Stringed instruments, strummed, plucked, or played with a bow, have been with us since antiquity: the psalms, for example, contain a number of references to various ‘stringed instruments’. In the world of classical music the term ‘strings’ usually refers to the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, all of which are played with a bow, although the harp, which is plucked and strummed, is also a stringed instrument.
The guitar may reign supreme in popular music, but the violin, in particular, makes up a large part of the classical orchestra, and the ‘first violin’ (or rather, the person who plays it) is the leader of the orchestra. String quartets, usually consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello, are perhaps the most popular chamber music combination.
The violin, which is the smallest and most high-pitched of the family, is first recorded in Italy in the early 16th century, not long before start of the Baroque period. It has changed very little since: the violins of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) are perhaps the most prized instruments in the world today. The viola, which is slightly larger and has a slightly deeper tone, emerged around 1655, and the cello and the double bass, each with increasing size and depth, at around the same time.
The violin and viola are held between the chin and the shoulder, the cello and the double bass are rested along the ground. All are played by drawing a bow across the strings with one hand while using the fingers of the other hand to press the strings against the neck of the instrument to alter the pitch.