Have you ever noticed that symphony orchestras tend to feature very large violin sections? In fact, most orchestras have more violins than any other instrument. So much so that the violins tend to steal the symphony limelight. But don’t worry, there is no conspiracy at work. The violin section isn’t trying to dominate every other section of the orchestra.
There are two primary reasons orchestras and conductors focus so much on violins. The first is a practical reason while the second is more historical. Both reasons are actually not as important as they once were thanks to technology. And yet, your local symphony orchestra tends to have more violins than anything else.
1. The Melody Needs to Be Heard
Let us start with the practical explanation of so many violins. The higher pitch of the violin makes it the perfect instrument to carry the melody line in a classical piece. Furthermore, because violins are bow instruments, their tones are less harsh and more easily manipulated to evoke certain emotions. The long and short of it is that the violin is the best instrument for melody lines.
Unfortunately, violins are not especially loud. One might seem loud when little Johnny is practicing in the bedroom, but a violin’s natural volume is easily drowned out by woodwinds and brass. You generally need at least two violins for every woodwind in order for the melody to be heard. The result is that symphony orchestras tend to have at least ten first violins along with an additional ten seconds.
First and Second Violin
As long as we are on the topic, the first violin plays the melody line. The second violin plays a harmony part, which is usually lower. This means violinists are not just competing with woodwinds and brass; they are also competing with one another. You need plenty of violins so that their two parts can be heard over everything else.
Things are different in a studio setting. According to Supreme Tracks, a NY online recording studio that produces original orchestral music for clients, studios have the advantage of amplifying sound. With just two or three violins, they can utilize technology to create the sound of ten. Still, a Supreme Tracks client might insist on a full orchestra.
2. Historical Emphasis on the Violin
There is a historical aspect to all of this. Way back when, during the baroque period, violins were first introduced as orchestral instruments. Because baroque orchestras were intentionally small, violins naturally became the leading instrument for playing melody lines. A skilled violinist could interpret and play a composer’s piece better than any other musician.
Since that time, violins have enjoyed a place of prominence in the symphony. So much so that conductors are almost always violinists as well. An orchestra’s first violinist is often the assistant conductor. This arrangement refers to a time during the 18th century when baroque orchestras did not have conductors. They were led by the first violinist.
These days, it might seem like the violin section gets too much attention. That is really not the case. Violins are still comparatively quiet instruments. So, unless a symphony orchestra wants to amplify a smaller number of violinists to achieve the same volume, sections of ten or more are still necessary.
It doesn’t hurt that the violin remains one of the most popular classical instruments. It is the one classic that musicians want to learn the most. You could say that the violin is to classical music what the electric guitar is to rock & roll. Everybody wants to play lead. Unfortunately, somebody has to be Ringo.
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