Classical Music: Understanding Techniques for Playing the Violin

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

Violins are considered to be essential in classical music. Most people think of a violinist using the bow across the strings to create music. However, there are multiple techniques for playing the violin that can create a variety of sounds.

Vibrating the string

When a violinist fingers a note with her left hand and draws the bow with her right, she doesn’t leave her finger in one place for the duration of the note. Instead, she wiggles her left-hand finger on the string. This vibration creates a barely noticeable variation in pitch of the note. This singing effect is called vibrato (“vee-BRAH-toe”); it adds an amazing warmth to the tone of the instrument, giving it a quality that’s prized above all others in classical music — the quality of the human voice.

All good violinists use vibrato. Generally speaking, the more romantic and heartfelt the music, the more vibrato the musicians use. Next time you’re watching a concert on YouTube, on PBS, or in person, check out the string players’ left hands — you can see them wiggling away.

The unbearable lightness of bowing

As a violinist uses her right arm to move the bow back and forth, she’s bowing. You can bow in one of two directions: down or up.

Believe it or not, there’s an art to deciding when to play upbow, when to play downbow, and what part of the bow to use at any given point in the music; string players go to great lengths to come up with the best bowing technique for each situation. If they want an incredibly light, ethereal sound that appears to come from nowhere, they’re likely to play near the tip of the bow.

On the other hand, if they want a heavy, robust, even crunchy sound, they probably start near the frog (the hand-held end of the bow).

The next time you see an orchestra play, whether onscreen or in a concert hall, you’ll notice that all the bows are traveling in the same direction at once. That’s not by chance; the leaders of each section have written all this information into the sheet music. They determine this direction, by making little marks in the sheet music, for every single note of every single piece of music they play.

If you ever see a lack of unanimous precision among the string players in a given section, one of the following three things has happened:

  • The section leader didn’t get the bowing marks into the printed parts in time.

  • Some people are misreading the bowings and playing them incorrectly.

  • The conductor wants “free bowing” at this spot in the music.

Plucking the strings

There’s one way to play a violin (or any other string instrument) without using the bow at all. This method is called pizzicato (“pitsy-CAH-toe”), which means “plucked.” The sound of a plucked violin string is delightful, either solo (alone) or in combination with the rest of the section.

Plucked strings can play tunes, as well; the most famous of these is the third movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4, where the string players don’t use their bows at all and, in fact, lay them down for the duration of the entire movement.

If you’d like to hear the sound of a plucked violin right now, listen to this excerpt from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Track 09). If you go to 3:17 on that track, you’ll hear the violins cheerfully plucking away, unaware that all hell is about to break loose.