In an orchestral score, each section of the orchestra gets a thick square margin bracket, e.g. the woodwind section.
Within these, thin square secondary brackets are used to group instruments in the same family, e.g. piccolo & flute.
When parts for the same type of instrument need to be written on separate staves, these are also grouped with a thin square bracket, but at a higher level (a tertiary bracket, if you will).

So, piccolo and divided flutes (in the flute family, in the woodwind section) will look like this:

flute family (piccolo, flute 1, and flute 2) on separate staves, all grouped with a secondary bracket, flute parts grouped with tertiary bracket

Sometimes curly braces or thick square brackets are used for secondary/tertiary brackets instead.

In many of the orchestral scores that I have looked at, the string section groups the 1st & 2nd violins together, as well as the cello & contrabass (double bass) with secondary brackets.

So an undivided string section will have this form:

string section (violin I, violin II, viola, cello, contrabass) with a secondary bracket grouping 1st & 2nd violins, and another secondary bracket grouping cello & contrabass.

When any of these five of strings sections occasionally play divided (with divisi or with a solo / gli altri) tertiary brackets are used.

Grouping the 1st & 2nd violins makes sense because they are the same type of instrument. But, grouping the cello & contrabass together doesn't make much sense to me.

What is the function of secondary brackets for the cello & contrabass?

Contrary to this practice, Elaine Gould (in Behind Bars – The definitive guide to music notation, p. 518) says that grouping the 1st & 2nd violins with a secondary bracket (and by implication the cello & contrabass) is not good contemporary practice:

"1st and 2nd violins are regarded as separate sections and are not joined by a secondary bracket."

This means that Gould is suggesting that an undivided string section should take this form:

string section (violin I, violin II, viola, cello, contrabass) without secondary brackets

I don't find Gould's explanation at all satisfactory, especially since there are so many scores that do use secondary brackets in the string section.

Why is the practice of grouping the 1st & 2nd violins and the cello & contrabass, advocated against by Gould?

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    I don’t know the answer but I’m guessing one factor may be how parts are/were printed. You probably know cello and bass parts used to be just one part and basses would just sound an octave lower. For violins, even today on film scoring stages both violin lines will be printed on the violin parts so all violinists see both 1 and 2 and can switch if the conductor or composer desire. Maybe the brackets used to be a signal to music copyists to part them out together. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 12:03
  • @ToddWilcox I know about cello and contrabass sometimes sharing a stave, (similarly for bass trombone and tuba). But I didn't realise that both 1st and 2nd violins were printed on the same parts pages — that certainly makes sense. But if this is still done, then why would Gould be against the extra brackets? Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 12:17
  • To be clear, I don’t know if vlns I and II are combined on the concert stage, only on the scoring stage. The brackets in the full score might be unnecessary today because composers and orchestrators communicate with music copyists differently now. Also orchestrators and composers can more easily make their own parts, so there may not even be a music copyists in many situations. This is still based on my guess, so just speculating here. You might be able to get a reply if you email Gould directly about it. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 13:11
  • I'm guessing this is because there are no rules, only conventions. If you print a score with just one giant bracket over everybody, no one will put you in jail. There's a balance between too little and too much information, and to my mind, the triple bracketing gets silly and less-readable. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 13:33
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    @ToddWilcox traditionally, first and second violin parts are printed separately, and certainly hand-copied separately: there's no point in making twice the work for yourself if you're writing it all out by hand. On top of that, brackets appear only in engraved scores, not manuscripts (at least in the 18th and early 19th centuries), so they are certainly not instructions for copyists. They are a visual aid to the reader of the score, serving as a landmark to help the eye orient itself on the page.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 23:05

1 Answer 1


Historically the two violin parts were bracketed together, the same as two similar wind or brass instruments. Also, scores would only have a single bass part which both cello and bass (and possibly bassoon) would play, so when the two parts started to become more independent and had to be written on two systems they would be bracketed together.

Nowadays the string section is regarded as five separate parts and grouping is reserved for the many cases where one of these sections is subdivided. Most, but not all newer scores reflect this. Gould simply considers this best practice and recommends it.

An editor is free to disagree and prepare a score any way they prefer.

  • "most...newer scores reflect this": a lot of older scores do as well. The practice was by no means universal and certainly not standardized -- in looking for some examples I found an 1880 engraving of Beethoven's fifth symphony that lacked secondary brackets entirely and a 19th century engraving that had both violins and viola bracketed together with the (single staff) continuo part excluded (and this reminds me, that single part wouldn't only be cello, bass, and possibly bassoon but also possibly a keyboard instrument and, in earlier times, lute and any other bass that might be on hand).
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 22:51

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