Picking Up the Pieces

Explaining what happened to the orchestra in the 20th century is not easy.  Orchestral growth completely stopped, and orchestras and most composers refused to even push the size of the orchestra to where it had been at its climax again.  A new composition for orchestra for most of the 20th century was based on woodwinds in threes and brass with (four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba).  This, to a modern composer, is a big orchestra.  Yet, orchestras readily will perform works like the Rite of Spring with its quintuple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, the trombones, and two tubas, without any hesitation.  Orchestras jump at the chance to play Mahler and Strauss.  They are sending a message to composers that they are not worthy enough to experiment with the orchestra, and only the great old masters could be the creative geniuses.

Reinvigorating the Strings

            The string section is the foundation of the modern orchestra.  It has also remained unchanged since the inception of the orchestra: two sections of Violins, and one each of Violas, Cellos, and Basses.  It’s the most stagnant part of the orchestra.  Only the numbers have changed over the years.  Let’s change it up.

Tenor Violin

            The string section, as it currently stands, is an unbalanced choir: soprano, soprano, alto, bass, contrabass.  Somehow, the tenor voice was left out.  No one seems to know why this is.  Tenor Violins have existed in the past, and a few luthiers make them today.  Why has this gap between the Viola and the Cello never been filled?  It shouldn’t be any harder than the Cello to play.

Treble and Octave Violins

Instruments higher than the standard Violin have been around in the past as well.  Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 1 has a part for Piccolo Violin pitched a 3rd higher than normal, but only recently, through new materials technology, has it been possible for these instruments to become a usable reality.  They smaller instruments have a brighter and more piercing sound.  They could add a shimmering quality to the whole orchestra.


The rarest of all string instruments is the Octobass.  Berlioz knew it and praised it, but it languished in obscurity for well over a century.  A few brave luthiers and players have recently taken up the challenge of a string instrument 14 feet tall and an octave below the standard Bass.  The results are visually and sonically amazing.  Were this instrument more widely available, it would give a whole new octave of the sound of the orchestra.

The New String Section

I will take a typical large symphony orchestra of (total of 64 players) and redistribute those players for a wholly new string section.

2 Octave Violins

4 Treble Violins

12 1st Violins

12 2nd Violins

8 Violas

8 Tenor Violins

8 Cellos

8 Basses

2 Octobasses

64 total strings

We now have from a total of 5 sections of strings to a total of 9 sections.  We have 4 wholly new sounds and colors.  The only section of the strings that remains unchanged is the Basses, whose tone is always lacking in volume.


The world’s most popular instrument is also permanently shunned a spot in the orchestra.  Only a few brave composers have chosen to include a guitar in their orchestra as anything other than a featured soloist.  Mahler’s 7th Symphony is one of the only examples of this.

It is true that the sound of an unamplified guitar is delicate, but we live in an age of electronics and creativity.  Imagine with me now an orchestra with a full section of guitars.  The players could alternate back and forth between Classical, Acoustic, and Electric.  We shouldn’t even stop at just the guitar.  There’s a whole family of guitars.  Why not use them all?

The New Guitar Section

4 Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Baritone Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Bass Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)


That’s just bandestration!

3 thoughts on “Picking Up the Pieces

  1. Steve

    Instruments that are used in popular works survive almost without fail. Look at the Ondes Martenot. Instruments come back from the museum when people want to hear Early Music works. The key is the public. Musicians will never do anything unless a job depends on it. To some extent, works that interest a certain niche can survive on CD etc. Even though they can’t reliably draw a concert audience they have enough worldwide interest to survive on that scale. Although for the reasons you give the symphony orchestra is not receptive to innovation, pop music and chamber music have occasionally used odd instruments freshly. I think opera might be an easier place to introduce fresh instrumentation than the symphony at this point.

    As for guitars I am not convinced of their use for the orchestra. If composers would use the Harp and pizzicato more effectively that would cover a good part of guitar function. I don’t think electric guitars can be successfully integrated because of the chaotic overtone structure and the difficulty in standardizing instrument and amp.. Electric bass guitars, particularly semi hollow body, if used straight with no fuzz and rolled off treble overtones, might work better. As you note and I agree , even the conventional orchestra is not particularly well integrated as it is.

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