Orchestral manoeuvres

An evening at the symphony left me wondering. Do we have all those violins because no-one has so far invented a violin that plays at several times the volume of the current instrument? Or is there something inherent in having many violins playing the same notes simultaneously?

Perhaps more musically-inclined readers can set me straight.

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5 Responses to Orchestral manoeuvres

  1. If you are a mac user and have garageband on it, grab a microphone and record your voice talking, singing whatever. Listen to it panning straight down the center.

    Now record the same words again and then pan it left. The sound is now much fuller, even though your are saying the same words.

    Do the same again and pan it full right. Modify the volume a bit. The sound is way, way fuller than what echo and reverb effects can achieve.

    I always record two vocal tracks and pan them off-center.

  2. Claire says:

    It’s both, but mostly the latter, I think. Modern metal-covered gut strings are considerably louder than raw gut, and for a number of reasons modern instruments tend to be a bit louder than older ones (all sorts of reasons for this, from the varnish to the type of wood used to the weight of the bow to the size of the f-holes, etc). So a bunch of people playing on raw gut is going to be softer than a bunch of people playing on gut covered with silver or steel (which is what most symphony orchestra players play on). There’s also the issue of intensity and projection in a particular range. An oboe has a roughly similar range to a violin but the quality of the sound is such that it sticks out more than a violin does. The number of instruments of each type reflects that too. Except for violas, because no one cares what they play.

  3. massed instruments also “chorus” — that is, the effect is not just a stereo thing, but the fact that the instruments are playing ever-so-slightly out of time with one another, and also ever-so-slightly out of pitch (also add in variable and/or changing rates of vibrato across the violinists). put all that together, and in a good concert hall: as we all know, its such a beautiful thing. more simply, contrast the sound of a (well played!) solo violin with the violins of a big, symphony-sized string section — its not just loudness we’re talking about here.

  4. Peter says:

    “The Ecomomist” magazine a few years ago ran a very funny parody of a report by a management consultant on the inefficiencies he’d found in a modern orchestra. A single violin and a microphone could replace all those highly-paid 1st and 2nd violinists. No need for all that musical repetition, where a musical phrase is passed from one group (strings, say) to another (woodwinds) and back again throughout a piece. Reducing such wasteful duplication should cut performance times considerably, and have all sorts of ancillary cost benefits — eg, less times needed for rehearsals, room hire, lighting, etc. And with a much smaller number of players and shorter pieces, there is really no need for a conductor — a metronome should do the trick at much lower cost.

  5. lesleym says:

    Two hundred years of listening to massed orchestral instruments have enculturated enough western listeners to appreciate the subtle difference between a loud noise produced by a large number of less-powerful but slightly different tone combinations and a loud noise produced by amplifying a smaller number of different tone combinations. I just hope that continued exposure to recorded music is not going to mean the eventual atrophy of the range of hearing frequencies in humans.

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