Home » A Level Music Composition » 4 Texture and Sonority » 1 String Writing (Introduction) » String Writing 5: Other Bowing Techniques

String Writing 5: Other Bowing Techniques

Off-the-string strokes

When playing staccato notes, there is a choice as to whether the bow ‘bites’ the string without leaving it – on the string – or whether it bounces off the string. There are various names for techniques that take the bow off the string and on the whole players will decide whether or not they want to do so.

The most common off-the-stroke is spiccato. Grieg specifically asks for it in the viola part of this excerpt, which might otherwise  be played  on and, in this recording, the violins also play their quavers off the string, which is implied but not stated by the scherzo  and staccato markings:

Grieg String Quartet No. 1, last movement

32 Grieg

In this second excerpt from the same work, there is no spiccato marking but the speed of these non-legato notes at least implies that it is a possibility. In this recording the viola starts just about on the string but then moves to spiccato in the second line. The violin plays all the non-slurred notes spiccato.

Grieg String Quartet No. 1, last movement

33 Grieg


Saltando is an off-the-string technique that is implied when fast notes are both staccato and slurred. Slow slurred staccato will be played on the string with the notes ‘tucked’ together but the only way to play the type of figure written here is to throw the bow onto the string so that it bounces (which is the meaning of saltando):

Sibelius Voces Intimae, Movement 5 (after fig. 1)

05 Sibelius

Au talon / repeated down bows

A more vicious off-the-string technique does not involve bouncing but attacking right at the heel (talon) of the bow. The heel is the bit closest to the players hand and where the most force can be exerted. The bow is pinged off the string creating the attack. This can be heard in the first bar of the beginning of this movement from Bartok’s sixth quartet.

In the following bar the stroke is still au talon but combined with another forceful technique, that of the repeated down bow (indicated by the square brackets above each note). Many composers across music history have employed repeated downbows for extra emphasis and force.

Bartok, Strinq quartet no. 6, third movement

31 Bartok


Col legno

A much rarer technique not much used before the twentieth century is to hit the strings with the wood of the bow to create a quiet, clattering woody sound (string players are not keen on doing this because it damages the varnish on their bows – orchestral players sometimes use a cheaper bow when asked to play col legno). A famous orchestral example of col legno is in Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets but the sound can be more clearly heard in this excerpt from Britten’s first suite for solo cello:

Britten solo cello suite No. 1, IV

23 Britten


%d bloggers like this: