Music & Entertainment

Learn About Violin Bowing Techniques: 9 Techniques and Tips for Better Violin Bowing

Written by MasterClass

Jun 6, 2019 • 5 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

When you speak, vowels and consonants help you pronounce words. When you play the violin, your bow helps you articulate music. Bow strokes can be long, short, connected, separated, short, smooth, accented, or even bouncy.

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9 Common Bow Strokes

Here are some of the standard bow strokes for the violin:

Orange diagram of legato in music

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1. Legato: Smooth, connected bow strokes. Legato notes are often slurred; that is, a group of notes is played together in one down-bow or up-bow. In the music, a slur looks like a curved line over the notes that are all in one bow.

Orange diagram of Détaché in music

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2. Détaché: Broad but separate bow strokes. In music, the notes simply are not slurred.

Orange diagram of Martelé in music

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3. Martelé: Detached, strongly accented notes. Often you’ll use large and very rapid bow strokes for martelé. These are sometimes marked in music with a line or an accent over the note, but they not always. You choose this stroke from the context of the music.

Orange diagram of Staccato in music

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4. Staccato: Detached, short notes with accents. Staccato is indicated in the music with dots over the notes. “Flying staccato,” also known as “up-bow staccato,” is when short notes are played all in the same bow stroke, stopping the bow for each note (the bow stays on the string). This is indicated in the music with dots over the notes as well as a slur over the group of notes that will be in one bow.

Orange diagram of Spiccato in music

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5. Spiccato: Detached notes played with a bouncing bow (the bow comes off the string). Generally, spiccato is used in faster passages than staccato—but not always. To execute this stroke you need to have a relaxed shoulder, flexible wrist, bow at the bounce point, and contact point near the middle of the bow. “Flying spiccato” is when a number of short notes are played all in one bow, and the bow bounces for each note. This is indicated in the music in the same way as flying staccato (dots over the notes as well as a slur over the group of notes), but you can tell them from staccato notes by context.

Orange diagram of Spiccato in music 2

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6. Sautillé: Detached, very rapid bounced strokes played in the middle of the bow. This is marked in the same manner as spiccato and chosen in the context of the music.

Orange diagram of Ricochet in music

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7. Ricochet: Bouncing several notes in a row with one bow stroke. Most often you let the bow drop, and then keep bouncing, moving it in a down-bow or up-bow direction. You can learn to control the speed at which the bow bounces and number of times it bounces by gauging the height from which you drop it and controlling when you stop the bounce.

Orange diagram of Tremolo in music

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8. Tremolo: Usually played at the tip of the bow, this is an effect produced by moving the bow very quickly in small strokes from the wrist. It’s so fast that the notes aren’t measured, and it’s shown in the music as a note that has three slashes through its stem (or over the note if it’s a whole note). Keep the tremolo going for the length of a note’s value: A whole note would get four beats of tremolo.

Orange diagram of Pizzicato in music

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9. Pizzicato: Plucking the string, most commonly with the right hand. Usually the music says “pizz” to indicate pizzicato, then arco when it’s time to use the bow again. For left hand pizzicato, done with your violin fingers, a “+” is placed over each note that is to be plucked.

5 Advanced Violin Techniques

Orange diagram of Double Stops in music

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1. Double Stops: Since the violin has four strings, you can play on two strings at once by putting the bow on both strings while using the appropriate fingering. This is shown in sheet music as two notes stacked on top of each other.

Orange diagram of Triple Stops in music

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2. Triple Stops: You usually have to roll the bow to get three notes to play at a time, but it is possible. This would be reflected in the music as a stack of three notes.

Orange diagram of Quadruple Stops in music

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3. Quadruple Stops: You guessed it: Four notes at a time. Roll the bow over all four strings, usually from the bottom to the top, to make it happen. In music, it looks like four notes stacked on top of each other; you’ll see it most frequently as a “chord” at the end of the piece.

Orange diagram of Natural Harmonics in music

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4. Natural Harmonics: This is a matter of physics. If you mathematically divide a string in half and place your finger, light as a feather, at that exact middle point while bowing on that string, you will produce a ghostly overtone that is an octave higher than the given string. Divide both halves of that string in half again, and at both of those points (which we can call quarter points), you get another harmonic, an octave higher than the first harmonic. At other intervals along the string (dividing it in thirds, for example) are other harmonics that create other notes.

Orange diagram of Artificial Harmonics in music

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5. Artificial Harmonics: When you want to create a harmonic on the open string that is not part of that sequence of natural harmonics, you can do so by “shortening the string,” or putting down a finger. This is much easier than it sounds: First, press any note with your first finger (the pointer finger). Next, put your fourth finger (the pinkie) down in the place it would normally be, but instead of pressing, barely touch the string. This creates a harmonic that’s the same as the note you’re pressing with your first finger. The entire Pe Loc dance in Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances consists of artificial harmonics. When these appear in music, they look like a double stop, only the top note, usually a fourth above, has a diamond head.

2 Ways to Practice Bowing Techniques

  1. Scales are a great way to polish and perfect various bowing techniques. Using whatever scale is appropriate for your level (one-octave, two-octave, or three-octave), play your scale using one of the bowing techniques described above, for example: martelé or legato.
  2. Here is a fun trick to try with your violin to practice natural harmonics. Play a nice smooth, open G string. Now, continuing to bow very smoothly and slowly, run your finger up the G string, but barely touch the string. The result should be a series of harmonics that sound a little like arpeggios, but not quite. Stravinsky used this effect in the violins at the beginning of his 1910 ballet The Firebird. When natural harmonics appear in music, they look like a diamond-headed note placed right on the note where you’re supposed to lift your finger so it’s not pressing the fingerboard (rather, it’s barely touching the string).

Learn more violin techniques in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.