(Tip no. 99 from “100 Orchestration Tips,” Part 5: Strings)

A resonant low note on the basses can reinforce the upper partials of a major harmonic, with good and bad results. This is especially true if the bass is playing an open string a little too loudly. What will happen most often is that the major third+2 octaves will sound out strongly. If the composer has written the major third in, then this can actually be an interesting effect. If not, then you have the “Vivaldi Problem” (my term).

I used to listen to an old bargain-quality cassette of Vivaldi on headphones about 30 years ago. In a slow minor movement, there was a moment when the double bassist sounded a bit too loud, while the ensemble was coming to the end of a cadence on a long minor chord. The result was that the minor third was completely wiped out by the major third partial from the bass overtones (see the sample below – the note marked red will sound as a sharp, not a natural, with this phenomenon).

Nevertheless, bassists play open strings far more than other string players, especially in the case of pizz and harmonics. The Vivaldi Problem usually doesn’t occur with a whole section of basses playing – in fact, most bassists probably haven’t even noticed the phenomenon (which is probably why the bassist in the recording fell into the trap). Six or seven basses on a single note, even an open string, tend to spread the tone through phasing, which tunes out the ringing of the subtler harmonics while underlining the more obvious ones, especially the second harmonic an octave above the played pitch. A vigorously played note by a whole bass section may also create a kind of a “buzz tone” similar to that of the contrabassoon, as noted in the section of this book on winds, but nowhere near as pungent. This effect won’t have the same properties as the Vivaldi Problem because the harmonics being excited are up around the 6th and 7th partials, not the 5th.

Double Basses - “The Vivaldi Problem”

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