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Violin 101: What Is Martelé? Learn About Martelé Bowing Technique and the Effect of Martelé Playing With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Jul 17, 2019 • 3 min read

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There are many ways to play stringed instruments like violin, viola, cello, or bass. On one extreme is the legato technique—a fluid and continuous bowing style that involves slurring one note into the next. On the other extreme are various staccato techniques, where each note is played briskly with extreme separation between each sounded pitch. Falling somewhere in between these extremes is the martelé technique.

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What Is Martelé?

Martelé is a playing technique on violin and other string instruments that calls for each successive note to be isolated within its own bow stroke. Unlike legato, where notes are slurred together, or staccato, where notes are short and jaunty, martelé involves full note durations but no blending from one note into another. 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 not always. Martelé passages will not feature slurs over notes; if such markings were present, that would indicate legato technique.

What Is Martelé Technique?

Proper martelé bowing technique begins with bow control. Most players choose to play martelé passages somewhat lower than the middle of the bow (toward the frog); this allows them to apply more pressure on the string for a dramatic dynamic effect. Martelé requires separate bows for each note, alternating between up bows and down bows. Martelé also lends itself nicely to double stops and triple stops on the fingerboard, which are made easier by alternating bow direction.

The term marcato is also used to describe a nearly identical playing technique, although marcato passages by definition always include accent marks. Martelé frequently is characterized by accent marks, but this isn’t always the case.

What Is the Effect of Martelé Playing?

Composers and string players choose the martelé technique for strong, demonstrative passages. The combination of alternating bow strokes and frequent accent markings make martelé a good choice for loud, prominent string lines. Sections of music marked forte or fortissimo are often paired with martelé bowing.

What Is the Difference Between Detaché and Martelé?

Detaché is quite similar to the martelé bowing technique, with one key distinction: in martelé technique, individual notes are strongly accented, thus emphasizing their distinction. Martelé does not cut note durations short the way that staccato does, but it certainly tilts more in the direction of staccato technique than detaché does.

By contrast, detaché technique does not feature any accent markings. It is simply characterized by broad but separate bow strokes. In printed sheet music, the notes simply are not slurred. Sonically, detaché achieves a median balance between the fluid legato technique and jaunty staccato technique. If you see no slurs and no accents on a score, that is the composer’s way of indicating detaché technique.

What Is the Difference Between Martelé and Other Violin Techniques?

In addition to detaché and martelé, here are some of the other most common violin techniques called for by composers:

  • Staccato. A playing technique where each individual note is sounded briskly. “Staccato” is Italian for “detached” or “disconnected.” 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.
  • Legato. A musical performance technique that produces fluid, continuous motion between notes. Each individual note is played to its maximum duration and then blends directly into whatever note follows. 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.
  • Spiccato. A string technique involving 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.
  • 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.
  • Ricochet. Bouncing several notes in a row with one bow stroke.
  • 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.

Learn more about the violin and bowing techniques in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.