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I've been into arranging and composing for orchestral music for a few years now, however, my music is usually fully computer-rendered (ewql), so I don't have any practical limits of how many instruments I use.

Well I'm trying to not be completely off, however, in a few of my compisitions I use a lot of violin voices (like, melody w/ octave + 2 voices harmony + 2 voices staccato for about 8 bars. meanwhile, two voices violas and one voice cello/cbs). Now a few of my pieces are actually to be performed every once in a while, however not by an overkill orchestra with like 100 violinists.

So, my question is, how many voices for orchestral instruments, especially violins, are "okay"? How many players should there be for each voice? I haven't been able to find any good resources about this yet.

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I've retagged voice to voicing since we use the former to mean singing. –  Matthew Read May 28 '11 at 22:54
@MatthewRead Perhaps instrumentation or orchestration would be an appropriate tag. –  Ben Alpert May 30 '11 at 19:51
@Ben Both would be good, I've added them and removed orchestra since the question is not about orchestra itself. Thanks! –  Matthew Read May 30 '11 at 19:54
Aren't the three tags (instrumentation orchestration voicing) almost synonymous, though? We probably don't need all three! –  Ben Alpert May 30 '11 at 19:56
Voicing is definitely not synonymous, the other two are close but Wikipedia distinguishes: "[I]nstrumentation refers to the particular combination of musical instruments employed in a composition, and to the properties of those instruments individually. ... [O]rchestration ... more properly refers to an orchestrator's, composer's or arranger's craft of employing instruments in varying combinations." Let's take this to meta if you want to discuss further. –  Matthew Read May 30 '11 at 20:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In a real orchestra? It varies. Maybe 10 first violins, 10 second violins, 10 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses. Maybe 14, 14, 12, 12, 10. Mozart and Haydn had smaller orchestras so you may see 3, 3, 3, 2, 1, although they sound OK with a larger or smaller group. Not as many bass instruments are needed to balance the treble instruments. For late romantic compositions with 3 flutes and piccolo and 8 horns and so forth, you'll need more strings to balance the winds and brass.

Almost always there are 5 parts: 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cellos, basses. But sometimes a part will be "divisi", for instance violas divided into 2 parts. (In a program note you may see something like "The theme is then heard in the divided violas" leading to the joke "What's a divided viola?") At one point in the Schumann piano concerto the cellos are divided into 3, and in Debussy's La Mer the cellos get divided into I don't remember how may. At least 8.

As for what's "okay": it depends on who's paying for the orchestra. Do you have the budget and space for 100 violins, each with a different part? They're professionals; put it in front of them and they'll play it.

I don't have a reference; I'm just going by the live concerts I've seen, and I've seen a lot of them. Occasionally I've seen the same Beethoven symphony played by two groups in the same week, one with 12 string players and one with 50.

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As an aside - Penderecki split the whole string section into divisi to play a "wall of sound" that consisted of 30+ notes in the chord :-) –  niggles Jun 1 '11 at 5:01
in the score I have for "La Mer", you have at places at most 4 parts for cello (so at least 8 instrumentists) and 2 solo celli, but I may have overlooked something. Anyway Debussy is a very good example. –  ogerard Jun 1 '11 at 17:06

In the Classical era, dividing into two voices was fairly common (especially in violas but also 1st or 2nd violins and sometimes 'cellos). That would potentially give you 4 violin voices. If you include double stopping, you have more voices. (Because of triple-stopping, it's not uncommon to need nine or more string parts when doing computer realizations of the last couple of bars of a Mozart symphony). But bear in mind, given the small size of orchestras, it was not always possible to have, say, divisi 'cellos while still having more than one 'cello playing each voice.

As orchestra sizes grew, the ability to divide into 2 or even 3 became easier. I know of a number of romantic-era works that have the 'cellos divided into 3. I doubt this would be a problem for most orchestras nowadays except for chamber orchestras.

There are 20th century works that have much greater number of voices. There are some Ligeti pieces, for example, that achieve tonal clusters and micropolyphony by having 10+ distinct violin parts.

Another thing to bear in mind when considering playability is whether you want a solo violin or an ensemble violin sound. If each voice is to have the ensemble sound, you probably need 3x as many violins in the orchestra as voices. Obviously if you want the solo sound, you only needs as many violins as voices.

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I believe the numbers vary from orchestra to orchestra but according to this resource:


the average is around thirty.

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