Orchestration: Techniques of Strings - Part I

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Orchestraheader.png A YC Tutorial
Justin P. Tokke
This page is a part of the Orchestration Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Orchestration masterclass
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Let us begin our discussion of what the strings can actually do. We already explored the most basic facts about how sound is produced on strings and how the string section is set up. Now let's look at some of the techniques that players are capable of and the sounds they produce. In Part I we will explore the techniques of the right hand, the bowing hand, and all the variations on bowing the strings. Then we will discuss the left hand's technique, the fingering hand, in Part II. Using this framework we should be able to have a holistic idea of how the strings work and are used in the orchestra.

Be forewarned, these two tutorials will likely be the largest of them all, by far. So brace yourselves!

Introduction to the Right Hand

Strings Bridge

On the A String
On the A String
On the A and D Strings
On the A and D Strings
All Combinations
All Combinations

The right hand holds the bow and is manipulated across the strings to produce sound. Depending on the angle of the bow, it can stroke against any string or a combination of strings. The bridge, being curved, gives each string a distinct place within space allowing for each string to be sounded individually.

See the diagram of a typical strings bridge to the right. Here the angle of the bow would stroke only the A string. If the bow was adjusted slightly downward it could be drawn across the A and D strings like so.

Given that there are four strings, and three combinations of two strings, there are seven possible positions for the bow to draw across strings.

The bow can change from string to string relatively simply, especially if the strings are adjacent. Crossing strings, however, is more difficult; not touching the middle string with the bow is difficult when one needs to move rapidly from two outer strings. The further apart the strings are, the greater the angle the bow needs to change, thus increasing the movement of the arm further slowing down the process. Rapid alterations of outer strings should thus be avoided.

Playing more than one string at a time is called double stopping which belongs to the family of multiple stops. The strings can play two notes at a time on adjacent strings sustained. Three and four notes can also be struck, but not sustained because of the curvature of the bridge. In the diagram above, it is clear that one could not draw the bow against three strings at any given time because it would put too much pressure on the bow and middle string. Generally, triple and quadruple stops require a slight arpeggiation of the notes for them to all sound along with a great amount of force to make them sound at the same time. While somewhat limited, this effect is very useful in solo literature and louder ensemble passages where extra force is needed. We will discuss the fingering implications of multiple stops later.


The bow is drawn across the string in two ways, either from the frog to the tip, called a downbow, or from the tip to the frog, an upbow. Naturally, the downbow and upbow nomenclature comes from the general direction of the bow from the perspective of the player. Bowing is the broad technique of how the bow is drawn across the string. Because the bow is so incredibly versatile, there is rarely a “correct” bowing for any particular passage of music. One should therefore know all the possibilities and sounds that the bow can produce and ask for certain techniques according to the composer’s intentions.

There are two symbols that you must memorize to indicate bowing in your scores.

Downbow: Downbow.png

Upbow: Upbow.png

These symbols are placed above the notes just like any standard articulation like so:

Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, Trio

Elgar bows.png

This type of bowing is the most common type of bowing where downbows and upbows alternate. It is called non-legato bowing or detaché (French for "detached"). When changing from a downbow to an upbow, the notes are broken by the change in bow, similar to playing a piano key and then lifting it up completely, then playing the next key. Note, however, that the length of the notes has no bearing on this disconnection. So non-legato notes can easily be played teunuto, or "long", played to their full value; indeed, good players will usually do this by default. Thus non-legato may be somewhat of a misnomer for those who don't know the difference between "legato" and "teunuto." Note the difference well. If there is no other indication for a different kind of bowing, i.e. notes with no other markings, players will default to non-legato bowing. Therefore, to indicate every bowing like in the example above is superfluous and should never be done. (The original has no bow markings.)

It is usually the concertmaster (that is, the section leader of the First Violins) that determines the bowing for the string section and they all follow a uniform bowing pattern of upbows and downbows as necessitated by the music. However, whether to use one or the other is up for debate and bowings can often be changed on a whim if the concertmaster or conductor wishes. One should also be aware that regardless of how specific composers’ markings for bowing will be, they will often be rejected by the musicians for a more “correct” bowing that usually varies on their specific tastes. Thus, it is the most prudent to only specify bowing when specific sounds are needed. If one is unsure about an unusual bowing pattern they should ask a player before writing it into a piece. Bowing markings can save time a rehearsal if they're correct and logical, but they can also waste time if they are incorrect or impractical.

