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Divide and Conquer

There are five sections in the string orchestra, playing five parts, but quite often we need more than five notes at once. There are two ways to get the extra notes, use double stops or divide sections, divisi. In 90% of situations you should choose to divide. There are issues with double stops that I will explain in the next article.

So how does the string section divide?

The default behavior is to divide on the stand. This is also called ‘inside/outside’ as the outside player (closest to audience) takes the top note and the inside player takes the bottom. Some section leaders may instruct the section in other ways, but this is what I have found to be the default, so if you want something else, (e.g., front and back), you should mark it. No discussion is needed for a simple two way divisi.

If you need to go into more parts, say div. a3, that is when a discussion is needed. The leader will work out a plan and let people know. Just keep in mind that the more you divide, like into five or seven, the more complicated it gets and the more time is wasted with discussions. You also increase the odds that someone will misunderstand what part they should play. As mentioned previously, I don’t mark it when the split is two way. But I do mark it when the division involves three or more parts so the leader will see it BEFORE the section plays and can work out a plan.

One thing unique to film scoring is that we copy first and second violins on the same part.  This allows us to easily change the the weighting. Need more people on the melody? No problem, just tell some or all of the seconds to play that line. Also, this allows us to do divisi across the whole group. For example, a three-way division of all violins is very easy to notate when they all see the same parts.

What section do you divide when you need more than five string voices? Range has a lot to do with it, but let’s say we need an extra note in the upper range. In that case divide the second violins. Leave the firsts on one note. A lot of the impression of the size of the orchestra comes from this top part; split it and you change that perception. There are some great colors to be had by dividing the firsts, but if all you want is to add an extra note without affecting the sound, leave the firsts alone. You can also divide violas with no problems. If the extra note is needed in the lower range then divide the celli. Due to the size and weight of the cello, it can easily divide without changing the weight of the sound. If you need root, fifth, and tenth down low, basses would take the root and celli the next the notes. Basses are too thick sounding to divide into anything other than octaves. If you are searching out interesting colors then go ahead and divide in other ways, div a3 or a4. The above rules are designed to maintain the full sound of the string section, not to be overly artistic!


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  1. Clear, concise, and exactly what I was looking for, Thanks!

  2. What do you think about dividing Contrabasses and let them play perfect 5ths ? Lot of this happens to appear in the scores of The “Lord Of The Rings” (Howard Shore) – sometimes even doubled by the Celli an octave above. Debussy did use divided 5ths in the basses as well.. kind of thick sounding… would you recommend it or are chances too high to sound way too muddy? Best wishes!

  3. Hi, thanks for your great weblog and information. I have a question regarding divisi.
    Let’s say, in the beginning of the piece, in the first 4 bars, I have my violins 2 and violas to play Spiccato, in the next for bars, 4 to8, I want half of the violins2 and violas play spicatto and the rest play legato. How can I differentiate it on the staff??

    Thanks in advanced

  4. Hi Tim,

    Great blog, thanks for taking the time to do it. Could you clarify a couple of your points for me? Firstly, in regards to the violins having all parts on the one part, are you saying that if you divide into 3 or more all those parts will be on each players part? Secondly, are you saying that if you have say 16 firsts and 12 seconds you will generally only divide the seconds thereby having 16-6-6?

    • Hi
      Yes, all violins look at the same part. Most of the time it has two staves, top is firsts bottom is 2nds. If I mark it div a3 on the top staff and there are 3 notes, they will then divide in even groups. If we need an extra staff we add it. Likewise a long passage in unison or octaves can be written on one staff. I would never have 16 firsts and 12 seconds, I would have 14 and 14 or I have also gone the other way and had more 2nds than firsts. if I have 22, I sometimes do 10/12 so I have more when I divide the 2nds. The differences are pretty subtle. The perception of the size of the group comes from the top. I have done sessions with 16 on a part and that is too many. The back desks were miles away, the section felt lethargic on fast things, and the edge of the attacks was too smoothed out. The larger the section, the lazier players get.

  5. Hey Tim! Great blog! Discovered it today and already started to read ALL articles 🙂

  6. […] to the resonance and tuning it does not always increase the sound in a good way. As discussed in Divide and Conquer, in many cases you can divide sections and you will not notice any change to the mass or quality of […]

  7. Hi Tim:

    Two quick questions:

    1. Divisi is not just for strings, it could apply to brass and woodwinds as well – any special insights about that? For film scores in particular, I am kind of curious about ‘maintaining orchestral balance’ in terms of level. Since most all sections and sometimes even instruments are miked individually, in theory you wouldn’t need to bother anymore with, e.g., whether the brass might drown out one or more of the woodwinds, by adjusting the mixing levels everything could be balanced out, or do you still orchestrate mindful of a situation where hypothetically there is just one stereo microphone recording the whole lot?

    2. Talking about divisi for strings, have you ever done anything as fancy as say the music for strings, percussion and celesta by Bartok (a piece I love), with two complete sections, split right down the middle, one of the left, one on the right? I read somewhere that Jerry Goldsmith like to use multiple harps, in different locations on the recording stage to get something of a stereo effect.


    • 1. This is an interesting question. In general, I try to balance things naturally, but sometimes it will never work. There is no way 8 horns, 3 trumpets, 5 Trombones and a Cimbasso playing at ff will not drown out even the largest string group. In that case we stripe it. We do tend to put in more and then take out as necessary. It is way faster to tell someone to tacet than to dictate a new part. If the composer or director says it is too thick still, I will come up with a solution. This is one of the skills of a studio conductor that is very different to that of a concert conductor. They will balance a chord by dynamic, I am allowed to balance a chord by changing the orchestration. It is a good thing I do not conduct real orchestras as they would have to restrain me from re-orchestrating it!

      2. Every time I have heard examples of people doing ‘stereo’ effects on that level for a film it has never translated well to the screen. It is either not noticeable in the final mix so why go to the trouble or if it is, can be distracting. When setting up violins on either side, I have to be careful that I do not do anything that comes across as one of those things. I did it once and learnt my lesson. We are doing this for the film, not for me to be a smart arse. We do sometimes have people move off mic to get a distant sound, we did that for an oboe solo last week. In video games, I do get more latitude and do have some fun.
      We do use different size sections for different sounds.


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