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A Bow-ology Lesson: Common Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass Bowing Terms

Learn these important bowing terms, from arco to tremolo

Chances are you’ve come across many of these essential violin, viola, cello, and bass bowing terms. But what do they really mean? Here’s your first class in bow-ology.

Arco or Arcato: With the bow.

Col legno: This marking instructs that the strings are to be struck with the wood of the bow. You may also see the notation battuta col legno, which means “beaten with the wood.”

Détaché: Playing successive notes using about half of the bow's length, in either down-bow or up-bow alteration, but not staccato (see below).

Legato: Marked with a curved line under and connecting notes, this is a smooth playing style, without any spacing between each change of bow.

Marcato: A sharp, emphasized bow stroke.

Martelé or Martellato: Marked as a small triangle-shaped accent over a note, this instructs the player to bow in a sharp, “hammered” bow stroke.

Further Resources

For further reading: Pocket Manual of Musical Terms (Schirmer Books; $5.95), no string student should be without one. Available in print and Kindle editions.

Pizzicato: Literally meaning “pinched.” Not a bow stroke, but rather a direction to pluck the string with a finger.

Ricochet or Jeté: A down-bow stroke achieved by bouncing the upper third of the bow on a string, creating a controlled rebound effect of rapid, repeating notes.

Saltato: A “springing bow.” This effect is created by employing a thrown staccato in the upper half of bow, usually on the down-bow.

Sautillé: A fast bowing that takes advantage of the springiness in the middle of the bow. Sautillé uses a rapid bouncing a short section of the bow, half-on and half-off the string.

Son filé: A sustained tone.

Further Resources

Looking for tips on violin and/or viola bowing fundamentals? Check out the Strings Guide: Improve Your Bowing Technique, Complete Edition.

Spiccato: A style of staccato, played with a light, controlled bouncing movement of the bow.

Staccato: Detached and separate playing style with a sharp, percussive bow attack. In music notation, a small dot under or over the notehead indicates the note is to be played staccato.

Sul ponticello: Playing near the bridge (and effect that creates a glassy, other-worldly tone).

Sul tasto (also Flautando): Playing near or over the end of the fingerboard to create a hazy, “fluty” sound.

Tremolo: A very rapid alteration of down- and up-bows to create a trembling effect; a bow stroke achieved with a very relaxed, flexible wrist.

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