In this guide, you will learn how strings instruments work, the different types of string instruments, and a complete list of string instruments.
Stringed instruments are one of the most popular choices for musicians, because they can produce unique variations of sound with great clarity.
The following guide will help you understand some of the different types of string instruments, where they come from, and what gives them their unique sounds.
Table of Contents
- How String Instruments Work & Produce Sound
- Most Popular Types Of String Instruments
- String Instruments In Orchestras
- Full String Instrument List:
How String Instruments Work & Produce Sound
String instruments, or chordophones, are musical devices that create sound by exciting the strings.
The sounds, or notes, culminate in a musical composition by their arrangement and artistic execution.
The combination of materials that comprise an instrument is what delivers the different sounds that are unique to each string instrument.
The Creation of Sound
To play a note of music is the act of exciting vibrations from different strings.
This excitation happens when a person uses a pick, plectrum, bow, their fingers, or some other implement to strike a string or to strum several strings.
Each implement creates a different effect on the vibration produced.
Picks, plectrums, fingers, and hammer-like objects make a single, brief sound. On the other hand, things like bows allow for a very long and sustained vibration, with a beautiful dynamic not easily created with other implements.
A musician can play strings individually, indicating one note succeeded by another, or strum strings together to produce multiple simultaneous sounds in a chord.
The manipulation, or bending and pressing of the strings, furthers the sound by elongating or shortening the effect.
Upon manipulation of the string, the vibration transfers into the body of the instrument. Here the sound also vibrates and resonates with the air inside. This is the sound we hear.
How Strings & Bodies Affect Sound
A string’s length, thickness, and tension are what produce various tones from the instrument. Tighter, shorter strings create quicker, higher pitched tones, while longer, looser strings create lower, drawn-out ones. Thick strings will sound very deep compared to those that are thinner, where the sound is tiny and high.
Furthermore, for an instrument to play well and according to standard notes, it must undergo tuning. Tuning is the act of loosening or tightening strings to the proper notes for optimal sound.
An instrument’s body size, structure, and material also affect the quality, volume, and projection of sound. The body is an enclosed or hollowed chamber made of a material that will resonate to produce a unique sound for each individual instrument.
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Most Popular Types Of String Instruments
String instruments come in classifications of families, with some of the most common being the Lute, Violin, and Lyre. These instruments have strings that affix to opposing ends, across a flat face.
A guitar is a stringed instrument from the Lute family, shaped like a figure eight. It has frets and six strings.
The plucking or strumming comes from the dominant hand, while the opposite hand presses down on the frets and strings along the instrument’s neck.
There are two kinds of guitars that provide sound from their body, by way of either: an acoustic resonant chamber; or amplification by electric means.
Whether acoustic or electric, the strings are the same length and made of metal or nylon. They have varying thicknesses to produce different sounding notes.
Acoustic guitars are often hollow and wooden, whereas electric guitars are solid wood. Electric guitars are different partly due to their application of magnetic pickups, which convert vibrations into an electric signal that travels through an amplifier.
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Another figure-eight-shaped instrument, violins share similar characteristics to, but are much smaller than, acoustic guitars.
However, violins are part of their own instrument family and are the smallest instrument, with the highest pitch.
They require the use of a bow along with finger picking in order to produce sound.
Sometimes called a fiddle, a violin often comprises wood with a hollowed out chamber for the body. Violins often have four strings tuned in perfect fifths.
Violins rest underneath a person’s chin with support by the shoulder.
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A ukulele, pronounced, OOO-ka-lay-lee, is a guitar-like string instrument often associated with music from Polynesia (specifically Hawaii). It’s a member of the Lute family, and its name loosely translates to “jumping flea.”
Like a guitar or a violin, ukuleles have a wooden and hollow figure-eight-shaped body. But other materials like plastic, plywood, and laminate can also compose a ukulele. The instrument also has varying sizes and shapes that include ovals, boat paddles, squares, or cutaways.
Some people have even made ukuleles out of an old, wooden cigar box.
Ukuleles can have six or eight strings made of nylon polymer, fluorocarbon, or aluminum. Sound is produced with the fingers, plectrum, or a soft pick.
There are several types of ukuleles, but the most common are soprano, concert, baritone, and tenor.
These different types offer varying sounds, frequencies, and pitches based on individual sizes, shapes, and designs.
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Hailing from the Violin family, cellos are very large four-stringed instruments that also tune to perfect fifths.
They have a deep, earthy sound that’s delicate yet fortified. They can provide both treble and some bass in a composition.
They look like giant versions of violins that use both a bow and the fingers in an upright position.
Wood is the main material comprising a cello’s construction, but it’s not uncommon to have aluminum or carbon fiber ones as well.
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A viola is a little larger than a violin, with a deeper, lower sound (but higher than a cello). The word “viola” comes from the Italian expression for “of the arm.” It belongs to the Violin family of instruments.
A viola is about 16 inches long, and is similar in construction and play to that of a violin.
A bow or the fingers manipulate the strings, but other implements can create a variety of other intricate sounds.
