Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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The History of the Bow

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

The bow (or fydylstyck) was originally just like a bow used to shoot an arrow; it was a stick with horsehair attached to it so tightly that the stick bent. The hair might have been attached by a knot and then poked through a hole in the stick. No frogs (a mechanical device for tightening the strings in a modern bow) were necessary to raise the hair from the bow itself because of the extreme curve of the stick. Pressure on the horsehair could be adjusted by holding the thumb on the hair, which was made easier by an underhand grip on the bow. The medieval bow is held further from the frog (where the strings are connected) than on a modern bow because of a difference in balance and weight. There aren’t rules, though, and each player can determine what works best for them. One theory is that nomadic people, like the Huns or Mongols, noticed the durability of the hair in a horse’s tail and used horsehair to string their bows. The oldest surviving bow is from about 1500, but there are pictures and carvings from as early as the 10 th century, although some sources think they originated as early as the 9 th century in Persia. By the 12 th century, bowing was so popular that instruments developed a waist to make it easier to reach all the strings. How the bow is held depends on how the instrument is held.

The History of the Bow

Bows are used to make strings sing and they come in many forms. I like to think that the bow that’s used on the vielle and the violin was inspired by the wheel on the monochord, the predecessor to the hurdy-gurdy. What they have in common is friction. In a monochord or hurdy-gurdy, rosin (ground-up tree sap) is rubbed on the wheel, so that when the wheel pushes into the strings and turns against them, the strings respond by making a sound. Using rosined horse hair stretched out along the length of a stick, you can achieve quite a lot of control over the quality of the sound that comes from the string as you draw the bow across it. You’ll see just how much variety you can achieve a little later. Bows aren’t a new thing, but they didn’t develop from the musical instrument itself into the tool used on the musical instrument until fairly recently. A cave painting in the Trois Freres cave of southern France shows a bow, like the bow you’d shoot an arrow with, being used like a musical instrument in 13,000 BCE, a sort of jaw harp. The wooden bow could be flexed to varying degrees, which made the string along the open edge sound different notes when struck by a stick or twanged with the lips or teeth. This kind of bow seems to have crossed cultures, and there are still some folk cultures who use them. You can find them all over Africa, Asia, and South America. The jaw harp qualifies as this sort of bow, although it’s been bent and stylized and made from metal, depending on whether it was invented in China, the Appalachian US, or Europe. But that’s not what this is about. This is about a bow used to scrape across at least one string in order to cause a sound. You have to imagine that one thing came from the other, though, based on the shape and the materials—and even the name is the same. Some bows are played by plucking a string stretched across a stick, and some bows are used to scrape a string that’s stretched across a sound-board. The second one is the great-grandfather of the one used on the violin and that’s the one I’m going to focus on. Definition: A bow is a tensioned stick with hair affixed to and stretched between both ends. On a musical instrument, like a rebec or a vielle, the bow-stretched hair is dragged across a string perpendicularly, which causes a vibration and produces a sound.

Bow History

There are paintings and sculptures depicting plucked instruments from ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and Turkey. The Arab world may have been the first to use a bow on those instruments in around the 10 th century CE, but it’s more likely that they got the idea from traveling in Central Asia or Byzantium. It’s possible that bows originated from the nomadic warriors of Central Asia (like the Huns and the Mongols) because they rode horses, so horsehair was plentiful. These warriors also excelled at the weapon that’s a bow, so how to hold the hair at high tension would have been obvious to them. In 8 th century Europe, a bow was applied to a box with strings on it, and that’s the oldest ancestor of the modern violin. As early as the 12 th century, fiddles developed a waist to allow greater access to the strings with the bow. The crwth (pronounced “krooth”) is a bowed lyre. (It’s Welsh. They’re funny about vowels.) The instrument goes back to the Roman invasion of Celtic lands, and the bowed version to about the 11 th century CE. The vielle came into being in the 9 th century and made the bow a prominent part of music making in Europe ever after. They didn’t get it right at first, so a little engineering had to take place. An essential step in bow development was the change in Asia from rattan to wood. By the time bows got to Europe, wood was the only material under consideration. Wood isn’t as easily bent as rattan, but using wood created a structure that kept the hair from tangling with the stick. Some scholars ascribe the invention of the bow to Scandinavia and others to India—neither is correct. According to musicologist Curt Sachs (1881-1959, Germany, USA), the first mention is in 9 th century Persia. In China, there was a bowed zither in the 9 th or 10 th century. In Europe, there were fiddles by the 10 th century. Sachs estimates that the Persian bow developed between 800-900 CE. European fiddles are distinctly related to the fiddles of Kurdistan and Turkestan, and it appears that the Indian fiddles are too. A Chinese bowed lute was called the hu ch’in. Hu” is what the Chinese called the Turkish Uighurs (a Turkish ethnic group living in a place that’s now part of China), so perhaps the Turks brought it with them to Europe. The hu ch’in was a small snakeskin- covered drum with a long stick attached. Two strings stretched down the length of the stick, like the neck of a fiddle. A bow was woven between the two strings so that it rubbed the underside of one string and the top of the other. The stings didn’t have a fret or soundboard. They were tuned to an open fifth and the notes were changed by shortening the strings with finger pressure. The bow was held in the underhand position. Quite some time and experimentation later, the short bow was pioneered by Arcangelo Corelli around 1700 (1653-1713, Italy). It wasn’t very flexible. Fifty years later, Giuseppi Tartini (1692-1770, Slovenia, Italy) made a longer and more flexible bow. Both held the hairs parallel to the bow with an angled end to the stick. The Tourte bow was developed in the 19 th century and is still used. The hair and stick are parallel until the very end, but the stick has a slight inward bend to it. It’s definitely the most elastic and balanced bow so far. François Tourte (1747-1835, France) came from a long line of French bow makers. He used Pernambuco wood from Brazil and instead of shaving it to curve, he bent it with steam or alcohol flame, which made a much stronger curve. He also standardized the length to 29.5-inches. Famous violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824, Italy, England) declared him the Stradivari of the bow.

