Instruments of the orchestra
The family of instruments which makes up the string section has survived three centuries in its role as the foundation of the orchestra.
It comprises violins, usually divided into "Firsts" and "Seconds", violas, violincellos, normally called cellos, and double basses. They're played by drawing a bow over four stretched strings pitched five tones apart. They can also be plucked - called pizzicato - or even, occasionally, strummed like a guitar.
The violin family is often supplemented by plucked instruments: harps are the most common, but guitars or mandolins may also be used.
The most shapely and beautiful of all musical instruments, today's violin is the result of centuries of evolution. Established as the staple of the orchestra by the mid-17th Century, it carries the melodic burden of must baroque, classical and romantic music. Its importance is due to its brilliance of tone and its potential for dazzling virtuoso display.
The alto member of the violin family, the viola is often called the Cinderella of the stringed instruments, not only because so little has been written for solo performances, but also for its elusive, mournful tone.
Full name, the violincello - the Italian for little violone, forerunner of the double bass. It is one of the most big-hearted of the stringed instruments, noted for its expansive, singing melodies in romantic music.
This giant of an instrument, sounding a full octave below the 'cello, is used mainly to give weight to the bass line of the orchestra. In modern music the double bass features prominently in the plucked bass line of jazz trios. It is rarely used as a vehicle for melody.
The most highly developed form of one of the most elementary of all instruments, the lyre - played by the first musician of classical legend, Orpheus, and dating back to biblical times. It sits half-way between the violins and percussion: being a stringed instrument struck by t