StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘notating string parts’

Grace Notes

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Grace Notes fall into the category of ‘ornamentation’ as they are embellishments which help to give life and energy to a phrase. They are not unique to strings and may have originated in the late baroque period when used as a keyboard ornament and can be performed on almost every orchestral instrument.

A Grace Note is written in notation smaller than the standard size of a note on the stave and often has a diagonal line struck through it. It is a brief note which has no measured time allotted to it and is basically played as rapidly as possible before the main note itself. In folk music, this note is often referred to as a flick and it helps to give a note or phrase a sprightly, dancing quality. Often a string arranger may add grace notes if a phrase is repeated in an identical fashion, so by adding these notes (also known as appoggiaturas) it helps to give colour and variety to a phrase that would otherwise be a bland repetition. There is nothing worse than a ‘cut and paste’ approach to arranging where phrases are repeated without any variety giving the impression of an unvarying theme.

Interestingly, the term ‘acciaccatura’ is often wrongly applied to grace notes. This term actually¬† means a ‘crushed’ note where two notes are played simultaneously and the dissonant note released immediately rather than being an independent note performed before the main note – again this happens a lot in folk and traditional music. So when a string arranger is writing string parts for a folk track, this could also be a technique to be made good use of.

Enhancing Synth String Parts

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Although some clients who require string parts arranging for their tracks just give the string arranger ‘free rein’ to compose the parts in their own way and send the file over for approval or amendments, there are many people who already have some idea of how they’d like the strings to sound and have started to put together some strings for their track using Logic or other software. When this happens, I am usually sent the finished track with some ‘guide strings’ in and asked to notate these ready for studio recording (a relatively simple job), or to make them sound more natural by adding some movement or spacing the chords to allow the strings to sound fuller and more rich. When synth strings have been played in on a keyboard, it’s always a challenge to give them the characteristic feel of a real string orchestra because fingers going down on a keyboard cannot move in the same way as fingers naturally move up and down a stringed instrument. There are also clients who simply send the basic chord progression that they’d like and ask me to create something more elaborate with the strings, rather like producing an elegant frame for a painting – simply embellishing the existing ideas with the finishing touches. An example of this could be a track where the strings have all been programmed in the mid range on sampled synths and listening to the balance of the track overall, the range of the strings could be expanded. Extending the range can give the whole track a feeling of a ‘lift’ and lend it a sense of climax that it couldn’t have achieved with synthesised strings in the middle register. It’s also a matter of taking into account where the range of existing instruments and vocal lines are, then putting the strings in the ‘gaps’, weaving harmonies around what is already there.

Marcato – what it means to a string player….

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Marcato (from the Italian for ‘marked’) is an umbrella term that can apply to all instruments and therefore not a specific string instruction (like spiccato or sautille would be). In general terms, it is a stroke started with a fp (fortepiano) or sfz (sforzando) with a rest at the end of the stroke, meaning a note which starts with a bold attack, rapidly dying away with a gap before the next note. This can either be performed rapidly or slowly, but when performed slowly, there are big gaps between the notes. Marcato is a stroke where the bow does not leave the string in between notes and therefore is classified as a staccato bowing (as opposed to a spiccato bowing where the bow leaves the string in between notes).

My understanding is that the Martele stroke is the nearest to a true Marcato, in brief this stroke often performed in the upper half of the bow starts with a pressure (that brings the hair closer to the wood of the bow) and a rapid bow stroke with a simultaneous release of pressure. At the end of a stroke, there is a gap and the whole thing starts again!

A string arranger or composer would use marcato when they wanted to create a percussive sound with gaps in between. Slightly confusingly, an orchestrator could write dots underneath the notes to make them short – and this could be interpreted by a string player as lifting the bow off the string in between every note and could potentially be light in character. Marcato can also be written with a dot underneath the note, but on the other hand there is usually an accent with it and the length of the note is twice as long as the note is intended to be played (with the second half of the note being silence). To put it in context, Marcato is a heavier stroke and does not require the bow to leave the string. The analogy is that the spiccato can be like skipping or running and the marcato would be more like stamping or treading heavily, so a professional string player would usually know from the feel of the piece which stroke the composer intended.

Up until the mid 19th century, marcato was notated by a small downward v above the note, so if you come across very old sheet music that’s what it might be! It is less commonly used than spiccato.

As in all directions for bowings, context is everything and if written with a knowledge of what string instruments do, the players of a string section will always know exactly what stroke applies to a certain passage.