Downbows have the potential for the greatest force because the frog (and thus hand) is closest to the string allowing for the greatest leverage on the bow. Downbows have a natural diminuendo, that is, if played with a consistent force of the hand as the bow is drawn across the string, the note will diminuendo slightly. This is because there is less and less leverage on the bow as the frog moves away from the string. With an upbow, it is the opposite: there is little leverage on the bow because the frog is far away from string and notes will crescendo when played with consistent pressure. This presents an odd peculiarity for the player because passages usually do not intend to have those gradations of dynamic mid-phrase. If played with consistent pressure of the hand, the example from above would sound like this:

Elgar bowing with haripins.png

This cannot be good for expression! The player must compensate for this peculiarity by adjusting the force of the bow by the hand on the string to eliminate those changes of volume. Another consequence of this peculiarity is that cresc. notes will preferably be played with upbows and dim. with downbows if possible. Composers should keep that in mind but not necessarily concern themselves too much. Good players, even mediocre ones, will correct these problems on their own.

Because of this difference in leverage accents and strong notes will be much easier to play with a downbow while weaker ones with an upbow. In general, concertmasters and conductors will attempt to make strong beats fall on a downbow while pickups (anacrusis beats) and weak beats fall on upbows. This rule does not always apply, obviously dependent on context, but it is the general default.

Consistent Bows

Composers can override the default tendency of bowing by writing in bowing markings in the score that are “unusual” to get a specific sound. One such technique is to override the typical "down/up" pattern and replace it with a bowing of "down/down." Consider this great example from Tchaikovsky:

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, Mov. 4, Rehearsal C (instrument names added for clarity)


Recording: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, conductor

Here we have several downbows in a row indicated by many downbow symbols. This passage could very easily be played by the default down/up/down/up pattern, but it would not have the force that this passage has. The consistent downbows allow the players to exert a great force on the strings causing a forceful and unique sound.

Tchaikovsky also used this technique in his Symphony No. 6, Mov. 3 where he uses the strings to emphasize the accents of the strong beats in the march.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, Mov. 3, 4 measures after Rehearsal K


Recording: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, conductor

As a side note, notice in the March (Symphony No. 6) Tchaikovsky indicates sul G for the violins, meaning "on the G string" which provides a much more intense timbre than the regular D and A strings which the passage would have been played on normally. We will discuss different strings with each individual instrument since it is different for each.

Consecutive bows, in almost every circumstance, require the player to “retake” the bow after each stroke, or lift the bow slightly and move it upward so new leverage can be gained on the bow for a second downbow. Therefore, all consecutive downbows will inventively be separated, even more than the non-legato downbow/upbow pattern. This separation is very effective for marcato-like sounds just like Tchaikovsky used above.

The use of consistent upbows is far less commonly marked by composers but is sometimes used by players in softer accompaniment passages. The effect is not as useful when compared to the consistent downbows and there are no significant examples from the repertoire.

Slurs and Legato Bowing

In continuing with our discussion of bowing, we come to probably the most misunderstood marking in string music: the slur. Slurs, known as “those curvy line thingies”, denote notes connected by bowing in strings music: when more than one note is under a slur, those notes will be played in a single bow motion in the same direction. This is known as legato bowing allowing notes to be effortlessly connected with no break. Legato in this context means "connected" where notes are directly connected via the bow's same direction. The notes can be short or long and still be called "legato" as long as they're within the same bow motion. Legato bowing is very popular with composers and leads to that typical rich and “romantic” sound that only the strings can provide.

While legato bowing is very useful, it presents a huge physical problem to the composer, specifically, the fact that the bow is not infinitely long. Only so many notes can be played on a single bow. To further complicate matters, the number of notes that can be played is completely dependent on context and even the instrument.

