Importance of bow to the sound

November 2, 2009 at 02:17 AM ·

So I've got a new bow recently, and finally realize what a really good bow can bring to the sound besides the excellent playability. It's hard to put it in words, with the new bow the sound is so much intense, buttery smooth, clean yet soulful, and such a clear rich powerful sound at a distance. I think I got a bow that match my violin so well that it literally sound as like I spent another $10,000 upgrading the violin.

This is not the sound I'm describing under the ear like many other people do, it's the sound that's heard by audiences. Under the ear, the sound is nothing remarkable except that it's sweet and gentle with clean and clear core but very different from the sound at a distance. It only takes a light touch of the bow to draw such big sound, yet a lot of reserve when I started to dig it.

Since this eyes opening experience is telling me that big part of the sound is contributed by the bow, what happen if multi million dollars violins played with a cheap student bow? I think even as great as those fine instruments are, they need a great bow to go well with them. There's a youtube video about Sarah Chang talks about her bows and her del gesu, she mentioned about her tourte being a reliable concert bow that will soar through the orchestra without much effort (though she never take out the tourte in that video).

This also lead to another matter - many modern vs classic violins comparisons (big or small, formal or informal, public or private) done in the past, are those instruments played with a matching bow in order unleash their pull potential? I can see why some instruments that are supposed to be great did not stand out in the comparisons. I rarely, if not, never read about people talking about bows they used in all those comparisons.

What's your view on these matters?

Replies (30)

November 4, 2009 at 05:29 AM ·

Hmm no one seems to be interested in this topic? Even comments like my thread being silly are welcomed. ;-)

November 4, 2009 at 05:39 AM ·

OK, I'll bite.

First, how do you know the sound of your new bow is that good in the audience? Either you're relying on hearsay, or someone else is playing your violin. And if it is someone else playing your fiddle, amybe they're better than you.

Second, not too many fdolks posting here have a Guarneri or Strad, so you're not going to get much in the way of meaningful answers to that question.

Third, the whole question of bow/violin interaction is so totally subjective as to make an answer meaningless.

That said, I do like the question, and would like to read an informed reply.

BTW, tell us about your violin and new bow, please.

November 4, 2009 at 06:03 AM ·

Thanks for your respond Bob!

First question - My violin was played by few of my friends, and they're beginners or amateur players, and I listen to the sound.

Second question - Yup I'm not expecting responses of first hand experiences, but at least I wanted to see if there're other people experiencing the same thing as me. Of course if there're any first hand experiences, I'd really like to know. In fact, there're quite a bit of first hand experiences being shared around the internet, but almost all of them talks about the instruments, and nothing about the bow.

Third question - I know what you trying to say, but what I'm hearing was pretty objective, the sound was simply better in many way. And I do question the tonal aspect, not the playability and handling. I believe you can find fantastic playing bows in $100 range, but is the sound as good as a bow made with better wood?

My violin is bulgarian made, cost me around $6k. But since this is about the bow, so I won't go deep into it. As for the bow, it's a french bow, no stamp, no cert (so I can't even tell if it's a real french bow). But the handling is fantastic, lots of characters match what people are experiencing on a french bow. I'm not trying to create a thread for bragging, but I'd love to hear what people are experiencing with bows, especially if they have any experiences on the sound listening at a distance, just like choosing a violin.

November 4, 2009 at 06:41 AM ·

I'm working around on the lower end of the budget, but I'm noticing the same thing. I will, however throw in a different perspective.

I have two bows I really like; one a CF, the other Pernambuco. I also have another Pernambuco that is not near as easy for me to play as the first, and I have some others that are in the category of 'came with the instrument'.

I think the bow should match the violin in some aspect, but it is not that a lesser bow will not, but that it is generally more work to get the sound you wish. A great violinist could possibly get good sound out of a VSO, using dental floss on a yardstick. The same great violinist would probably get better sound out of good equipment also.

You could also mention how many great violins have cheap strings and never get famous, since they are another great part of the sound.

So, to weight the effect of different components, I would think I could better contribute to this topic by saying:

I feel that aside from the skill of the musician, the violin is 70% of what is produced, the bow is 15%, the strings are 12%, and the rest is shared by the tailpiece, the bridge, etc.. Maybe add a percent or two for comfortable shoes.

November 4, 2009 at 07:50 AM ·

Not to sound cutting, but of course the bow is going to affect the sound. Don't forget to factor in the comfort at which the player uses the bow. I would weigh the bow pretty significantly. 15% as suggested is way too low.

As corny as it sounds, someone once told me, "The violin is the heart, the bow is the soul, and you are the brain."

November 4, 2009 at 08:08 AM ·

 It's an interesting theoretical question.  However, I don't think it could ever be objectively answered.  Bows, much like shoulder rests or violins themselves, are very dependent on personal taste.  Different people like different weights, balances, and sounds.  

That being said, we must pose the question: is consumer/musician satisfaction directly related to money spent?  As in, if 100 violinists each had a limitless budget for one bow, would each of them buy the most expensive bow they could find?  Or would they each buy the one that feels the best when they are playing?

Granted, nicer equipment does make playing easier.  But speaking from personal experience, there have been times that I have gone with a cheaper instrument/bow that was under my expected spending cap simply because I liked the way it played more than the other options.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who has ever done this.

So to conclude, what if the cheap $100 student bow is the musician's dream bow?  Slightly extreme, yes, but not impossible.  There has to be a marriage between the bow, the violin and the player.  As soon as any one of those factors change, so does the sound.  Maybe certain people could get a better sound out of a strad with their cheap bow than others could with their expensive one.

November 4, 2009 at 09:28 AM ·

There's been research on the topic. See e.g.

The conclusion seems to be, that physically the bow stick is vibrating, this vibration depends on material, shape and making of the bow stick. But the flexible bow hair does not bring this vibration to the string. The influence on the sound coming from vibrations in the bow stick seems doubtful. "A lot goes on in the bow, but little (if any!) is seen in the string or bridge motion". I've seen the same conclusion in another paper, but couldn't find it now.

I think there's no doubt about the big influence of the bow hair (quality and amount), therefore comparing the sound of two bows with broad slow detache strokes may make you believe the stick makes a difference, when in fact it's the hair.

I think there's no doubt that the flexibility and weight of different bows make big differences in bow motion not only in spiccato but all kind of strokes, which of course may improve the perceived sound quality.

November 4, 2009 at 10:04 AM ·

Thanks again for the responses.

Actually, my previous view on how much bow is weighted in the contribution to the sound is pretty similar to yours. Tried many bows and they probably only give 10%~15% differences between different bows, until I bought my current bow. In fact, anyone who had played on this bow (and my violin), all of them universally sounded a lot better, even if they're only beginners.

Pretty much the same thought, that I never had before.

I've been hearing the same thing many times, and I definitely agree. However, very often I hear people saying they prefer a cheap $50 CF bow to their fine french bows, because of the playability. I have not heard anyone saying a $50 bow of whatever material out weight in sound (and I'd be happy to be corrected).

Interesting, and will really like to hear opinions from bowmakers on this.

November 4, 2009 at 10:08 AM ·

15% for the bow is much to low.. The bow contributes to at least 45% of the sound quality if not more. Sure, a good violin played with a student level bow is more likely to produce better sound than vice versa but if you pair a great bow with a good violin you can immediately hear the difference in the sound quality. A good bow will help accentuate the good qualities your violin possesses, where perhaps before were not clear or cleanly heard. A good bow will  make your violin sing.

Until recently, I never thought much about the importance of the bow, however after playing several very nice bows paired with my violin I noticed the difference straight away, and the change astounded me.

November 4, 2009 at 03:02 PM ·

> Someone once told me: " The violin is the heart, the bow is the soul, and you are the brain"

As someone who is crazy about Hi-Fi Audio, may I add another analogy :

The bow and the string are the pre-amplifier, and the violin is the amplifier and speakers. Any Hi-Fi nuts will tell you to give equal importance to the pre-amplifier, the amplifier, and the speakers, and the three must match with one another for the best effect. Functionally, the pre-amplifier shapes the music electrically, and the amplifier and speakers amplify and transform the electrical signals into audible sound. Thus, the almost inaudible sound made by the bow and string is transmitted to the violin body via the bridge and sound-post (the interconnects) and mechanically amplified into audible sound .

How about the violinist in this scheme of thing? I think the violinist is the CD player, and the music that he plays the CD disc.  

No matter how good is the CD, the music can be ruined by the failure of any component in the chain, whether it is the CD player, pre-amplifier, amplifier, or speakers. As the wise saying goes: " the strength of a chain is decided by the strength of its weakest link", one must always be on the look-out for the weakest link, whether it is the bow, the strings, the bridge, the sound-post, or the violin. When there is nothing wrong with any of these, one may draw the conclusion that it is the violinist that is at fault. Thus, when there is nothing wrong with the golf clubs, it must be the golfer who goofs.


November 4, 2009 at 04:32 PM ·


Oh joy! From what you and others are saying, I still have the opportunity to find happiness with the erfect bow!!

November 4, 2009 at 05:12 PM ·

I'm not trying to sound cute, but what about the rosin?  That's what makes the bow hair effective.  Does rosin matter, aside from what matches your climate?

One day my teacher, who is tall and big boned, was playing my violin and it sounded more like her own violin (probably worth ten times what mine is) than mine does when I'm playing it.  Was that because her technique is vastly better, or does a person's build really come into play so much?


