Musical saw

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The Musical Saw

The musical saw, sometimes referred to as "the singing saw", is most often regarded as a folk instrument and little music is written specifically for it. It is considered by some to be one of the thousands of percussion instruments that a percussionist should master, but it is tricky to play; one needs a good ear for the intonation, and almost a 'cello player's technique to operate the bow. One who plays the saw as a proper musical instrument is referred to as a sawyer.


Basically, it is a saw. It may have teeth, it may not. Musical saws are made with somewhat more bendable metal than straight up saws for cutting things. The saw player places it between his legs, teeth edge facing towards the player, and obtains notes by bending the blade into a sort of S shape and exciting the saw at the point at the center of the S (the inflection point). This excitation can be made with a bow or a yarn-covered mallet. The saw hangs on to its note for many seconds after excitation; it is often practical to play a phrase of notes in one bow or mallet-strike.

The result is a strapping, limber sine tone similar to that of a Theremin's. The dynamic capability is from very soft to very loud. When bowing, loud attacks are very difficult without a lot of rosin; a crescendo is more often what results. Excessive vibrato is a common effect and is done by wiggling one's legs or hand holding the saw, which rapidly alters the tension in the saw in relatively small increments.

For those interested in extended timbres: while bowing loudly, the excitation reaches a threshold above which something like harmonic distortion can be heard. Also, depending on how heavily bent the saw blade is, there are often multiple pitches available simultaneously along the length, typically an alternate tone about a minor third higher, and then one or more excessively high tones, all known as harmonics.


<music> \meterOff \cadenzaOn c'^\markup{A.} \glissando s s c fis,,,^\markup{B.} \glissando s s fis c,,^\markup{C.} \glissando s s c </music>

Approximate ranges for
  • A: tenor saw
  • B: baritone saw
  • C: bass saw

The lower end of the range is the greatest limitation since most saws can get ear-piercingly high enough for any humans. A common tenor saw (the closest to an industry standard) bottoms out at C above middle C, and a bass saw at middle C. The baritone saw may bottom out around F# in between. Most saws have at least a two octave range.


Glissandi are easy to do on the saw. In the upwards direction they noticeably grow louder, and downwards they dimenuendo. When glissing, one can go to a note strongly (such that it will sustain) or weakly (by breaking out of the S shape, the note vanishes.) A particularly striking effect is a sort of boinging sound when striking then immediately performing a glissando upwards into nothingness.

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