Phrase Markings vs. Bow Markings

The slur should not be confused with the ligature, a marking used to denote phrases that looks exactly the same as a slur. Phrase markings are usually not written in string parts because of the confusion of these two symbols. Note that phrase markings aren't necessary for most string parts and are usually implied by the expression of a line or the bow pattern designated by the composer. However, when it is not obvious it may become necessary to indicate phrase markings. There are several methods one could use:

  • Write long slurs that would be impossible to be played in one bow: This is the most common method but also subject to the most confusion because they look like slurs and may not be immediately differentiable from ligatures. This method also has limitations since not every phrase is long enough to fit into a passage that would be impossible to bow. An example of long phrase markings would be like so:

Brahms: Symphony No. 1: Mov. 4 - Theme With Phrase Markings

Brahms slurs.png

This example is unclear because the tempo is "Allegro ma non troppo". That would allow one to bow the entire slur in one motion if it was quiet enough. This method is great for very long phrases, but not for relatively shorter ones like in the Brahms.

  • Use slurs for bowing nested within one larger slurs for phrasing: This is a good method for phrases that have multiple bows but a single expressive unit.

- Theme With Phrase Markings and Bow Markings

Brahms slurs within slurs.png

  • Use dotted or dashed slurs to indicate phrases: This is probably the best way, however, it is not standard notation so it will have to be explained in the score. Dotted or dashed is a matter of preference; they are essentially equivalent unless the composer designates them to mean different things.

- Theme With Dotted/Dashed Phrase Markings and Bow Markings

Brahms slurs dotted.png

These methods of notation are also applicable to wind instruments who have a similar limitation of breath. But we won't get into that now.

Choosing Which Notes to Slur: Brahms Example

Let's take that same Brahms example and expand on it some more. If the composer wants a legato sound for any particular passage, the slurs, and thus bowing pattern, can be written in several different ways. Using the Brahms example above, we'll explore some of those possibilities and use that as a model for making decisions about which notes to slur. Note that the bowing markings are written for clarity; they would not be present in the final part because bowing would be made obvious by the slurs.

Alternate Brahms Example 1

Brahms slurs bowing a.png

Or one could also write this:

Alternate Brahms Example 2

Brahms slurs bowing b.png

Notice the use of the upbow on the anacrusis (pickup) to each two-bar phrase. This makes the first strong note (C4 of phrase 1 and D4 of phrase 2) receive a downbow and thus greater importance in the phrase. The difference between Examples 1 and 2 is whether to give importance to the cadence note (A4 in phrase 1 and D4 in phrase 2) by either splitting the slur on beat three, as in Example 1, or continuing the slur all the way through the bar, as in Example 2. In Example 1, the strong note and cadence note would generally be of equal importance. But in Example 2, the cadence note would be less important than the strong note.

Both alternate Examples 1 and 2 would be similar in sound, as long and connected, it is just a matter of preference to where the subtle natural dynamics, emphasis, and expression should be implied. For the first example, the dynamics tend to rise and fall about every half note. In the second, they rise and fall every whole note. These subtle expressions are articulated with the change of bowings.

Now let’s look at what Brahms actually wrote in context:

Brahms: Symphony No. 1: Mov. 4, First Statement of the Theme – strings only shown


Recording: Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle, conductor

Here he takes our second alternate example a step further. He forces the pickup to be placed within the initial bow. This leads to a bowing like so:

Brahms slurs dotted hairpins.png

As a disclaimer, this may be only one particular bowing used by any particular orchestra. Indeed, bowings of even the great masters are changed for a more "correct" bowing. Composer beware!

The dashed hairpins underneath the example show an approximation of the subtle natural dynamics in Brahms’s example. The forced upbow on the strong beats allow for a longer crescendo that leads to the downbow on the cadence note at the end of each phrase. The first strong note is no longer strong but a continuation of the phrase. Notice too that he uses consistent slurs between the Violins and Viola who have the tune harmonized. This leads to a very homogenous sound with an expressive legato feel.

Now listen to the recording again and see if you can hear those dynamics. Could you? If you couldn't you're correct. These dynamics are specifically not noticeable. There was no crescendo or diminuendo amongst this phrase. Even though there were upbows and downbows, somewhat long ones too, the players compensated for their natural tendencies and adjusted their pressure of the bow. Had Brahms written in some hairpins to follow the natural dynamics then the players would have certainly obliged, but since he didn't, they kept a consistently even volume.

