On That Note: Why Strings Matter

Sep 6, 2016

Every month, Lake Effect brings you On That Note, a series of conversations with Robert Cohen, the cellist for the Milwaukee-based Fine Arts Quartet. Cohen joins us to talk about the life of a working musician and many of the facets of classical music. 

Credit seget / pixabay

There is a lot that goes making music that sounds good, starting with the composition itself. For an instrument like the cello, or the violin, or the viola, or the bass, the strings themselves are where the rubber hits the road. That's a fitting analogy, because the makeup of the strings is one of the most crucial elements to its sound. 

For hundreds of years, strings were handmade out of intestine (often from sheep). Cohen explains that in the early 1900s, people started to experiment with strings made out of metal. These new strings had a brighter, louder sound than the traditional intestine strings, but lacked the same kind of warmth. Now, strings come in various combinations of materials, but the makeup of a string is just one of the concerns for a musician. 

"It's a long, long kind of experiment. Every string gets manufactured in different thicknesses. So if you've got an A-string, that A-string would come in three different thicknesses. And that different thickness and different tension, again, alter the kind of projection, and warmth, and quality of the sound," says Cohen. But the struggle to find the perfect strings doesn't stop there.

Musicians must figure out what strings sound good together, and Cohen says that the right string can depend on the music the musician is playing. "You find that you play some Mozart or something, and the strings work really, really nicely. But then if you suddenly have to play something very, very powerful... you find that that string that worked so nicely with a certain repertoire is completely useless when it comes to kind of needing to hit the back wall of the concert hall."