MTN Musical Dictionary: Strings

June 26, 2014
by Tim Rabjohns

STRINGS –

Welcome to our second installment of the L&F Instrumental Dictionary. Last time we explored the legacy of the fuzz guitar – this time we’re going to think about the guitar’s ancient ancestors: bowed string instruments.

Violins, violas and cellos in their current form have been staple instruments in western music since the early 19th century, when they made their transition in format from the Baroque model of string instruments (for example the Viol and Viola d’Amore) to classical 4-stringed instruments.

Bowed string instruments have long been used in music to convey a spectrum of emotions ranging from loss and longing all the way to triumph and thrill.

Recorded strings are most often found either in orchestral settings or in folk and country music. Film scores, might have a sweeping string section, for example, as an effective way to denote feelings of sadness and nostalgia. A good example of this is Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” – this particular piece of string music is so effective at punctuating moments of emotional intensity that it has been used on 11 separate film scores, as well as countless video games and TV series. A notable scene where this piece was used is in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), where Amelie is mourning her own life – which you can see below:

Strings are not however solely the reserve of the moody – they are also one of the most succinct ways to create feelings of urgency, tension and fear. This is showcased by one of the most famous moments in film score history – the shower scene from “Psycho”

Fiddle playing is often used in movies and TV to denote either nostalgia for days gone past or a more simple down to earth kind of pleasure.  For Example, Irish or Scottish folks gathered round in a pub or cowboys having a hoe down.

String instruments are not confined to these two genres of course – they are also extensively used in the pop and rock worlds. The two main ways in which strings can be included in contemporary songwriting tend to be – as either textural or melodic elements. For example, in The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, strings are used largely to create textures, which contribute tension to the composition, in a staccato four-to-the-floor rhythm. This texture is enough to carry the whole track, which has no other elements beside strings.

Songs where string instruments are used as predominantly melodic elements, for example in Bright Eyes’ Middleman. Here, the violin acts almost like another voice, singing its own melody in-between the vocal sections. In Middleman, drums, guitars and speech samples instead create texture instead. Check it out here:

The advent of electronic music has seen the use of real strings decrease, though it’s no secret that electronic strings are a poor replacement for the sound created by actual wooden instruments.  Although being no match for the real thing, synth strings have created their own sound and are often associated with music from the 1980s and early 90’s.  Technology also had another impact on the sound of strings by way of sampling – it was now possible to chop up sounds and make “stabs”  in a way that was not possible before. – think of the string stabs on “Theme from S-Express” by S-Express.

Synthesised strings can be particularly useful in creating texture in music for adverts and TV programs. However, if the desire is to create a melodic element using a string sound, real strings are always recommended – programming a synthesizer to sound like real strings is very difficult and time consuming, so you might as well use the real thing!

Stay tuned for our next post where we will be focusing on the rise and rise of… the drum machine…

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