Choosing the perfect articulation for your string section performance is critical for creating everything from tension to comedy. Here we explain the main ones and how string articulations can add realism to your desktop orchestra.

Any musician who has honed the art of playing can probably recount the many hours spent practicing how to articulate a note. In the case of wind and brass instruments, the technical process of articulation is very physical. It will begin with the control of breath, accompanied by a tonguing action to create the attack of each note. For pianists, the articulation is handled by a hammer striking a string, controlled dynamically through keyboard touch.

Where string instruments differ is with two technical processes: either playing with a bow or plucking with a finger. Within these two techniques, there is an enormous variety of articulation and timbral color available. Orchestral string players will take these in their stride. However, it’s very easy to sidestep any comprehension of articulation with electronic scoring. In this feature, then, we will explore some common articulation examples in the pursuit of string perfection.

All aboard the Arco

The orchestral string section employs four different stringed instruments. From highest pitch to lowest, these are the violin, viola, violoncello (or cello), and double bass. A string section often employs around 50 to 60 players in more contemporary orchestral settings. The violins make up the largest number, subdivided and described as Violins 1 and 2.

While there is considerable variation in instrument size across the string section, the one tool common to all is the bow. The bow is ‘dragged’ across a string, inducing a vibration that allows a note to sound. The frequency (pitch) of the note is dictated by the precise placement of a finger on the finger-board. The body and cavity of the instrument will amplify the note naturally. Like the instruments themselves, bows also increase in size and robustness the larger the instrument gets.

Bow unchanged

While the size of the string section in orchestras has increased considerably since its first incarnation several hundred years ago, bows have not altered. In essence, the bow is made from a long piece of wood, which has horsehair stretched across it. The horsehair is taken from the tail of a horse and is relatively smooth and silky. It requires Rosin to be applied to the hair to make it sticky. If this isn’t applied, the bow will not grip the string. This will, in turn, limit the bow’s ability to gain traction and the string’s capacity to vibrate.

The bow is an important part of the string player’s apparatus, then, with the vast majority of string parts described as ‘Arco’ in the score. This is the Italian musical term to give the player instruction to play with the bow. This term is also used to signify that parts will be played conventionally. In the absence of any articulation direction, it will be assumed that Arco is the default setting.

Bow two ways

Within this bowed remit, players may play Legato or Detached. Legato (another Italian term) is an instruction to play smoothly. In this setting, the player’s bow will move up and down in a cycle which never stops, creating the illusion of one-note moving seamlessly to another. While Legato may be written in a part, the technique will often be indicated via the use of phrase marks within a given score. Conversely, Detached (sometimes Detaché) requests notes being slightly spaced from one another.

Within the electronic scoring domain, you’ll use a different patch as you move from a Legato playing style to a Detached setting. You could try to use your Legato patch while playing notes Detached, but this is unlikely to yield the most successful results.

Get ready for the Attack!

Of course, the movement of the bow itself has plenty to do with the sustain of the string instrument’s sound. But it’s the front or attack of each note that may well provide the springboard for the color that you require. 

With yet more Italian terms to hand, Marcato is an instruction for the player to pronounce the front of each note more vigorously. This will likely involve using the heel of the bow, the section closest to the hand-holding position. This concept really allows the player to dig into the attack of the note, using a very strong down-bow. When played as an orchestral mass, it can sound incredibly exciting and effective. It’s a very common favorite for action cues and for fast-paced tension sequences. If you want to hear this effect, listen to the 2nd movement of Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich. You’ll hear the personification of Marcato scoring from a work that has influenced many contemporaries. 

Take it to the bridge

String instruments are surprisingly effective at a number of timbral colors, according to where the bow is placed. Two such directions for the player can yield excellent sounds for certain scoring genres. Sul Ponticello is translated as ‘bow near the bridge’ which is a terrific color for tension or horror, albeit one that is a little quieter in volume. The resulting notes will sound less harmonically rich, with a slight tendency to sound squeaky. They are perfect, then, for creepiness during a gap in screen-based dialogue.

To the opposite end, instructing a player to perform Sul Tasto requires the bow to be used close to the fingerboard. This also creates a quiet and mysterious sound, which can sound a little like a quiet flute.

Another horror favorite has become something of a contemporary composer’s classic. Col Legno directs the player to flip the bow upside down, and tap the strings gently with the wood of the bow. This creates a percussive effect that is relatively quiet but is scoring gold for any horror score where spiders or insects are on screen. It’ll have your skin creeping before you can shout ‘Arachnid’!

With Mutes!

For creating beautifully considered or understated string parts, try exploring muted strings. These are delicate string articulations that can add realism to your desktop orchestra. This little device clips onto the bridge of a string instrument, creating a more modest and silky tone, which is often a favorite for quieter scoring, and perfect for creating beautiful pads and beds. The instrument can still play Arco and is the string equivalent to the soft pedal on a piano. While the sound is quieter, it’s very fertile territory for rich melodic scoring, with a texture that can be highly effective. Muted strings are often referred to by their Italian term, Con Sord or Con Sordino, with a literal translation of ‘with mute’.

Pizz-a-to-go

All of the articulation techniques that we have mentioned so far rely exclusively on the bow for creating the initial tone. However, further articulations are possible using the finger to pluck the string.

The most common of these are referred to as Pizzicato, which is often shortened to Pizz. The popularity of the Pizz-based music cue in reality television is hard to ignore. Turn on any reality show from anywhere in the world, and the chances are that you won’t have to wait too long for a Pizz cue. 

As a texture, the Pizzicato articulation is softer, and has a lack of sustain, offering a slightly fun essence. This lends itself well to sneaky or classically-cheeky musical styles. That is, of course, unless you move to the bottom end of the section, where Pizzicato basses and cellos are perfect for creating punctuations to a sustained texture. We can’t ignore the fact that the double bass, in a singular form, will often play Pizzicato in a jazz setting, albeit with supporting amplification.

But what happens when Pizzicato goes bad? We can blame composer Béla Bartók for this. He is widely cited as the composer who first directed players to play Pizzicato so hard that the string slapped back on the fingerboard, creating a snapping effect. This technique is another huge favorite for film composers, with the technique referred to as the Bartók Pizzicato or Slap/Snap Pizzicato. 

To the box 

Within electronic scoring, all things are possible but there’s another consideration with Arco/Pizz. If players are confronted by a large passage of Pizzicato, they may choose to put their bows down. This makes it easier to pluck, but they will need a bar of rest to pick up the bow again. So remember that scoring bars of rest can be just as important as scoring actual music.

There is incredible diversity available within most string libraries for creating changes in texture as your music develops. We have just scratched the surface, citing the most used contenders for the string articulation crown. There are plenty of other string techniques, especially at the more contemporary end of string playing.

As so many orchestral libraries adopt key-switching technology, it’s relatively easy to change articulations mid-track. Working electronically, you’ll be surprised at how effective this can be for increasing realism.

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas on how string articulations can add realism to your desktop orchestra. It’s time to get real and articulate the positive!

Learn more about our orchestral strings offering recorded at the MGM Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios.