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String instruments

String players in an orchestra: violins (bottom), cellos (left) and violas (top)The string section of the modern orchestra are all members of the violin family and consist of the violin, viola, cello (short for violoncello) and double bass. The violin family was developed in Italy in the 16th century. At the time, the name of this family of instruments was viola da braccio (“string instrument for the arm”), a term used to distinguish it from the viol family (viola da gamba, or “string instrument for the leg”). Viols are played while held between the legs, like a modern cello.



Woman playing a viola da gamba by Gabriel Metsu (1629–67)

Viols

Viols, or gambas, first appeared in the 15th century. They were most popular during the Renaissance and Baroque (1600–1750) periods. Although they look quite similar, viols are different in many respects to instruments of the violin family. Viols have flat rather than curved backs, sloped rather than rounded shoulders, C-holes rather than F-holes, and between five and seven strings rather than four. The viol fingerboard has frets (like a guitar) and the bow is held with an underhand ("German") grip rather than with the overhand ("French") grip used for violins. All members of the viol family are played upright and held between the legs (unlike the violin or the viola which are held under the chin). Viols come in a number of sizes, ranging from pardessus to contrabass, also known as the violone.

Playing a string instrument

Instrument names in the violin family are all come from the word “viola”, which itself originated with the Medieval Latin word “vitula”, meaning "stringed instrument" A violin is a "little viola”; a violone is a "big viola" or a bass violin; a violoncello (usually abbreviated to cello) is a "small violone" (or a "small big viola"). The violone is not part of the modern violin family, but from the viol family.

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