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String Writing 1: Pizzicato and Double Stopping


Pizzicato is the technique of plucking the string with a finger rather than drawing the bow across the string. As with many techniques the twentieth century saw much greater variety. In this example from a Bartok string quartet the following techniques can be heard:

  • spread chords (opening)
  • non-spread chords –achieved by plucking with several fingers at the same time (end)
  • ordinary pizzicato but with wider range of dynamics than in earlier music
  • ‘Bartok’ or slap pizz. where the string is pulled so it slaps back on the fingerboard (beginning of second line)


Bartok Quartet no. 4, IV end

 06 Bartok

Double, triple and quadruple stopping

String players can play several notes at the same time and composers often require them to in order to create richer textures. This is much more common in solo and chamber music than it is in orchestral music, in which the same effect can often be achieved using multiple players.

Double stopping (two notes at the same time) can be played in quite a sustained way as in the Dvorak example below, but it is quite technically challenging and you should not ask for passages that are too fast or leaping. In addition The intervals should not exceed an octave as a general rule. Some double stops are very difficult to effect one after another – generally, changing the interval frequently makes it harder. It is worth checking with a string player if you are unsure how practical a passage may be.

Dvorak Quartet Op. 34 in D minor (No. 9), third movement

07 Dvorak

A very different effect is achieved in this Bartok example, in which the double stops are all octaves, adding weight and intensity rather than richness to the aggressive texture. The viola and cello play quadruple stops (four notes at the same time). Notice that three and four-note chords cannot be played melodically like double stops as they need either to be spread or struck with considerable force to make all the notes sound.

Bartok Quartet No. 2, second movement

 08 Bartok

The triple stops in this Beethoven quartet are more-or-less at the limit of what is practical for consecutive different triple stops – see the second violin part. You will hear that the triple stops in the violins are slightly spread:

Beethoven String Quartet Op. 18 No. 4, first movement

09 Beethoven

In this example from Bartok, the violins are asked NOT to spread the chords but strike the notes together, which can only be done very loudly. The cello, on the other hand, is asked to start the chords at the top and arpeggiated downwards:

Bartok String Quartet No. 4, fifth movement

10 Bartok

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