Introduction | Stringed Instruments
Stringed instruments, or chordophones, are those in which sound is generated from a vibrating string held in tension. They form the backbone of almost every substantial musical culture, probably because of the ease with which they can be tuned, their clarity of pitch and their great adaptability.
There are three types of stringed instrument, defined by the method of sound production: bowed, plucked and struck.
Gut strings have been used for making music for thousands of years. Examples have been discovered in excavations of ancient Egyptian sites dating from 1500 BC, and there is plentiful evidence of their use in Greek and Roman culture.
Typically, gut strings were made from the small intestines of a young sheep. Washed, scoured and sliced into strips, they were then twisted into threads before being bleached and polished. The e'' string on a violin was normally made from between five and seven threads; the lower strings on the double bass, though, needed 85 or more.
Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), a great French thinker, proved that the pitch a string sounds is not only related to its length. It is also a function of its tension, its diameter and its density. A long, thin string at high tension will sound higher than a short, fat string at low tension. It is easy enough to see this by plucking an elastic band: held flaccidly its pitch is low; stretched out it becomes much thinner and vibrates quicker so the pitch is higher.
From Mersenne’s work came the discovery in Italy that winding wire around the string would increase its mass per unit length, thus enabling strings to sound lower pitches while remaining a workable length – a crucial development for the design of bass instruments.
The invention of nylon in 1938 promised to be a similarly vital moment in string technology, combining great strength with a durability way beyond that of gut. The particular acoustic qualities of gut strings, however, have ensured that they remain in widespread use, most often overspun with aluminium or silver – sometimes even gold.
On its own, the string is not an adequate sound-producer; it requires amplification. The body of all stringed instruments is just such an amplification system, designed to accept the string’s vibrations, increase their power and project them towards the listener.
The bodies of the bowed and plucked stringed instruments are all similarly constructed: the strings run over the top of body and are brought into contact with it via the bridge. The prime function of the bridge is to transfer vibrations from the strings to the thin, resonating sheet that forms the top of the body.
This sheet, known as the soundboard, is designed to vibrate in sympathy with the strings. Although it cannot literally amplify the sound, it rapidly passes the strings’ energy through itself and into the rest of the instrument. This spread of sound, which includes the air contained within the instrument’s body, is what makes the...
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