So what are these so-called "subtle dynamics" and why bother talking about them at all? It is an aspect of expression that is hard to define in music because there's no consistent method to producing their feeling; it is "just understood." In the recording, the string section gives equal volume to the whole passage, but not equal velocity to each note. So even though it was consistently forte as shown in the score, every note was not treated equal. The cadence note was clearly defined as the important note or the "goal note" of the phrase. This difference between volume and velocity is what makes determining where to change bows so crucial. Indeed, volume will often have little to do with where the bows change. Velocity, however, will have a great deal to do with whether a note is an upbow or downbow. Luckily, concertmasters, being (mostly) intelligent musicians, will attempt to make sound musical judgments on where the velocity should be greatest or least and thus where downbows and upbows should be used respectively.

When writing legato bowing, the composer should be able to deduce where the upbows and downbows should be applied and slur the music accordingly. This is especially important when working in melodic or contrapuntal contexts were the strings are dominating in the texture. If the strings are given the correct slurs, they will be able to properly express the phrases as required by the music. A lot of younger composers fall into the trap of just writing slurs wherever they want a "legato" or connected sound. However, this is erroneous because the breaking up of that connection is what defines the important notes in a phrase. Using slurs judiciously will allow the passage to make sense expressively. Therefore, don't look at legato bowing in a vacuum. Be sure to consider all the factors when adding slurs to parts.

Legato Bowing In Multiple Contexts

Let us now consider some more details into legato bowing. When playing soft the bow is not pressed as heavily on the strings as when playing loud. Accordingly less length of the bow is required to sound a note when playing soft as compared to loud. Likewise, when playing fast, more notes can be slurred because more notes exist per unit of time. Slower tempos require more bow because every note is longer. Thus, in slower tempos, slurs should be generally shorter than faster tempos.

In the Brahms example above, he used relatively long slurs because the tempo is relatively fast. If the tempo was even 20 or 30 beats per minute slower, the long slurs would not be as practical (though not impossible) at the forte dynamic he indicates. If the dynamic was piano, it would be possible at a slower tempo. As a general rule, one should assume that the slower and louder it gets, the more bow is necessary. Thus, shorter slurs are advised whenever the music gets loud and slow. The inverse is true for soft and fast, however one is not required to use long slurs at all; in that case it is only a matter of preference of where the legato bows should begin and end.

[Slurs long quiet Midsummer?]

[Slurs short and quiet]

[Slurs short and loud]

[Slurs long loud Tchaik?]

[Impossible slurs Liszt?]

Portato or Slurred Staccato

In legato bowing, notes are usually played long and connected, but, in some cases, notes can be played staccato too. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is only in terms. Playing the notes short but within the same bow direction is called a “slurred staccato.” This is indicated by several slurred notes with staccato markings underneath it. This technique is called portato, from the Italian meaning “to carry.”

Notes are slurred and accordingly played in the same bow direction, but the staccato dots indicate that the notes should be separated with a noticeable break in between. This concept of “slurred staccato” is used most commonly in accompaniment passages for strings. One of the most famous examples of slurred staccato comes from Handel’s Messiah:

Handel: Messiah: Tenor Recit., “Comfort Ye”

Comfort ye.png

Recording: English Baroque Soloists; John Elliot Gardiner, conductor; Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, tenor

This effective accompaniment uses the slurred staccato to provide a light texture for the tenor to sing on top of. It also delicately emphasizes the half-note division of the measure which is the rate the harmony changes. This subtle but powerful detail allows the music to feel suspended in space while still moving forward, in a way, very comforting, almost like a lullaby, quite appropriate for the text being presented.

Notice how Handel marks the parts with slurs and staccatos to show his intention to have slurred staccato, but he only adds the staccatos for the first few beats or so implying that the staccatos are understood to continue, a common baroque practice. This is a bad policy for today’s players since it wouldn't be understood to continue the articulation without the sim. marking. It is advisable to use the markings wherever they're required than to leave anything to chance.

In bar 13, notice the clever change of register of all the strings and the omission of the continuo. Make sure you know the difference in sound between the higher and lower registers of slurred staccato.

