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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.’ Players sit in pairs and share a music stand, hence the term. In some countries a pair is also referred to as a ‘desk’. Each player is then either an ‘outside’ player, closest to the audience and taking the top voice, or an ‘inside,’ taking the bottom voice. Some section leaders may instruct the section in other ways, but this is what I have found to be the default in both the concert hall and the recording studio, 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.

My preferred ways to do standard two-way splits in each section are like so: violin 1, 2, violas and basses divide on the stand; and the cellos go into groups, where the front group will play the top part and the back group will play the lower note. This is because they are often going to be playing with the basses. This has become even more important now that I have started to use more cellos and we spend a lot of time in two parts, as if there are first and second cellos.

If you need to go into more parts, say div. a3, that is when things can get a little trickier and plans and discussions are needed. In most cases you can leave it to the section leaders to organize. They often number off- 1,2,3,1,2,3. During Covid times when people were not sharing stands, there was no automatic inside or outside reference point for each player, so I started to draw maps and make sure everyone knew what note to play in all cases. Odd seat numbers were outside, even were inside, and working out more complex divisions are as easy as calling out numbers or number ranges. Here are some examples of a few charts I drew up to organize this on some sessions in 2020-2021:

I found this worked so well I continued to draw pretty pictures for every session. It has really helped me visualize who is going to play what and balance things. Also, being this organized allows me to easily do more complex divisi’s. Check out String Section Sizes for more information on how I organize sections.

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. Whatever you do, be sure to look at each line from the players’ perspective so it makes sense. Sometimes jumping in and out of a ‘big three-way’ can lead to terrible voice leading.

From a musical perspective, 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 as there is no default rules for that. All of that said, I have practically negated all issues and made things much easier for everyone to follow with my pretty drawings and layouts.

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. If the top part is a melody and the next two are not, then for sure divide the seconds.

Dividing the Violins into Three Parts

There are three cases where I like to divide into three equal groups. The first is when you have a three-note chord and the top is not melodic. This will balance better with even division (and works particularly well with tremolo chords). Next is when you have three individual parts. Use three staves and ‘div a3.’ And finally, when I have a wire (long high note) that I do not want to be as present, I will have the back violins play that. If you take an even number from both the firsts and the seconds, they can still stay in their sections and you will get an even sound from them with a slightly more distant sound from the back players.

There are a few ways to get the violins into three equal groups. Some leaders will have them ‘number off’: 1,2,3,1,2,3, etc. This can get confusing, is limiting, and I am convinced every time it is done there are at least two players who have no idea what part to play. By doing it in groups, as in my pretty diagrams above, and keeping each stand/pair on the same ‘part’ you can then divide them further. Thus I can easily get them into six parts with minimal text and discussion. This technique also keeps each ‘line’ of the part in blocks than can easily be pulled out by spot microphones. If you number off, each part is spread out. I don’t mind that sonically, but it is harder to then dig a part out if needed when mixing.

Having the violins in three groups also allows for an easy six part-divisi as each group is based on stands, so they can thus divide on the stand. In the following example from Chris Beck’s arrangement of “When You Wish Upon a Star” for Disney’s 100th anniversary logo, by being organized, I get from five parts, to three parts with a divisi on the top, to two parts, to three parts with a divisi on the bottom, all with minimal text and discussion apart from making sure every player knew if they were first or second violin and group one, two, or three. It took me about two minutes to explain at the start of the session. To be clearer I label each staff with the group name, but if it was just one note in each I would just say div a3. I dare anyone to come up with a better way to get a five part divisi!

You can see how I switch to standard firsts and seconds on beat three of bar 12, the firsts are divided and the seconds are unison. See how easy and logical for the players it is to get from five parts to three parts half way through a bar. Note how the seconds take the runs as they end on a run to nowhere and the shift would be rough if the first played the run then the tune in bar 15.

You can divide violas into two with no problems. If the extra note needed is in the lower range then divide the celli. Due to the size and weight of the cello, the section 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 two notes. The cello will have a much richer sound on the 10th than the violas if it is in the middle bass clef range. Basses work best in unison or octaves. I have had some success with low fifths when it is soft. If you are searching out interesting colors then go ahead and divide sections 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!

Here is a section from the analysis of Error Code 7 post where I explain what choices I made when I needed six or seven notes and, importantly, why I made those choices.

I keep first violin all in unison and freely divide violin two, viola, and cello when notes are needed based on voice leading and the sweet spots of their ranges. This is standard operating procedure in this type of voicing and range. I could go div. a3 in the violins but that is silly here as it makes a voicing nightmare for the players. Save the three-way for when it is a longer phrase in three parts or the voice leading makes sense. A good way to test for this is to imagine you are somewhere in the back of the firsts and playing the middle line of the three-way split; is it easy to read and follow the line, and does it make musical sense? I see a lot of inexperienced orchestrators thinking they are being cool going back and forth into three parts, instead of just dividing the seconds. It shows no regard for the poor player that has to read and make music of the part!

In bar 32 I had a few options for the three notes that outline the tenth and give this voicing its rich sound. I chose to divide the cello. Firstly, it is the biggest sound, so dividing it even when there are only six players is going to maintain the best balance. Secondly, if I had the viola on the fifths, in bar 35 they would hit their open C, which runs a very real risk of not blending well. Also these particular notes are fuller on the cello than the viola. For the other splits, you can see that voice leading made all of these the most obvious choices. While the string section is quite forgiving when it comes to divisi, you can really put some extra butter on that vegemite toast by thinking about it musically.

As mentioned above, I do not use any text when they just divide into two parts. I have no idea why, but we have all been taught wrong, sections divide by default. They will not play double stops in 99% of situations, even if you write non. div. or use brackets. They just divide. I explain the reasons why in Double [stop] Trouble. I can’t stress enough what a waste of ink it is writing div. and unis. all over your score. I have not done it for twenty years in both the studio and concert hall and no one ever plays double stops!

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  1. If I have a section of 6644 or smaller 4422

    and I have to divide two sections to have more notes in the harmony

    Do you like to split v2 and violas or violas and cellos?

  2. Hello Tim, how are you?

    my orchestration teacher tells me that to obtain balance it is better to divide the cellos and violas in unison, it is better to divide the second violins and the first play in unison, he tells me that if I want to divide the violas I have to divide the cellos to balance the sound

    What do you recommend me?

    • I think it all depends on the range of the notes you need. That said, apart from leaving violin 1 in unison, I feel you can divide any of the rest of them into 2 and provided the range is correct, you will still have balance. I have never personally worried about it in any other way. These days, I have been using more cello’s than violas as I do divide them a lot more. So I guess that is my current solution!

  3. Hey Tim! Awesome post as always. Clarifying question regarding dividing violins a3 for simple chordal passages – do you notate the full chord on both violin 1 and 2 staves, with a3 above?

    • Hi Greg. In the studio, we copy all violins together, so it is just a matter or writing the three lines and then marking it div a’3. Sometimes I will have 2 parts on the 2nd staff, more often than not it is easier for me and the players to use 3 staves. These days I just label the staves as “Violins” not firsts and seconds as it is more flexible. If it is not clear, the copyist will make sure it is for the players. In the concert world, where their are separate parts I have actually always just divided the 2nds and if it is super high, then the firsts. But the general trick to getting an even three parts is as you suggest, writing all three on each part.

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

  5. 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!

    • It is an effect, thick and muddy is great in the right context. Most of my suggestion are based on creating a traditional big sound. I did use some 5ths on the score to Rings with Mathew Margeson.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

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

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. 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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