How to arrange music part 2 – Know Your Strings

Like a bus, you wait ages for one blog on arranging music and then two come in quick succession! Due to Alice spending yet another weekend away, this time in Berlin of all places, I, Harry, the composer half of MusicForMy am here to continue our musical journey. If you missed part 1 you can read it by clicking this here sentence, I recommend you go check it out, we’ll wait. How’d you find it? Now that it’s all fresh in your memory I’m going to go into a wee bit more detail about knowing your instruments, because they are numerous in number and tricky in capabilities. You probably already know that there are various families of instruments that share similarities of use and construction, the String family for example includes instruments that, unsurprisingly, produce sound from strings while the Woodwind family produce sound from blowing into them. There are 5 main families, the aforementioned Strings and Woodwinds alongside Brass (trumpets, trombones etc.), Percussion (drums etc.) and Keyboards. Within these groups there are further subdivisions, such as bowed strings, plucked strings and struck strings, with each producing a unique sound which in turn can be used to flavour your arrangement.

Let’s start with the Strings, the leaders of any orchestra and ostensibly the dominant set of instruments most arrangers use. These instruments use strings (metal, gut or nylon) of various sizes strung over a resonating chamber (or body) to create sound. The strength of strings is a rich, even sound across the dynamics and a HUGE range over the family, with a double bass alone getting as low as C1 (very low) and as high as D4 (very high, depending on skill). Admittedly, a high double bass can sound a bit intense but this in itself can be used to highlight certain moments in a great arrangement; Richard Strauss in particular used a very high double bass note to highlight Salome’s obsession in his 1905 opera, Salome. Bowed Strings are also exceptionally versatile, being able to produce long drawn out notes with the bow and droplets of sound with a pluck of the strings. The most common use of plucked techniques is found, once again, in the double bass as it can be used to drive the rhythm like a pitched bass drum. You see this most often in jazz and country musics where the bass is considered very much part of the rhythm section and if arranging for one of these ensembles you would always make sure that a strong plucked note was heard at the start of a bar or phrase, preferably in lock-step with the bass drum. One of my favourite bass players at the mo is Paul Kowert, a progressive bluegrass player with Punch Brothers, The Prairie Home Companion and a whole host of the brightest and the best. His style uses a whole host of techniques that highlight the unique qualities of the bass, from percussive plucks to ominous drone.

In that video, alongside Paul Kowert’s incredible demonstration of how the double bass’ variety, you would also have seen Brittany Haas tear it up on the fiddle. There are few real differences between the fiddle and violin but one of the more important ones is a slightly flatter bridge which allows the fiddle to play three notes at a time (triple-stopping) instead of two. When arranging for the greater string family (violins, violas and cellos) these double-stops can be life savers for filling the tonality of a piece. The most common ensemble for arranging is, of course, the string quartet; an exceptionally romantic group of two violins, viola and cello. On the surface it should be fairly simply to arrange for, melody in violin 1, bass in the cello and the rest of the material filled out by violin two and viola. Problems come up if the chords needed have more notes than strings available, this is where double stops come in handy. It’s why, if available, I love to arrange for bowed strings to get that versatility and lush depth of sound.

The other important schism of the String family is the plucked (or strummed) strings. That’s not to dismiss the struck strings, such as the dulcimer or clavichord (the piano is considered halfway between the percussion and string families), it’s just that they aren’t so common in a large scale arrangement. Plucked (or strummed) strings on the other hand, they’re likely the most common set of instruments you hear due to one massively important instrument, the guitar. These instruments share an equal versatility with the bowed strings but focus heavily on the rhythmic aspects with their ability to strum chords as an accompaniment to a melody instrument. Personally, I prefer the mandolin to the guitar and like to use it as an accompaniment to many of my songs as heard in the above MusicForMy commissioned piece, The Nightingale. The mandolin has a higher sitting range than the guitar so together with Alice we decided to sit the vocal in a lower, folkier range giving a really nice warmth to counterpoint the mandolin. That’s always the goal with arranging, balancing the tones so that every piece feels complete. That’s what I always strive towards with each and every MusicForMy commission, creating unique works for your special occasion. For more information email harry@musicformy.net.