Louré or Slurred Tenuto

Related to slurred staccato is the “slurred tenuto” (called Louré in French), or the playing of all the notes under a slur long rather than short. This type of bowing is usually only used when consecutive notes of the same pitch are slurred. This results in a "pulsing" of the legato, just barely making a break noticeable. Notes of differing pitch are just played normally in legato.

The above Handel example is sometimes played like this ignoring the staccatos or by misinterpretation. Louré, while often used by the players to simplify passages or to change an expression is rarely marked by composers en masse. Sometimes slurs with no tenutos automatically are understood as louré but this is not universal. (See the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven. The primary theme is groups of two 8th notes slurred together. Some recordings interpret this as a tie, others interpret it as louré.) It is recommended to use the staccato and tenuto markings together all the time to be absolutely clear on the length of the notes under the slurs. If necessarily, a medium length can be achieved with a tenuto and staccato under the slur. While unusual, it is not unprecedented.


As with legato bowing, there are many types of staccato bowing. As with slurs, much relies on context for which type of bowing the player will use. Generally, there are two large groups of staccato bowings: on-the-string and off-the-string. On-the-string bowings we have already seen with non-legato and legato bowing. Off-the-string bowing is used only in staccato settings where the bow is made to bounce on the string as it moves. This allows for a very short and crisp sound and, quite literally, a bouncy feel.

The standard, run-of-the-mill staccato bowings are indicated by dots over the notes like on any other instrument. The dot means “short” or “separated” and instructs the player to leave a gap between the notes. Whether to use an on- or off-the-string technique, however, is often left up to the music’s context and/or the player’s personal tastes, unless, of course, the composer specifically asks for one or the other. The most common default is to just play the notes detaché and play them short. This is, essentially, the de facto standard on-the-string staccato technique.

[Staccato examples]


Spiccato is the most common off-the-string technique. It is the “bouncy staccato” used so fondly by composers and players for centuries. The bow is encouraged to bounce on the strings leaving only a very little bit of movement actually on the string itself. This gives a very short and crisp sound, very useful for fast and buoyant passages. Composers are mixed as when to indicate spiccato and sometimes will just leave it to the player entirely. This is a bad policy; don’t leave things to chance! To indicate you specifically want a spiccato technique, write the passage with staccato dots, then write “spicc.” in technique text (non-italicized, above the staff). If the passage is lengthy, one could use the “sim.” marking to eliminate excessive use of the staccato dot. Note too though, that some passages are far easier to play on-the-string than off-the-string (and vice versa) so only specify spiccato specifically when you know it is the sound you want and can be accomplished with relative ease.

[Spiccato examples]


Related to the staccato, the stacatissimo is for extremely short notes. They are usually indicated by a pointed arrow-like symbol. Technically, this symbol says nothing to the weight of the notes, though the notes are often played heavier than expected because of its likeness to the “wedge” symbol. If in doubt (and especially in loud dynamics), write leggiero or “lightly.”

[Peter and the Wolf example]


To have a heavier feel to certain passages, they can be marked marcato, or “marked” in Itallian. The symbol looks like a caret on top of the notes, or by writing the word marc. to indicate an extended section of maracto. This indicates to the player to exert extra force on the bow and sometimes use more bow to produce more vibrations of the string. Dynamics and length have no bearing on the force of the note, per se. Marcato, while possible at soft dynamics, is often ineffective and rare. Loud marcato, however, is all the rage, often too much (yes, even Mahler goes a bit too far), and is very effective when used with moderation. Thus, unless specifically indicated otherwise, marcato will be played loud and heavy.

Length of marcato is less standard. Unspecified lengths often will be played according to the context and player’s tastes again (as is 98% of everything else strings play). The default length varies from ensemble to ensemble or style to style. For example, in Jazz groups, marcato accents will always be played short unless negated by a tenuto marking. In German late-romantic music, marcato accents will always be played long unless negated by a staccato marking. (You can imagine the mayhem that occurs when a jazz player sits in with an orchestra playing Mahler to find a whole note written with a marcato accent!)

