String instrument

A string instrument (also "stringed instrument") is a musical instrument that produces sound by means of vibrating strings. In the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification, used in organology, they are called chordophones.


Sound production in string instruments

Missing image
The string bass is often plucked or bowed depending on the genre and piece.

In order for a string instrument to produce sound, its string or strings must vibrate. There are three common ways of bringing this about.

Instruments such as the guitar and kora are plucked, either by a finger or thumb, or by some other device such as a plectrum. Instruments like the cello and rebec are usually played by drawing a bow across the strings. However, instruments normally bowed are occasionally plucked (this is known as pizzicato), and instruments normally plucked are sometimes bowed (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin sometimes played the electric guitar this way, for example).

The third common method of sound production in stringed instruments is to strike the string with a hammer. By far the most well-known instrument to use this method is the piano, where the hammers are controlled by a mechanical action; another example is the hammered dulcimer, where the player herself wields the hammers. It should be noted that the piano is often considered a percussion instrument, since sound production through struck blows defines this instrument family; the proclamation that the piano is a percussion instrument has at times served as rhetoric for composers who relished sharp percussive effects.

A variant of the hammering method is found in the clavichord: a brass tangent touches the string and presses it to a hard surface, inducing vibration. This is a very inefficient method of sound production, thus clavichords have a very soft tone. The maneuver can also be executed with a finger on plucked and bowed instruments, where it gives equally soft results.

The aeolian harp employs a very unusual method of sound production: the strings are excited by the movement of the air.

Some string instruments have keyboards attached which are manipulated by the player, meaning she does not have to pay attention to the strings directly. The most familiar example is the piano, where the keys control the felt hammers by means of a complex mechanical action. Other string instruments with a keyboard include the clavichord (where the strings are struck by tangents), and the harpsichord (where the strings are plucked by tiny plectra).

With these keyboard instruments too, the strings are occasionally plucked or bowed by hand. Composers such as Henry Cowell wrote music which asks for the player to reach inside the piano and pluck the strings directly, or to "bow" them with bow hair wrapped around the strings.

Choosing the contact point along the string

The strings of a piano
The strings of a piano

In bowed instruments, the bow is normally placed perpendicularly to the string, at a point half way between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. However, different bow placements can be selected to change timbre. Application of the bow close to the bridge (known as sul ponticello) produces an intense, sometimes harsh sound, which acoustically emphasizes the upper harmonics. Bowing above the fingerboard (sul tasto) produces a thin, "breathy" sound, emphasizing the fundamental frequency.

Similar timbral distinctions are also possible with plucked string instruments by selecting an appropriate plucking point, although the difference is perhaps more subtle.

In keyboard instruments, the contact point along the string (whether this be hammer, tangent, or plectrum) is a choice made by the instrument designer. Builders use a combination of experience and acoustic theory to establish the right set of contact points.

In harpsichords, often there are two sets of strings of equal length. These "choirs" usually differ in their plucking points. One choir has a "normal" plucking point, producing a canonical harpsichord sound; the other has a plucking point close to the bridge, producing a "nasal" sound rich in upper harmonics.

Sound amplification through resonance

A vibrating string on its own makes only a very quiet sound, so string instruments are usually constructed in such a way so as this sound in amplified either by a hollow resonating chamber, a soundboard, or both. On the violin, for example, the taut strings pass over a bridge resting on a hollow box. The strings' vibrations are distributed via the bridge to all surfaces of the instrument, and thus amplified.

Achieving effective and beautiful resonance is something of an art, and the makers of string instruments often seek very high quality woods to this end, particularly spruce (chosen for its combination of lightness and strength) and maple (a very hard wood).

Production of multiple notes

A single string of a constant tension will only produce one note, so to obtain further notes string instruments employ two methods. Most instruments have more than one string - in the case of the harp or piano, for example, this is the only way in which extra notes are obtained. With instruments such as the violin or guitar the player may press down on the strings with their fingers or some other device in order to effectively shorten the length of it which vibrates. This is known as stopping the string. In such instruments, a fingerboard is often attached to the resonating box - it is between this and the player's finger that the string is stopped.

List of string instruments

Instruments where the strings are usually bowed

Instruments where the strings are usually plucked

Guitar and lute posed side-by-side
Guitar and lute posed side-by-side

Instruments where the strings are usually struck

Instruments played in some other way

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