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Why do the string players sit in front?

Kathy Greenbank in rehearsal

Photo: Principal Oboe Kathy Greenbank

With Opening Night approaching, we invited two members of the club2030 council to look ahead to the coming season and answer some of the questions new audience members might have. Today, Johanna Lorbach examines the conventions that (usually) dictate the orchestra’s seating on stage… but might not be obvious to someone attending a concert for the first time.

There are some things I accept without too much thought. A carrot picked from the garden tastes better than a carrot bought from the store. A mosquito’s favorite place to hang out is right by my ear while I’m trying to fall asleep. And when a classical orchestra gathers on stage, the strings are at the front, followed by woodwinds, brass, and then percussion.

But what about that last one? What are the reasons for this seemingly inequitable arrangement? I have to confess that I’d never really thought about it before. Yes, as a string player myself, it’s possible that some of this lack of attention could be due to the fact that I’ve just been content to sit front and center, but I knew that someone must have figured out that it was the best layout.

A brief online investigation, combined with an informal survey of musician friends, yielded a satisfying collection of reasons. To begin with, the first chair first violin is traditionally one of the most important leaders in the orchestra (we can explore the reason for that another time), so that person should be centrally located, not only to hear what is going on but to be visible to the rest of the orchestra. Also, the string section usually has the most notes and highest percentage of melody, so it would make sense to put them in front, where they are visible–both to the audience and to each other–and have the best chance of being heard.

This leads us to the issues of sound and volume. Although the string section usually has the most players, individually the instruments definitely can’t compete in volume with members of the other sections. Wind and brass instruments have a directional sound that naturally projects, so they are still audible from the back of the stage (usually on risers so that their sound travels over the heads of the other musicians without them having to strain to be heard). Also, string sound takes longer to develop than that of woodwinds or brass, according to this report by F.G.J. Absil, so for the most precise ensemble playing, the strings need to be in the front.

Or, as one Yahoo user succinctly put it, “noisy stuff at back, quieter at front.”

Sounds like mystery solved. Now if someone could just explain to me the mosquito buzzing in my ear.