There is a wide variety of small and larger sizes, most of which have a rich sounding upper register.
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Double basses are the largest of all string instruments, and have the deepest, lowest projection of sound. And, as their name suggests, they provide bass (and a lot of it).
Their sound comes from using a bow or plucking with the fingers.
It’s not clear about which family double basses technically sit in, but many attribute them to the Violin family. They have a similar construction and material as a cello, but their tuning is in fourths rather than perfect fifths.
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The banjo is a guitar-type instrument also appearing in the Lute family. A thin membrane of material stretches across the circular rim or cavity.
This frame is where the sound resonates from, and looks almost like a drum head. Banjos have a mellow, old-time tone, emitted by fast plucking with one finger or several.
Many different materials can comprise the instrument, not least of which is wood or plastic, with the membrane made of animal skin.
Often associated with country music, the banjo typically has four or five strings, with some versions having six.
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Mandolins are one of the most diverse and versatile members of the Lute family. With their teardrop, guitar-like shape, they have four sets of double strings and are plucked with a plectrum.
Mandolin string sets are unique, because each pair has unified tuning, but shares the same perfect fifths as most other string instruments.
There are a wide variety of types, sizes, and styles of Mandolins that all produce different qualities of sound.
Round, bowl-like, or flat, the shape determines the instrument’s pitch and tone. Because of its versatility, many different materials can compose it and its strings.
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Harps are one of the oldest string instruments. They’re very large, stand upright, and belong to the Lyre family.
Harps have multiple rows of strings that run at an angle against a soundboard, and are plucked with fingers. Harps are triangular and are composed of wood, with some having pedals.
Harps are different than other string instruments in part because they offer a whimsical, mysterious sound that lends itself to fantasy. This comes from their vast range of high, low, deep, and light pitches and tones.
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String Instruments In Orchestras
Depending on the composition, string instruments provide the majority of treble for rhythms, harmonies, and melodies in an orchestra, along with accents, solos and effects.
String Instruments Used In Orchestras
- Double bass
Specific Roles of String Instruments
The impact of string instruments can be profound, providing an emotional element and expression to the music. For traditional orchestras, specific strings play a particular, vital role.
Violins supply soprano tones, altos come from the violas, cellos provide the tenors, and the double bass gives…you guessed it…the bass.
Guitars, banjos, and mandolins can serve both as solos or as voices of the orchestra, while providing a certain layer of texture to the sound. They can play harmony, melody, or help maintain the rhythm.
Aside from mandolins, it’s rare to see guitars as part of a traditional orchestra, but not unheard of. More rare is the use of banjos or ukuleles.
Rather, banjos and ukuleles often provide accompaniments in common genres like rock, jazz, blues, and pop.
Accents & Effects of String Instruments
In regards to their element of feeling and emotion, strings emphasize or heighten intensity. One example is in Deep Purple’s orchestral masterpiece, “April.”
But they are of course frequent in other types of compositions conveying different emotions, like the light and playful string section in “Four Seasons,” by Vivaldi.
Different instruments play very effective and specific roles within an orchestra, often for dramatic impact. Cellos, double basses, and harps also might have solo sections.
Violins and violas play the inner voices of the orchestra as a whole. A harp can offer a dreamy, otherworldly-like emphasis.
Sections | Where Do String Instruments Play?
The String section in an orchestra plays in the first section. Violins and harps to the left, cellos and double bass to the right, with violas playing directly in front of the conductor.
Full String Instrument List:
The following is a complete list of stringed instruments from all around the world:
- Appalachian dulcimer
- Bajo quinto/sexto
- Bass guitar
- Bulbul tarang
- Chapman stick
- Classical kemancha
- Double bass
- Guitarra baiana
- Guitarra de golpe
- Guitarrón chileno
- Guitarrón cuyano
- Hammered dulcimer
- Hatun charango
- Hurdy gurdy
- Lap steel guitar
- Ranka charango
Note: Several of the above instruments have more than one variation. For example, a guitar can be acoustic, electric, or a combination acoustic/electric, and it can have anywhere from four to twelve strings.
In addition, an instrument’s design can make it more suited for certain types of music. A classical guitar, for example, produces a sound that is quite different from that of a folk or jazz guitar.
What is a string instrument?
A string instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound by means of vibrating strings. Examples include the guitar, violin, cello, and harp.
What are the different types of string instruments?
There are several different types of string instruments, including plucked strings (guitar, banjo), bowed strings (violin, cello), and hammered strings (piano, harpsichord).
How do you tune a string instrument?
The tuning of a string instrument depends on the specific type of instrument, but generally involves adjusting the tension of the strings to achieve the desired pitch. This can be done using a tuning device or by ear.
How do I care for my string instrument?
Proper care for a string instrument includes storing it in a dry and temperature-controlled environment, protecting it from damage and excessive humidity, and regularly cleaning and maintaining it to keep it in good playing condition. It is also important to have it serviced by a professional periodically.
How do I know if a string instrument is the right one for me?
The best way to determine if a string instrument is right for you is to try playing it. Consider factors such as size, weight, and the type of music you would like to play when making your decision.