If you’ve been to orchestral concerts before, you’d notice that violinists compose around 50% of the players. The violins also seem to have the melody more often than not.
This is due to many reasons including the style of music and the sound the Violin produces. Within this article, we’ll explore further why violins always get the melody, and which other instruments sometimes get a chance!
Violins can produce higher-pitched sounds and a wider range of notes than many other instruments. This makes them favored by the composers to get the melody most of the time. However, the melody is not restricted to violins as many other instruments can get it too, just not as often.
Does the Violin Always Get the Melody?
Violins are not the only instruments that play the melody. Other common melody playing instruments include flutes, cellos, basses, and saxophones.
It’s just that violins can produce a large variety of sounds, which makes them the more popular instruments for getting melodies. They are also high-pitched, meaning they can be heard singing over the orchestra.
In an orchestra, the first violins are the ones that usually get the most focus. During the violin melody, they’re also the ones that often participate. Then, there are the second violins, which play lower and longer parts than the first violins, but they usually don’t get the melody. The viola almost always plays a supporting role, which is why so many Violinists hate the viola.
The second violin role is predominantly to accompany the first violins. Typically the most talented violinists will be in the First violin section.
The second violins may also frame the first violins using countermelodies, or by producing rhythmic support to the current melody played by the first violins.
Whilst in most classical music the violin takes the melody, often this will be passed around other sections. Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Young Persons Guide To The Orchestra’ is a fantastic piece showcasing the various instruments within a symphony orchestra:
Which Other Instruments Sometimes Get the Melody?
An orchestra is generally composed of around ten first violins and ten second violins, then we have eight cellos, ten violas, and six double basses.
Within the strings section, violas, cellos, and even basses could get the melody on some occasions, but the first violins are much more likely to get the melody.
The melody can also be passed throughout the woodwind and brass sections. Typically the higher-pitched instruments carry more of a ‘tune’ whereas the lower range instruments accompany them. This is also true of choral works – the sopranos and altos are often supported by the bass singers.
Ravel’s orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije are good examples of how saxophones can carry the melody, even when violins are around.
Samuel Barber’s famous ‘Adagio for Strings’ has a long and beautiful ‘cello solo:
In Which Sort of Music Does the Violin Normally Get the Melody?
In most Baroque, Classical and Romantic musical ensembles the Violin carries the Melody. Often the melody will be briefly passed around the orchestra before ending up back with the violin section.
The melody’s wide range of fluctuations and speed make it difficult to be performed by most instruments, at least not as efficiently as the violin does. The violin’s high pitch also soars above the orchestra.
Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist, proves that when a violin is played correctly, you can produce almost any sound and carry any piece of music.
What Is a Concerto?
However, there is a particular type of orchestral work known as a ‘concerto’. A concerto is where an entire orchestra accompanies a soloist.
Concertos exist for most orchestral instruments to be used as a solo, as well as pianos. Elgar’s Cello concerto is a good example of an entire piece of work dedicated to a cello soloist. A concerto is a clear example where instruments aside from the Violin carry the melody.
The music in a concerto normally consists of a three-movement structure; two fast movements that come with slow contrasting middle movements.
The composition itself often contains a cycle of contrasting movements that host the audience’s feelings before the resolution in the finale.
It’s hard to pinpoint when concertos began, but they gained popularity during the 17th century under the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach.
What Are the Different Roles of the String Instruments in the Orchestra?
The string instruments are usually the largest in an orchestra. They usually comprise 50% of the orchestra.
A typical collection of string-based musical instruments in an orchestra includes the violins, the violas, the cellos, and the basses.
They play harmonically to create a blend of sounds, but if we break down the piece, we can find a specific role for each instrument.
Every string instrument has its role based on the range of notes it can reach in an arrangement known as (SATB).
SATB is short for Soprano (violins), Alto (Violas), Tenor (Cellos), and (Bass). The violins and the violas have a similar range of high notes which is why they usually overlap in higher ranges.
On the other hand, the lower ranges are usually blended by a mixture of cello and bass notes.
Each of these musical instruments can get the melody, but it is typically given to the higher-pitched instruments.
Why Are There So Many Violins in the Orchestra?
A chamber orchestra contains anywhere between 30 and 45 players. At least 20 of those would be violinists. The large (symphony) orchestra could have around 100 players and again, around half of them would be violinists.
There are many reasons why violins are considered the most important instrument in an orchestra.
Violins have a high pitch, and an impressive range, making them suited for solos. They’re also not played with air (unlike woodwind and brass) which gives them the ability to play longer melodies.
Violins are small compared to other string instruments. You therefore require more violins to produce an equal sound to fewer cellos.
The pitch of the violin’s sound is controlled by the player. A skilled group of violinists can produce a vibrato that can mimic a human’s voice more than other string-based instruments.
The violins are also able to play two notes at a time in a move called the double stop. This provides more opportunities for more complex sounds than other instruments.
Last but not least, the violins are the fastest string-based instruments because they offer much more control over the string movements than other instruments. With the violin being small, players can produce intricate and fast-moving sounds.
Most modern instruments weren’t available at the time when melodies were focused on violins, so it only makes sense that in classical pieces, the violin gets the melody more than other instruments. This is due to their high pitch, range and playability.
However, it’s safe to say that the violin doesn’t always get the melody as many people would think. Other instruments can get the melody, and they often do in parts during orchestral work.