November 4, 2009 at 06:17 PM ·

Casey Jefferson: >Interesting, and will really like to hear opinions from bowmakers on this.

Me too! This result contradicts popular opinion and my subjective impression. I've seen texts on frequency responses of violin bodies, and they showed that there are big differences between violins, which is just what you would expect. But all texts on scientific experiments that I saw about bows say that the vibration of the bow stick has no measurable influence on the sound. I'd like to see measurement results that support the wide-spread belief that bow stick vibrations influence the sound.

November 4, 2009 at 06:46 PM ·

My understanding of the effect of the bow is that its function, in addition to vibrating the strings, is to absorb some of the frequencies generated, which shapes the tone color of the instrument. It is a filter, of sorts, in that regard, reducing some parts of the overall sonic spectrum and perhaps enhancing others.

All this is second-hand information on my part, however. But it sounds reasonable, and may even be correct.

November 4, 2009 at 08:53 PM ·

I definitely noticed a HUGE difference when I upgraded my bow. My bow (before the upgrade) was ~ $600 (German, no stamp). The new bow is a $2000 Morizot, with a certificate. Besides bouncing/playing ricochet *SO* well, the sound it produces is significantly better. I had a friend of mine play both bows (w/o me knowing which was which) and I was easily able to tell the sound apart.

I'm so happy that you found a bow that works with your violin! It's so difficult to find one.


EDIT: As for the % (I'm totally making this number up, but it's what I feel the difference is) is atleast 30%, if you compare apples to apples (A heavy, soft bow to a light, stiff bow might be different in different instances). Not even mentioning the playability. It's well over 3x easier to play ricochet or other bow-bouncing passages with my bow atleast.


November 5, 2009 at 02:24 AM ·

I also think the bow affects the sound of the violin also. As a student I may not have a big budget so I won't be getting a $2000 bow anytime soon or $5000 violin but I have 3 bows over 2 years and each one is different.

2 are CF bows, one coda and one jonpaul. One is more harsh sounding and the other was more calming and can pull a beautiful sound. My 3rd bow a pernambuco bow was double the price but I really enjoy the sound. It was as if I can make my violin more brilliant then warm to the touch. But I couldn't do some bow techniques with ease and I get tired alot quicker.

I was wondering, if a bow and a violin were to match, then would you pick a violin you like first then look for a matching bow? Or the other way around?

November 5, 2009 at 05:28 AM ·

"I was wondering, if a bow and a violin were to match, then would you pick a violin you like first then look for a matching bow? Or the other way around?"

Vincent, I would recommend buying the violin first as it's easier to match a bow with a violin than vice versa. Also, finding the right violin is always tricky.. haha I played around 70 - 80 violins before I found "the one"

November 5, 2009 at 06:01 AM ·

I think Anna and Bob are on the right track.

A fine bow will definitely bring out the potential of a particular instrument, due to how much the bow is taking away the sound, rather than enhance it. I think both theory (bow doesn't contribute vibration, and will act as a filter) make sense if putting them together. And I think that's why CF bows are different from wooded bows - although CF is a great material that take away little sound, most often better than wood, but they don't take the sound away like a wood does. Sheer number readings from acoustic tests doesn't tell anything I guess.

In fact, I did try my bow on other lesser quality violins too. The bow doesn't really sound much better on those violins, though in general it still produce better results. I think it's because there's not much potential to to brought out.

So that also lead to the conclusion - buy the violin first, then find a matching bow.

PS: Mark, so you've bought your Morizot? Congratulation!

November 5, 2009 at 03:50 PM ·

If a Strad or del Gesu is played with a cheap lower end bow I think a difference will be noted just like there is a difference between Red Label strings and Passione strings.

November 5, 2009 at 08:35 PM ·

What I have always heard is that you get more bang for your buck upgrading your bow than your violin.  Some of this discussion appears to bear that out.

November 5, 2009 at 09:18 PM ·

Just to add my experience, I was playing the Gluck Melodie with my tried and true W.H. Hammig when I decided switch to a french bow I own.  My wife was in the other room listening. 

She asked which violin I was playing the second time...

It was very interesting to both of us that she heard such a difference that she assumed I had changed the violin - not the bow.


November 6, 2009 at 02:12 AM ·

I upgraded from a $300 bow to a bow that I will use for the rest of my life. The difference is huge. Even on the same violin, the sound quality I produce with two different bows can be vastly different.

November 6, 2009 at 02:07 PM ·

The player has a lot to do with this, too :))  I used to play on the really-awful rentals from one of the suppliers to my PS program, expecting to show parents how bad the sound was, and how hard they were to play on. They really COULD NOT understand. What they heard sounded nice & looked easy, compared to their perceptions of what it is to play, and how their beginner sounded at home.  And there was the deflation factor to take into account when the eager novice heard the teacher say the beautiful new violin with the glitzy bowling-ball finish was not a decent fiddle. 