It is good policy, therefore, to indicate the length of the note with the marcato accent with a staccato dot or tenuto line unless the length is blatantly obvious. Though, more often than not, someone will misinterpret it no matter what the composer does. If you must, use the tenuto and staccato markings with the marcato for medium length, but at that point, you are probably getting too specific. One note with three articulations is, from a player’s perspective, excessive and annoying. Surely they need to have some room to misinterpret!

[Marcato examples]

Other Variants

There are other variants to the above bow strokes which are often subtler combinations of techniques. Some of the more obscure techniques such as martelle, or collé are outside of the scope of our discussion. A good strings book should be consulted for more advanced techniques. Most of these types of techniques involve bowing with different portions of the bow and often contain trivial subtleties that should not concern the composer. Players will instinctively change their bowing to make the best judgment for the musical integrity of the piece (most of the time, that is).

Jeté or Ricochet

Simply put, the jeté is when the bow will bounce off the string causing a ricochet effect. This effect is very common in solo string literature and is most often seen in the orchestra as solo string parts within the orchestra. This is mostly because the effect cannot be easily heard with a full string section; it would sound muddied if played by the whole group. Sometimes this is the intention where a “woosh” of sound is wanted.

[Jete Examples]

Bowed Tremolo

The tremolo has two different varieties. They are the “bowed tremolo” and “fingered tremolo.” As made obvious by their names, each variety uses a different hand’s techniques. The bowed tremolo is produced by the oscillation of the bow while the fingered tremolo is produced by the oscillation of the pitch with the fingers. We will discuss the fingered tremolo later when talking about the left hand.

The “bowed tremolo” is essentially a series of very short strokes with the bow back and forth to create a rustling effect. The speed is usually “as fast as possible” but sometimes this is aesthetically inappropriate and different speeds are chosen. Regardless, each player is on his or her own speed thus creating a great effect used from tense loud moments of distress to quiet delicate accompaniments. All sorts of effects can be applied to tremolos giving it a great deal of variety.

Since the bow oscillates back and forth along the string, only a single pitch or a double stop can be played tremolo. If more than one pitch is required, it is usually better to write the part divisi than to do odd double stops.

[Example: Mahler 1, Mov. 1]

[Example: Mahler 3: Mov. 3]

Using Different Parts of the Bow

Sometimes, to influence the timbre of a passage, different parts of the bow will be used. Usually, the middle or bottom third is the most common. For lighter effects, the strings are bowed more towards the tip, or point of the bow. The common designation is punta d’arco or “point of bow”. This produces a very light and wispy effect often used in very quiet and fast passages.

[Punta d’arco example]

The opposite is to play at the frog of the bow for heavy effects. Al talone or “at the frog” is used for heavy effects such as marcato and accents. Some effects, such as consistent downbows, often will require using the frog out of necessity, though not always.

[Al talone example]

To return to “normal bowing”, one can usually write arco naturale for “natural bowing” or simply normale for "normally".

Unusual Bowing Positions

Apart from bowing in the normal place of between the bridge and fingerboard the bow may be drawn across at "unusual" places to produce different timbres. The two general places are over the fingerboard and near the bridge. These represent two new unique timbres for the composer to use. However, it should be noted that the degree of sound change is variable depending on how far the bow is moved away from its original place. We will discuss the general places, but for much more subtle gradations, most of which are out of the scope of this course, one should consult with a strings player.

Sul Ponticello

Sul ponticello is the Italian term for playing near the bridge. This effect changes the timbre by emphasizing many of the upper harmonics of the string giving it a harsh, somewhat metallic sound. This technique is often (somewhat humorously) overused in horror film scores when combined with tremolo. Harmonics can also be played sul ponticello giving a very unique sound that is effective, though rare, in the orchestral repertoire.

Generally, all the normal effects playable with normal bowing are possible sul ponticello, however, many of those effects would sound harsh and unpleasant so the composer should keep that in mind. If one wants intense and harsh sounds, sul ponticello is an effective way to get them.


