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I'm studying some classical compositions to see how to write properly for the string section. One thing I've noticed is that the Viola bar often has two notes playing at the same time whereas the Violin 1 & 2 often are playing single notes.

My confusion is mainly: how does one Viola section play two notes at the same time? Do they simply play the dyad on their instruments? Or does one half of the stands play the top and the other the bottom?

How does this translate to violins? I sometimes see separate Violin sections play dyad/octaves. In what cases is it acceptable to write these instead of just giving each section of the orchestra 'their own note'?

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An extended passage with two notes at all times is almost certainly intended to be divided. Dividing into two or three parts is very common, but as a composer, you can decide to divide the section as many ways as you want. I've personally seen up to 8-way divisi--of course, you wouldn't want to try to jam that all on one staff though!

You should divide if it's even remotely complex. Double stops should be used with caution in ensemble music, and there's a lot of nuance to whether a particular double stop will be easy or hard.

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It may be a double stop - two (or even more if we allow an arpeggio gesture) strings played at once. It may be a divisi - two (or more) notes divided between two (or more) groups of players. Divisi should be notated clearly, but sometimes isn't! And it isn't unknown for players to decide that a double stop would sound better as a divisi. Composers and arrangers sometimes delight in 'stretching the limits' unnecessarily.

Also - yes, a violin CAN play a passage in octaves. But it's clumsy and will be out of tune. Use that possibility sparingly.

  • “A passage in octaves is clumsy and will be out of tune” – unless we're talking about a Paganini-proof virtuoso, of course. Normally, a reasonable string section will play such stuff divisi even when the score doesn't say so, except perhaps in some 20th century music where the intended effect is evidently more make loud, jarring noise, than anything else. – leftaroundabout Dec 22 '17 at 16:50

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