November 6, 2009 at 02:58 PM ·

Two things:


1. Pressing on the string with the bow doesn't require a good bow. The sound will always be nasty.

2. If you have a good bow tighten the hair a few extra turns. Set the bow on the string and pull it so that you can imagine that you are pulling the string slightly off center and the string is slipping and you are grabbing it again. Then you can really see the power of a good bow.

December 10, 2009 at 06:35 PM ·

I have just switched from a cheap BW bow I've used for 10 years to a new pernambuco wood bow, valued at about a third of my violin, and this week I went through my entire double stop book seemingly without effort; whereas I had laboured before with my cheap bow.  Notes come out with little effort and my mellow violin exhibits much more volume.  I like the difference I've noticed and have found the violin a joy to play again rather than a chore that must be performed.

- Wally 

December 10, 2009 at 08:16 PM ·

 I too have enjoyed actual, not perceived, differences between bows. But the bow is a filter? I can't see it. Sound radiates from the whole violin in 3D and 75cm of thin wood can't make any perceivable difference as a filter in modifying frequency spectra...unless I'm wrong :) 

December 10, 2009 at 08:21 PM ·

A good bow can make a major change to a good violin.  I have a good Italian fiddle (not a Strad, unfortunately), and it never sounded so good as the day that I had it adjusted while using the shop's Peccatte.

In a more general case, if I had to get a violin and bow for, say, $30K, I know several makers charging $22-25K that I'd cheerfully commission an instrument from.  The remaining $5-8K would give me access to a fine contemporary bow and I'd be happy with that.

Raise the budget to $50K, and I don't know that there's a lot to be gained from paying more for the fiddle.  You' have a few more choices with the extra money, and maybe you'd find the Carl Becker of your dreams or an unexpectedly good antique French or Dutch one for $45K.  More realistically, I'd count on hanging onto the violin from the first round if that was your best choice then and start checking out antique bows.  The right choice for the instrument might deliver a meaningful improvement, and there's some awesome stuff out there.

Go up to $100K and the result might be the same.  A Needham/Burgess/Croen or whatever with a Peccatte might well be better than a lower-end antique with a good but not sensational bow.


December 11, 2009 at 03:08 AM ·

Stephen - That's what I was talking about, regarding your experience with the Peccate bow. You'll never know how much differences a bow can make until you play on some fantastic bow. And we thought we can match the sound with cheaper bow, but it might never happen unless another similar rank bow shows up...

I did tried some pretty nice new bows but they're no match to the sound my bow produced. It's really interesting, perhaps having to do with the wood - it was made close to a century ago, or perhaps more than that. Maybe, the older bows sound better.

I actually did had some experiences with big names old french bows during an exhibition, a bunch of them, but each only about 10~20secs of playing. I remember there's one that stand out so clearly - it produced significantly more energetic, bright (and yet fuller), and focused tone.

simon - The reason why I have a conclusion that bow act as a filter because I simply did not hear the same differences when I try my bow on my student's violins. Yes, it did draw a cleaner and more energetic tone, but maybe by about 5%~10%, but that was against a cheapo $20 student bow. I compared it to one of my student's better violin with a carbon fiber bow (under $100 but very good one), and surprisingly there's no significant differences, either bow will do well on her violin.

So that's why I think a better bow will not magically make a violin sound better, if the violin doesn't have potential to begin with.

January 20, 2010 at 07:13 AM ·

How come there is no CF Baroque bow?

And why no company buy the design of the Tete beche bow,I guess these bow company are really poor.

PS:I hope someday Microsoft will start making CF bow.

January 23, 2010 at 11:19 AM ·

Sharing perspective from the low-budget end of the spectrum.......  I was given an older (4/4, student-quality, around 100 yrs old) violin.  I decided my arm length called for a 3/4 size, and just acquired one -- one of the "package deals" music stores offer (violin, bow and case).  Very inexpensive, but all I can afford.  I was surprised how good the new violin sounded, expecting an instrument in that price range to -- well, SOUND like it was in that price range (I DID upgrade the strings to Dominants).  Figuring that a better bow had to help also, I ordered one (but it hasn't arrived yet).

Last night -- just for fun -- I tried the bow from my older violin with my new instrument.  This is also a budget-priced bow, but better than the one that came with my 3/4 violin.  Not only was I bowled over by the tone improvement, but my husband (who was two rooms away, and is totally uninitiated in critiquing tonal quality) immediately noticed the difference.  Now I REALLY can't wait until my new bow arrives!  Hopefully it'll be my new violin's "soul mate"!

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