Bow Structure

The stick provides the rigid structure or backbone of the bow. Older bows curved slightly outward. Modern bows curve inward, allowing greater flexibility, speed, and expression. All different lengths were tried, and by 1700, the stick was lengthened, and fluted or cut into an octagon. Modern violin bows are 29.5-inches long, with 25.5-inches of hair. Bows for the modern cello and double bass are shorter. Until 1650 or so, the head of the bow was made of a wood carving that curved toward the hair with the tip pointing upward, which is why it’s called a pike’s head (a pike is a type of spear). After 1650, the head was part of the stick and was also often curved like a pike’s head. In the 18 th century, the head continued its curve until it was at right angles to the stick. Horsehair is firmly attached at the far end of the stick by a wedge that spreads the hair into a flat bundle. The hair is wrapped around a small block of wood and then wedged into place with a flat piece of material, such as wood, plastic (modern only, of course), pearl, ivory, or metal. The whole arrangement is called the head or pike’s head. In India, the hair was held in place at the head by a wedge of wood wrapped by a strip of cloth. There’s evidence of a similar device in Europe by the 12 th century. In Italy, the hair was knotted at both ends of the stick as late as the 16 th century. Then they made a groove in the frog—the bulkier end of the bow where it’s held—to wedge the hair into. In the 17 th century, some frogs contained a piece of wire that extended down the stick instead of a screw. It could adjust the tension of the hair by means of a wire loop that hooked onto a series of iron teeth. This “dentated” bow didn’t last, although Swedish folk instruments still use the system. In the early 18 th century, the teeth were replaced by the screw that’s still used today. The head of the screw is turned to adjust the hair’s tension. The screw end of the stick is held in the player’s hand and contains the frog. There’s a 4.5-inch screw through the frog and into the stick that tightens or loosens the hair of the bow and controls the bend of the stick by changing the hair’s tension. The hair is held together at the frog by that little wedge. The archetier (the name for a bow-maker) uses between 150 and 200 hairs per violin bow. Wider bows use more hairs. Rosin is applied to the hair to create more friction as the hairs cross the strings on the instrument.

Variations in Use

One of the hardest parts about learning to play a stringed instrument is getting the bowing right. If the pressure is too light, it sounds like a goose is being slowly murdered. If it’s too heavy, the bow doesn’t glide across the strings and it’s like an audio- only version of a traffic jam. But don’t think that there’s only one way to play with a bow. There are numerous effects available in modern bowing: Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato: A bouncing stroke played on broken chords so that each bounce is on a different string and sounds a different note of the chord. Col legno: Striking the strings with the stick instead of the hair. Detaché: Detaching notes of equal value by leaving a little space between them. Jeté or ricochet: “Throwing” the top third of the bow so that it bounces a series of rapid notes on the down-bow (as the bow is pulled toward the player). Louré: A slow stroke with slight separation between slurred notes (notes that are played as if they are connected). Martelé: Provides a hammered effect when the stroke is given unusual pressure and released suddenly. Ondulé: A form of tremulo, but between two strings instead of on one. Sautillé: A short rapid stroke in the middle of the bow that bounces off the strings. Staccato: A series of martelé notes made in the same stroke. Sul ponticello: A nasal, brittle effect produced by bowing close to the bridge (a block or ridge that holds the strings away from the body of the instrument) instead of in the space between the bridge and the fingerboard Sul tasto: A wispy effect produced by bowing lightly over the fingerboard instead of in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge Tremolo: Moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a single note to make the note tremble. Viotti-stroke: Two detached and strongly marked notes, the first of which is unaccented on very little of the bow, and the second is accented and gets much more bow (makes a longer, louder note). Attributed to Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755- 1824, Italy). There are more styles than this, depending on what sort of instrument and music you’re playing. There are too many to list, but you can see that there are many ways to play with a bow.

Hand Positions

In the 12 th century, the viol/vielle could be held on one knee. The bow was held with the hand in a natural extension of the arm. In the Baroque period, it might have been held palm outward, with the thumb on the frog, with the forefinger resting on the stick and the third finger damping the hairs. Fiddles, like the 14 th century rebec, can be played on the knee or resting on the shoulder and held in place by the chin like a modern violin. This affects which bow is used and how it’s held. There are several shapes of bows: arched into a semi-circle, bent as a crescent moon, with the hairs parallel to a straight stick like a modern violin’s bow, the recurve (where one or more ends bends away from the hairs), and so on. The rebab from Mali is played with the instrument across the lap. It has a short bow in the crescent moon shape and is held with the back of the hand outward and the thumb between the hair and the stick. Bows from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were either the curved or parallel types. Modern bows are held with the thumb between the hair and the stick and two fingers on the other side of the stick, with the pinky finger on top of the bow. The fingers apply pressure on the frog to help direct the bow.


The bow is called the archet in French, the Bogen in German, the arco or archetto in Italian, and the arco in Spanish.


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