Sul tasto

The other bowing position is on the fingerboard; its term is sul tasto. This effect gives a much softer and subtle effect than normal bowing by removing many of the upper harmonics of the string and emphasizing the fundamental tone. This produces a glassy flute-like texture, which is why the term flautando is sometimes used instead of sul tasto. Note that these terms are not synonyms and shouldn't be confused. Flautando is a much broader type of bowing style indicating to play "like a flute" which often involves playing sul tasto but not necessarily exclusively. For example, the beginning 16th notes in the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are often played flautando even though the composer makes no such distinction.

Sul tasto is most effective in very soft to medium-soft dynamics since the timbre does not have as much carrying power as the typical bowing sound. Harmonics are also very effective being played sul tasto giving to an even more ethereal sound than just harmonics alone. Keep in mind that very high notes will be impossible to play sul tasto because of the bow occupying up space on the fingerboard. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem though since this is mostly beyond 8th or 9th positions only.


Col lengo

Probably the most underappreciated effect with the strings is col lengo which means "with the wood", literally to play with the wood of the bow. The string player will flip the bow over and literally play the strings with the wood side as if it was the hair side. This effect is very percussive and used to great effect when a soft percussive effect is needed, such as in the Holst example below. The bow will often bounce off the string in faster tempos adding a quasi-jeté feel to it too. This effect is not readily reproduced on typical percussion instruments giving it a unique and subtle timbre.

Holst: The Planets: Mars - Opening

[Example] Recording: London Symphony Orchestra; Geoffrey Simon, conductor

This effect is sometimes more specifically called col lengo battuto or, “beaten” where the bow bounces of the string. Contrasting is col legno tratto or “dragged” where the bow is draw across the string as if it was the hair side. Col legno tratto is very uncommon and highly discouraged amongst players because it can potentially damage the delicate (and expensive) pernambuco wood of the bow. However, some avante garde composers refuse to give up this rather ineffective and, frankly, pointless technique. If you must use it, for heaven’s sake, restrict it to obscure chamber music. The technique has no place in orchestral writing.


Up until now we have been discussing bowed string sounds. Sometimes, the composer will forego the bow altogether and ask the player to pluck the strings, much like a guitar or lute. This effect is called “pizzicato” from the Italian meaning “plucked.” There are many flavors of the pizzicato and all are useful to the composer to provide an additional percussive sound to the orchestra.

The normal pizzicato method is to hold the bow still in the right hand and plucking with the free fingers. This is, by far, the most common method where short amounts of pizz. music are required. One can quickly switch to the bow very quickly because it is still being in the player’s hand offering great versatility to switching between plucked and bowed sounds. Note too that a player will put the bow aside if the section of music has no bowed music in it for a great period of time. The composer can indicate “put bow aside” in the score if desired, but this is usually not necessary; it will be very obvious if there’s enough music to justify putting the bow down. If the composer does indicate to put the bow aside (or writes a passage where it becomes required by sheer fatigue), make sure to leave extra time to pick up the bow.

When the composer wishes to have a plucked sound, the score must contain the text “pizz.” (above the staff in no italics). The player will then play any preceding music pizzicato even if there are large gaps in between them. (This is a similar scheme for mutes which we will discuss shortly.) Likewise, when the composer wishes a bowed sound again, the score must contain the word “arco” (above the staff in no italics) meaning “bowed.” (Literally, it should be “col arco” meaning “with bow” but the col was dropped for brevity by as early as the Baroque era.)

This standard pizzicato was used to great affect by Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No. 4 where the third movement has the strings play completely in pizzicato. The third movement, sometimes nicknamed "Pizzacato ostinato," uses the strings in cleverly divided parts to allow a very dance-like and "happy" feel. One could have played this spiccato or staccato with the bow, but it wouldn't have the same buoyancy that it does being played pizzicato. It also gives a refreshing change of timbre as the first and second movements were very arco dominated furthering its contrast to the second movement, a slow and mournful adagio. Be sure to listen to the entire symphony as a whole to see how the sudden change to pizzicato gives a great contrast to the darker first two movements and a development to the bombastic fourth movement.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Mov. 3


Recording: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta, conductor

Another great example of pizzicato is in [blargmonster] where [blarg blargy blarg].

