadays, the gamba and violone are used exclusively for Baroque music.