Let’s face it, you can’t go very far into film soundtracks without hearing strings. Strings are one of the most effective tools in a composers arsenal. They’re great for everything from lyrical, emotional lines, to huge Hollywood blockbuster action sequences. Writing for strings is an art in itself and there are many things to consider.
Not a Single
The mistake a lot of beginner composers make when composing for strings is they will simply take a string patch and write out their string parts with this one patch. If you’ve ever written something on piano and then try to arrange this for strings, you may notice some problems. It sounds like a string patch and not an orchestra. First of all, when writing for strings you have to think about the different sections, what role they’re going to play and how they are all going to fit and work together. A piece played on piano is going to have to be changed for the string section. Arpeggios are going to have to be assigned to the different sections, phrases are going to have to be adjusted, and parts are going to have to be doubled or transposed.
Home on the Range
Each instrument in the string section has it’s own sound, range and technical idiosyncrasies. If you’ve ever picked up a book on orchestration, you’ll notice this is the first thing that is mentioned. This is very important and something you may not be aware of when using the patches on your keyboard. You have to be aware of the sonic capabilities of each instrument. Is the violin or viola going to play a particular line? If so, where is the phrase on the instrument? Does it go too low? Should it be assigned to another instrument? Is it too high and fighting with the other parts? Will part of the phrase have to be transposed to make it fit?
Separate and Together
When writing for strings, the different sections have to be thought of separately while still keeping it a cohesive whole. For example, arpeggios might have to be arranged to different sections over the course of a phrase. The arpeggio may start in the basses and go right into the violins. Other parts may be added to the other strings as in doubling or single notes. If writing ‘block chords’ like a piano, write out the notes for each section then check out the lines of each section separately. Each line should be able to sit on it’s own. Once you hear the separate lines, you may want to make some changes. When the separate lines sound good on their own, you may notice that your strings start sounding more like a string section. The different sections will have their own lines and the block type writing will turn into separate lines and phrases. This is more like string section writing.
Another really important consideration that probably won’t be part of your keyboard patch is articulations. These range from: pizzicato, spicatto, legato, detache. The importance of these can’t be over emphasized. It’s the equivilent of playing a piece on your instrument with the exact same attack, release and dynamic. Not to mention one of the great strengths of the string section is it’s ability to play everything from the quietest, subtle lines, to huge powerful chords and everything in between. These are all possible through articulations.
It’s All In the Application
Usually one of the dead give aways of a ‘fake’ string arrangement is the phrasing. The usual string patch doesn’t usually take this into consideration. A string player will almost never just play a note ‘straight’. There is usually the attack (and there’s a ton of variation in this alone), but then there may be a slight dip in volume and then a slight build and vibrato by the end of the note. The tempo of the phrase has a lot of influence on how the notes are played. Listen to a string section and see how each note has it’s own attack, sustain and release. This can change a ton over a single phrase. This is the difficulty in making string parts sound real. A single patch doesn’t quite cut it. It’s the same for horn parts. Once you’ve written your parts, think about the phrasing and how the musician would articulate each note.
As you see, we’ve just started when it comes to string writing. Start simple and see if you can make it sound like a real string section. Just try writing for the strings for now. It will help in writing for other parts later. Take a simple piano piece and arrange it for strings. Make each section stand on its own. There are tons of options when considering what section will take which line, what to transpose and what to double. There is no one right answer. Just start and the problems will become obvious. In the next post we’ll look at some specific examples of how to write and sequence string parts properly.