General Bowing Techniques

All instruments of the violin family are played one of two ways: by plucking the strings (pizzicato) or through contact with a bow (arco). Bowing is the most common way to play stringed instruments in symphonic and chamber music settings.

The bow uses fine horsehair. When the bow is drawn across the strings, friction produces a tone. This wouldn't be possible without rosin. Rosin is a hard, sticky substance made of tree sap. When applied to the bow, the bow hairs grip the strings.

The two important parts of the bow are the frog and the tip. The bow hairs are suspended between these points, and the frog is where the string player holds the bow. The most basic bow strokes are down and up bows. In the modern era, the universal rule is that strong beats are played as down bows while weak beats are played as up bows. In 4/4, this means that beats one and three are down bows while beats two and four are up bows. The symbols for up and down bows are shown in Figure 16-7. A down bow begins at the frog and moves to the tip. An up bow is just the opposite.

FIGURE 16-7: Up and down bows

Bowing techniques used by modern string players include:

  • au talon: bowing at the frog. This produces louder and thicker tones

  • punta d'arco: bowing at the tip. This produces thinner, delicate tones.

  • col legno: hitting the strings with the stick or wood of the bow; a percussive effect.

  • sul ponticello or sul pont: bowing close to the bridge of the violin. This produces a coarse, nasal tone.

  • sul tasto: bowing over the fingerboard of the violin. This produces a light, airy tone.

  • détaché: to bow each note separately. Nothing is indicated in the music except the notes themselves.

  • legato: attached, slurred notes. When a slur is written, the notes will be grouped together as one connected phrase.

  • tenuto: play each note for its full value. Alternating full-length bows are usually used.

  • portato: the pulsing of legato (slurred) notes with a single up or down bow.

  • staccato: short, detached notes (usually with alternating bowing).

  • spiccato: the bow bounces on the strings using distinct, controlled bow strokes. This produces very short notes. Often, composers use the term sautillé synonymously.

  • marcato: long, accented, detached notes. Each stressed note is attacked separately without slurring.

  • martelé: “hammering” the strings. Each bow stroke is strong and accented but short (similar to marcato but with staccato notes).

  • jeté: the bow strikes the strings then rebounds several times in rapid succession. Often used for fast, delicate, staccato arpeggios. The term ricochet (ric.) may be used as a synonym.

  • tremolo: “rolled” notes using fast up and down bows.

  • sul G, sul D, etc.: This tells the string player to use only a specific string such as the G-string or the D-string, etc.

Figure 16-8 shows some of these techniques are they are notated in music. Legato strings are common in virtually all styles of music and are written using slur markings; see Figure 16-8.

FIGURE 16-8: Détaché, legato, tenuto, portato, staccato, spiccato, marcato, martelé, and tremolo bow strokes as seen in notation

As a composer, you will want to be aware of bowing techniques since each one produces distinct timbral and textural variances. You will probably find that you use détaché, legato markings (slurs), and staccato markings (dots) the most. However, if you are aware of other bowing techniques, you can bring greater color, texture, and diversity to your compositions.

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