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Topic: Syncopated Strings

  1. #1

    Syncopated Strings

    I have a question for orchestrators and string players. In my musical, I have a number which has two sections, each sung by a different character. They have contrasting ideas and emotions, so I want each section to be as different as possible, but still sound like part of the same number. The first section, sung by a female vocalist, is plaintive and emotional, scored for a solo piano in the first verse, with a Bb Clarinet and a Bass Clarinet added for the second. The second section is sung by a male vocalist, with the female vocalist coming in later, singing her theme as a countermelody to his. I want the second section to be mostly strings, with reeds for emphasis and the piano eventually being added to the mix.

    I originally wrote this piece on the piano. So, the part that is to be strings is now on the piano track. The problem is that it is so idiomatically in the piano style that I am having difficulty adapting it to the strings. The closest number I can think of in another show is the fast section of "Getting Married Today" from COMPANY. The strings have this wonderful ostinato that underlines the character's tension. Although, in my number, the vocal is slow and deliberate over the fast-moving piano which is to be the string part. And, while the Sondheim song alternates between the contrasting styles, mine starts with the woman's and ends with the man's (although the woman does reprise her theme as a countermelody during the man's section, as stated above). The concept is that the female character's emotion is right out there, while the male character's is simmering under the surface while he tries to keep control.

    Here's my problem. On the piano, the man's part consists of the left hand playing a pattern roughly based on alternating the root of the chord with another note in the same chord (for example 1-5-1-3, 1-3-1-5, etc.) Of course, it gets a bit more complex, but that's the general idea. The right hand plays chords on the off-beats. Again, I am simplifying, but this is the basic pattern, with an x representing the chords:

    R.H. x x x x
    L.H 1 5 1 3

    On the piano, it has an insistent dramatic rhythm that is easy to play and maintain through all its variations. The left hand will translate easily to a bass or cello part. But that leaves the violins and viola rapidly playing chords on the off-beats -- which I am afraid might be too difficult to perform with the emphasis and precision that the number requires.

    I have tried many alternatives: keeping fast section on the piano (not different enough from the other section), scoring it for a harpsichord or organ (too different from the other section), strummed guitar or MIDI keyboard with a string section patch (too contemporary-sounding), but none of them really capture the mood the way the stings do.

    I also tried different ways of arranging the string chords, all of them aimed at putting both the downbeats and the off-beats into the upper voices. For example:

    R.H. 1x3x1x5x

    (Again, the x in my chart is meant to stand for a chord; the number are single notes.) But I haven't found a satisfying alternative. Ditto for using trills or tremolos in place of the chords.

    At this point, I am ready to assume that pro string players will be accomplished enough to reliably play on the off-beats to make it sound as good as it does on my computer (not getting muddy or throwing the other musicians off). But easier is always better (especially if you want amateur theater groups to be able to play the score as well). If anyone has a better suggestion I am willing to entertain it. Though I really don't want to copy what was done in the Sondheim piece.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: Syncopated Strings


    Cello and/or bass can play your given 1-5-1-3 pattern, upper strings twice as fast, bowed legato, with any two notes of your upper chord alternating, e.g. GCGCGCGC EGEGEGEG CECECECE or whatever. This is a common string pattern. Such a pattern could be more sophisticated if need be, perhaps CBCBCBCB or even BCBCBCBC. It's difficult to suggest without knowing more.

    Terry Dwyer

  3. #3

    Re: Syncopated Strings

    Hi, Terry.

    In the common practice you suggest, do the upper voices ever duplicate the bass notes?
    (If, for example, the bass line is C G C G, would the upper voices be CECECECE -- making every other note the root of the chord, or CEGECEGE -- where the bass line is essentially doubled an octave higher, or some more elaborate pattern where the bass notes never duplicate the upper voices?)

    Also, would all the upper parts play in unison, or in chords? (For example, if the bass is C G C G, would the next voice up be ECECECEC, the next GEGEGEGE, and so forth -- so that, no two voices are ever playing the same note? Or is one line above the bass line sufficient when you do this kind of thing - i.e. all the violins in unison over the bass and cello in unison?)

    I tried something like this before, but it never sounded right. If I know what the usual conventions are, I feel I stand a better chance of adapting it to my purposes.


    Allegro Data Solutions

  4. #4

    Re: Syncopated Strings

    There are many ways to do it - this is so difficult without staves of music to illustrate it:

    First of all, if you have ever learnt harmony, you know that you can double notes (preferably the root but not always).

    Second, it is best to have each string section on a different part in most cases. Write your first bass note with a chord above it, distributed among the other strings, correctly spaced and doubled. Now move the upper three notes of the chord up (or down) to a new spacing, still the same basic chord. Just keep alternating the two positions for the whole bar, or for however the chord lasts. That's it, don't worry too much about doublings, it's a background anyway. Have several notes in one bow if you want smooth unobtrusiveness; leave the slurs out if you want a more nervous, semi-agitated effect.

    It's got to be your choice in the end.


  5. #5

    Re: Syncopated Strings

    As an afterthought, you might find some ideas in my tutorial Structure your Music, found at

    Look under Types of inner textures, 5.c, especially bar 4.


  6. #6

    Re: Syncopated Strings

    Thanks. I will study your example lesson more closely. Unfortunately, my knowledge of music theory is limited to one college course (35+ years ago) and what I was able to glean from playing the piano as kid and what I have been able to teach myself as an adult. I trust my ears more than what I read and I am usually able to get what I want when I compose it on the piano. (I should say "composed" because my arthritis is so bad now that I haven't been able to play for years and I am struggling to orchestrate my compositions while I am still capable of using my computer.) Which is to say that I sometimes get throne when translating pieces for the orchestra and there are usually fewer voices of the same timber and character available.

    Allegro Data Solutions

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