How Violin Sound is Like Luxurious Fabric

June 14, 2022, 3:31 PM · No matter how you hold the bow, it’s what happens at the moment the hair touches the string that determines the texture, lightness, and fluffiness of the sound. Technical advice, by necessity, is simplified to truisms, such as “getting into the string” and helpful images like "velvet, silk, and satin."

notes satin silk

It’s left up to the individual violinist to transition from words to actions. Sometimes it seems that the hair is fighting the string, rather than absorbing it. Yet the instrument is designed to allow pressure and release to co-exist.

Violinists are always striking a balance with the bow’s weight and buoyancy in the string. Yet the hairs do dis-engage from being too light, or in some cases severely force the vibrations. How can you use gravity, weight, and intense pressure in equal proportions? Pressure is a normal function of the bow, as long as an equal amount of lifting is included. It’s a feeling similar to walking softly, taking care not to drag your feet or be heavy footed. From this combination of hard and soft movements emerges a tone of beauty, equal to but far surpassing that of a piano in depth and thickness.

Thread Count Equals A Warm Tone

It’s not much of a leap of imagination to see the relationship between bow hairs and the thread count of bed sheets. In much the same way that your comfort level is raised when lying on a soft sheet, the hairs create a cocoon around the string. The number of threads per square inch, all lying in the same direction, creates a luxuriously soft and ultra-smooth feeling. The violinist has the similar responsibility of bowing smoothly and spinning the string as if riding a wave.

Gentle Gravity

Here are three ways to maximize the vibrancy of the string:

  1. When the string is fully vibrating, lightening the pressure while speeding up the bow can create a shimmering, gossamer-like quality. There is no exact description of this process, but it’s remarkable how a string as thin as the E can get louder without the dense quality associated with over-pressing. Pianists call it banging; violinist call it forcing.

    The horizontal nature of the bow adds a dimension which is unavailable to the pianist. The absorption of the string with the hair, or the thread count, exponentially surpasses the piano mechanism. Yet great pianists play a phrase with an indelible human quality, with inflections that are natural and not contrived. This model of simplicity and efficiency should be the basis for the richer sound of the violin.

  2. Move the bow so that it doesn’t fall into the traps of varying weight set in the frog and the tip. While the lower half is no doubt the heaviest part of the bow, concentrate on not disturbing the flow of the hairs. The heaviest impediment is the elbow. To keep it from acting like a dangling anchor, treat the elbow like the tail of a kite. Imagine that the bow is moving without the impetus of the arm; the arm passive-aggressively goes for the ride.

    Weightlessness helps to describe the feeling of the arm while bowing. The connection between the hairs and the string is enabled by the lightest of connections and reinforced with a gentle gravity. This engagement of the string sets the stage for the arm to feel light as a feather while imposing various degrees of dynamics. The lightness of the bow’s horizontal stroke multiplies the energy that is spinning the string. The result is that the sound waves and warmth of tone are enriched.

  3. A minimum amount of vibrato greatly enhances the sound waves. This is especially useful during fast detaches, because it creates the slightest variation in pitch and a wider palette of colors. To blend in a vibrato while playing many fast notes, let the arm, in tandem with the wrist, resemble the actions of an electric toothbrush. The evenness of the motion won’t interfere with the vertical lifting of the fingers. It will even add energy and life.

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June 14, 2022 at 11:27 PM · Paul, wow, that's a great blog. I was particularly interested in this statement: "A minimum amount of vibrato greatly enhances the sound waves. This is especially useful during fast detaches, because it creates the slightest variation in pitch and a wider palette of colors."

In another thread from almost ten years ago (link below) it was mentioned that the frequency of a professional vibrato might be about 6-7 cycles per second. Now, suppose we're playing 16th notes at 120 bpm. That's 2 quarter-notes per second or 8 sixteenth notes per second. So the notes are changing as fast as we are vibrating. Therefore assuming one is physically capable of doing this, then the result is that some notes will come in a little higher and some a little lower. And if all the notes are the same note (common in orchestra parts, and much easier to vibrate because the overall stop is not changing) then the pitch will waver through the passage. Is this what you're advocating as a wholesome contributor to tonal color? I ask because I have long wondered about this -- whether one should bother trying to maintain vibrato in a fast detache passage like that. Do people practice studies like Kreutzer No. 2 with vibrato? Should they?

June 15, 2022 at 04:13 PM · Paul, thank you for opening up the most interesting can of worms (in the best sense of the words) I’ve seen. I’ll touch on a few details right now. Your thoughts and those posed by the older blog lead to conclusions that make vibrato on short notes less desirable. However, my thoughts on the subject seem like apples to oranges. Both offer reasonable conclusions but cover parallel subjects.

I noticed that, after contemplating why super wide vibratos in the hands of Francescatti, Tasmin Little, and Perlman, the pitch is never lost or distorted. Based on my own observation, you have to travel about a full half step before the pitch drifts into another orbit.

Should you vibrate on Kreutzer 2? Yes, and make it large. Of course, the vibrato needs to be done properly, but that’s another topic.

About orchestras vibrating, here’s one nuance on the subject. Conductors expect huge amounts of vibrato, and they like to see it as well as hear it. The only orchestra that I imagine can apply vibrato judicially is Cleveland. I base that on the fact that Boulez loved recording with them. Their enhanced ability to listen brought out such refined playing that they could read Boulez’s subtle movements.

It’s always a good idea to vibrate. An orchestra is a huge piece of machinery to add sound to.

June 15, 2022 at 05:08 PM · That's good to know, Paul, because I'm the new CM of our local community orchestra and I'm applying a lot of vibrato. I was a little worried I was overdoing it but our music director seems satisfied with my playing. I also encourage my section to use vibrato with pizzicato because I think that adds a lot of warmth and color. But there is a limit -- I'm not doing vibrato inside a trill! :)

June 15, 2022 at 05:46 PM · My opinion is that if the notes change faster than the vibrato speed, about 6 cycles/sec., then the notes will sound "bent", out of tune, or just sloppy. Some main-stream singers are even worse; in coloratura passages they will miss-use the vibrato mechanism as a way of articulating the notes. It sounds like a mess. Our vibrato speed and physical width also depends on where we are on the fingerboard; slow and wide on G string first position, fast and narrow on the second half of the E string.

June 17, 2022 at 01:59 AM · Joel, yes I'm trying to wrap my head around it too.

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