Another flavor of pizzicato is the so-called “Bartok Pizz.” named after Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer of the early 20th Century. Bartok “invented” a new pizz. effect where the player snaps the string against the fingerboard. This leads of a very harsh pizzicato and is much more percussive than the regular pizz. This effect, while novel, is nothing new; it can be traced back to as early as Franz Biber in his strings suite La Batallia (1673) where he asks the basses to play pizzicato but in such a way that the snap the strings against the fingerboard to simulate cannon shots.

Biber: La Batallia: Battle


Le Concert des Nations; Jordi Savall, conductor

In a more modern example, [blarg] asks for a Bartok Pizz. [blarg]

[Example blarg]

Note that the snap pizzicato requires great force on the strings and cannot be played quietly. Note too that the preparation (literally grasping the string) takes far longer than a regular pizzicato so it cannot be played with great speed; often the snap will be only used for one major note in a passage to emphasize something, similar to a percussion instrument. The snap pizz. is also difficult to execute on certain strings that are very tight, such as the E string of the Violin or the A of the Viola. A harsh normal pizzicato would have a very similar effect even though it does not “snap” against the fingerboard. To indicate a snap pizzicato note, the symbol should be placed as an articulation.

A further flavor of pizz. related to the Bartok Pizz. is the fingernail pizzicato. This version probably has the longest preparation time. The player is required to grasp the string with their fingernail and then pluck it. It is a rare effect on its own but virtually unheard of in the orchestra since the difference between it and the Bartok Pizz is too subtle to hear in a full string section. To indicate fingernail pizz. a small crescent (similar to a fingernail) will be placed above the note. This notation is not standard, however, and should be explained in the score.

The final pizzicato flavor actually uses the left hand. This is most difficult technically and usually only used in solo string settings. Essentially, while the player is playing a note normally, another note is being plucked by the left hand while fingering the others. Obviously this is very hard to pull off effectively and thus is a rare effect outside of some specialized solo and chamber literature. The notation is to put a small plus sign above the note (same as “stopped” or “closed” in horns and percussion respectively). This effect, like fingernail pizz., is very rare and often not worth the trouble in orchestras because of all the multiple players available for divisi that could produce the same sound much easier.

Extended Techniques

Several “extended techniques” for the strings exist. Many have been invented by composers to make the instruments do things they weren’t designed for and create unconventional sounds. Few of these techniques have been gained mainstream usage, however, and are often specific to certain pieces or composers. A warning of caution in notation should be said at the beginning then. Extended techniques should always be explained in the score, in words, and the unconventional notation that goes with them should also be explained thoroughly. This is the biggest pitfall when writing extended techniques.

Contrary to popular belief, most string players will play them just fine, but only if they know exactly what to do! As the composer, it is part of the job to explain, in great detail if appropriate, the techniques required of the players and to understand what is being asked of them. Often composers will just ask for an extended technique without really understanding why that technique would be useful or if a better technique could offer a better sound. Know, always, what you are asking for and why that technique should be used as opposed to any other.

The list of extended techniques is practically limitless because of the great versatility of the strings and the constant innovation of composers. It is best, in almost every instance, to consult with a real-life string player if you want to use an extended technique. It is out of the scope of this discussion to go into great detail on them so we will only discuss a few obvious ones briefly.

  • Bowing behind the bridge: The bow is drawn across the strings behind the bridge. Thus only a small amount of string is vibrating causing a very high and screeching sound.
  • Bowing on the underside of strings: The bow is inverted and placed underneath the strings. This way the fourth and first strings can be played together, the only configuration this can be done. Note, though, that it is highly discouraged in orchestral writing because it is simply easier to divide the strings groups than to play with this awkward technique.
  • “Crunch” Bow: The bow is pressed with great pressure against the strings causing a “crunch” sound of semi-indeterminate pitch. Very useful for simulating percussive sounds though no so much in large orchestras.
  • Bowing on the Bridge: Rather than sul ponticello where one bows near the bridge, one bows directly on the bridge. This causes a very crass and loud sound, described as “a car braking.”
  • Percussive Effects: hitting the instrument (in a variety of ways) gives an interesting array of percussion effects. Often better suited for chamber settings though as the orchestral percussion section can create many more timbres than a string instrument.

Various Left-hand extended techniques will be discussed in the next section.

Next tutorial: Techniques of Strings - Part II