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I am a high school band kid who is trying to compose orchestral music for the first time. I have done several band compositions, be it jazz or classical, but this is my first time composing orchestra music.

My question is are there notes that string instruments can not play in sequence? In other words, are there any notes that can not be played after a certain note is played? If so, is there a chart that can help me remember which leaps not to use?

Thanks in advance.

  • I don't think there are any common instruments where any two given notes cannot be played in sequence..? It would be quite tricky to design an instrument where that was the case - you'd almost have to deliberately design in that limitation. There are limitations on how fast a given sequence of notes (of length 2 or more) can be played. However, the limit of how fast you can go will depend greatly on the skill of the players. – topo Reinstate Monica May 25 at 23:24
  • A lot will depend on the level of the players you are writing for. If you are writing for fairly accomplished players that is one thing, but if you are writing for players without much experience that is something else. If you are able to find some music that is at the level you are writing for, that will help. – Peter May 26 at 10:44
  • The only thing I'd recommend is considering how wide a 'jump' makes musical sense. Typically, a 12th (octave + fifth) is about as big as you can get for dramatic purposes without "losing continuity" – Carl Witthoft May 26 at 13:47
  • @CarlWitthoft there are too many exceptions to that rule for it to be applicable to string writing. Consider for example the violin part of O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion from Handel's Messiah. It contains downward leaps of a thirteenth and of an eighteenth, among other large leaps. – phoog Jul 21 at 15:07
  • @phoog there may be a bunch of exceptions; I wouldn't agree that a beginner, or even intermediate, composer try that kinds of shenanigans. – Carl Witthoft Jul 21 at 17:50
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I'm going to disagree with a lot of the existing answers: On a string instrument, there are some note patterns that can't be played - at least not neatly or quickly.

Double stops - playing two notes at once - have been mentioned;

  • It's not possible to simultaneously play more than one note on the same string (although you can usually use different strings unless both are too low to be on any but the lowest string)
  • It's not possible to simultaneously play two notes that are too far apart for a hand to reach on adjacent strings - a sensible maximum is probably an octave (violinists might manage more with difficulty, violists won't if they're playing the size of instrument you'd expect for their hand size, cellists would like less and need advanced techniques for an octave)
  • It's not possible to simultaneously play two notes on strings that are not adjacent (at least playing both with the bow)

The restrictions on being too far apart also apply to playing nearly simultaneously, although in isolation they are probably possible but messy - e.g. on a viola going directly from a note on the C string to one on the A string without hitting the intervening strings is not easy if you have a fraction of a second to do it in, even for a professional.

Where this reaches "definitely impossible" is going back and forth quickly - e.g. alternating between two notes. To do so quickly a player will either need to be on a single string and lifting and replacing one finger very fast to move between notes (easier with some fingers than others, and restricted to the reach of the hand without shifting position) or be switching strings with the bow, in which case intervening strings aren't going to be possible (and again shifting hand position between the notes constantly isn't going to work).

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Generally speaking any single note (within the range of the instrument) can follow any other single note. If it is an awkward combination it just requires more skill.

The problems come with chords. There two notes which have to be played at the same time pretty much have to be playable on adjacent strings. They can't be played on the same string (e.g. G and A on the G string) and if they are far apart then they have to be reachable within the maximum stretch that the musician can manage between first and fourth finger for violinists/violists and thumb and fourth finger for cellists and bassists.

For a violinist octaves are perfectly fine, e.g. A on the G string, played with the first finger, and A on the D string, played with the fourth finger. You could extend this up to a tenth, e.g. A on the G string C# on the D string, but anything more is going to be beyond the capability of anybody who doesn't have large hands and long fingers.

On larger instruments, e.g. cello, this becomes even more difficult although a cellist might still manage this by using the thumb instead of the first finger.

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    The word is "double-stop." :-) We rarely call them 'chords' , unlike flat-bridge instruments such as the guitar. – Carl Witthoft May 26 at 13:44
  • FWIW, there are a variety of techniques for extremely wide double-stops such as false harmonics. They aren't easy, and in general wide intervals don't make for good music. – Carl Witthoft May 26 at 13:45
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    Though in orchestra there is a tendency to divisi even when it is possible to double stop because it is clearer – awe lotta Jul 20 at 13:02
  • @CarlWitthoft whether wide intervals make good music depends on the effect one wants. Widely voiced string chords (whether by double stops or other means) are not at all uncommon for bowed strings. – phoog Jul 21 at 14:34
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Because string instruments have multiple strings and fingering options they generally don’t have as many problems as some woodwind and brass instruments can have with certain sequences, trills and jumps. My suggestion is to read a bit about how string instruments work and how to write for them in an orchestration book. Be aware of the ranges of the different sections and write within those ranges. Write things that are musical to your ear and they will more than likely be playable. If you have any doubts or concerns about a particular phrase or passage consult with one of the string players in your school.

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  • Another significant factor is the relative ease of moving the bow from one string to another compared to adjusting accurately from the embouchure needed for a low pitch to that for a high pitch or vice versa. – phoog Jul 21 at 14:37
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Yes. And the other way is also true: some sequences will sound better if played in only one string (and if you’re aware of this, better write to show this intention). Some keys are harder to stay in tune than others too, you should be cautious when writing in F minor for example. Knowing who you’re writing for usually solve most problems.

There’s not a recipe on this, but you can consult a fingering chart to visualize difficult or impossible fingerings. Also, a textbook on orchestration will help you a lot - check Samuel Adler’s book.

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  • Mostly wrong. Playing in tune just requires proper scale training. – Carl Witthoft May 26 at 13:46
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    Wrong. Scale training helps, but a non professional ensemble hardly will tune anything with four or more flats or sharps. When each open string is off key, the average string player suffers in group tuning more than solo, usually. Everyone with string orchestra experience knows this. Your players can study daily Flesch and Galamian from upside down, but still this problem persists. – Rodrigo B. Furman May 26 at 22:34

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