Mike's Udemy string arrangement course question

Hi everyone - I started Mike’s string arrangement course today (I am a newbie) and I had a question about which string sections handle which intervals in a chord

If I understood correctly, Mike stated as follows:

Violins 1: use for the 5th of the chord
Violins 2: use for the root of the chord
Violas: use for the 3rd of the chord

So, here is some context:

I wrote a chord progression using a string ensemble patch I found among Logic’s software instruments
I then attempted to separate out, using Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony, the different sections (violins 1, violins 2, viola, cello and bass)

I have the cello and bass playing the root notes in octaves
when I use the above way of arranging the intervals of the chords, I feel as if I am losing something in the translation…

So, is using violins 2 for the root; violins 1 for the 5th; and violas for the 3rd a hard and fast rule or, should the default always be “if it sounds good, it is good”?

Bonus question (like Mike’s “Bonus Tips”):

If I am using the second inversion of a chord, would the above “rules” apply for the 1st, 3rd and 5th or would those change as well?

Thank you for any advice you could give me.

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Hi Douglas. There isn’t a hard rule when orchestrating a chord for strings, but there are some conventions due to the overtone series and how they sound on strings. Strings have a very rich sound, because the overtones stand out a nit more than on other instruments. For this reason, the common practice is to orchestrate your harmony with the lest related notes to the top (i.e. 3, 7, 9) so that the overtones are less heard and the chord becomes clearer. So, it would be, root in the bass, root 8va in the cello, 5th in the viola, root in the 2violin (a 4th up from the viola) and the third in 1violin. But this is only one way and you certainly can do what your artistic sense wants, the real key is to orchestrate your motes in order to get smooth voice leading into the next chord. For this reason, you will probably use more inversions than not. You can also double notes or completely remove the fifth since it is the third that gives a chord is major or minor tonality.

Hope this helps!


Matt - thank you - I suppose, being a newbie, that I was taking everything as a “rule”

I am glad I asked this question here or I would’ve thought I had to conform to that “rule” every time I wrote strings for a song

I am not writing epic orchestration - just trying to bring some real strings to my pop songs but, it is sooooo much fun learning and this message board here is such a welcoming environment that I do not feel embarrassed asking such a newbie question

Would it be possible for you to give me an example using a I-vi-V-IV progression (triads) in the key of C Major – like how each string section would be voiced?

I assume the bass would be: C-A-G-F and cello one octave up from there - but, what about violins 1, violins 2 and violas? This way I could see how it would traditionally be done

Also, what if there is a 7th or 9th in the chord, making it 4 notes, then how would the notes be split in each section?

Thank you again

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Good question, and as Matt already replied, there are no hard rules here. Keep in mind you don’t even need to use all string sections at every single moment. The violins 2 might rest for example.

The doubling and overtone series is very important. If there is one thing to keep in mind it is that the most prominent voices should nearly always be the root + the melodic voice. The harmonies are just there to add interest and harmonic complexity. :slight_smile:

And another thing. In some cases the strings might skip one of the voices of the chord and let woodwinds and/or brass take care of that harmonic voice.


I’m sure Mike covers this in his course (He’s very thorough!) but I can give you some suggestions.

First, to make strings sound realistic, or really, the way you will normally write harmony parts, is to pay close attention to voice leading–this is moving the notes from one chord to another in such a manner to make the changes sound clean and smooth. There are of course some conventions here as well, mainly, to try and keep common tones from chord to chord and usually keep them in the middle voices–you don’t want those voices to move around too much. Also you don’t want the voices other than the bass voices to jump intervals more than a third, usually.

So for your I-vi, C-Am, you’ll notice that there is only one note difference between the two; C-E-G and A-E-C, so all you really need to do is move the G to A. Of course this will leave you with the third in octaves in the bass/cello, making the chord really dark sounding. To avoid that, you could start the C with the E in the bass, cello/violas doubling on C, II violin on G and I violin on C. Then when you move to Am, the bass will drop to A the cello to the A 8va, the viola can move to E, II violin to A and I violin can stay on C and you have a traditionally orchestrated Am chord!

As you can see, there are many ways to do this, but another convention to keep in mind to make things sound “realistic” is always try to have at least one voice move in the opposite direction of the others. I’d suggest trying different versions of your progression with different voice leading to find the one you like. Remember that inversions of chords, although they have the same notes, have slightly different sounds/emotions due to the fact that the interval distance between the notes changes. A regular C in root position is C-E (third) E-G (third) and C-G (fifth) but in first inversion is E-G (third) G-C (fourth) and E-C (sixth).

If you want to add 7ths or 9ths it’s usually best to delete the fifth in the chord–it’s not needed to give the chord it’s color. But you can certainly use all four notes if you like, but keep the 7ths and 9ths in the upper voices. Again, I’m sure Mike covers all of this in his courses. I’ve taken some before, they’re good!!


Mike and Matt - thank you. I am coming from a guitar and pop/rock background so I am just getting my feet wet with all of this. I appreciate the time you both took to respond and it will certainly help me on my journey. Thank you.


Very glad you asked this question as I found this all very interesting too! Another newbie learning. You’r not alone and it was not a dumb or too newbie question at all.

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This thread has opened my eyes. Thanks for the advice!