HOME Vibrato Harmonics Double Stops Pizzicato



Perhaps more than others, string instruments best convey the delicate nature of dew-drop sounds when they are plucked.  Such references to plucked notes appear in Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and in Beethoven's late string quartets.  In the delicate realm of plucking, there comes a variety of wonderful effects and suggestions through various styles of picking, snapping, slapping, and strumming.

Stringed instruments sound in two basic manners - by strokes from a bow or by plucking with the fingers.  The second of these is referred to with the Italian expression pizzicato or in the abbreviation pizz. as is typically used in an actual score.  Normally, all music for the violin, viola, cello, and bass is assumed to be sounded with the bow unless the expression pizz. appears above the staff precisely with the note where plucking is to begin.  The player continues to pluck until the expression arco appears above the staff as an indication to return to using the bow.  Pizzicato at the end of a movement does not carry through to the next movement.  Pizz. must be restated if the subsequent movement is to begin again with plucking.  This is the basic on-and-off tenant to pizzicato.

Creating a supremely great timbral contrast to the sound of a bowed string,  pizzicato produces a rather percussive initial attack followed by a diminishing decay of the sound's volume.  Traditional pizzicatos by a single instrument are not necessarily as loud as a percussion instrument.  Normally, in an orchestra an entire string section of eight to fourteen players plucking balances nicely with one single set of timpani.  Likewise, the diminuendo decay of a typical pizzicato is much more rapid than the decay of a piano string struck by a hammer mechanism.  Vibrato is a normal activity for pizzicato.  Notes plucked in the high register above the half-string harmonic tend to sound like dull thuds with almost completely immediate decay without any sense of sustained pitch resonance.  In the following excerpt from Michael Angell's Sonata for cello and tape where the pizzicato passage travels up into the fifth octave of the instrument, the notes take on a quality of fleeting, high-pitched ticks.

Sonata; 1st movement, "Mercury's Flight Through the Chunnel" for cello & tape
by Michael Angell

Speed is also a major limiting factor in pizzicato.  Pizzicato requires generally slower tempos than bowing.  This has to do with the mechanics of plucking the string.  To render a normal pizzicato, a player must first pull the string with the finger and then release it to create the sound.  This is comparable on a larger scale to using a bow and arrow.  The pull and release of plucking a string does take some extra time which limits how fast passages of pizzicatos can be played.  Plucking sixteenth notes faster than a metronome marking of 88 starts to be unplayable and eats up the string player.  If plucked softly, a player can buy a little faster tempo because the string does not have to be pulled as much.  Extra speed is also possible if the player does not have to hold the bow in the hand allowing the use of multiple fingers in succession in the manner of jazz bassists.

The speed with which a player can change from arco to pizzicato or vice versa is also not lightening fast.  Many times a player can change once between bowing and  plucking during an eighth-note duration at m.m. 120.  Rapid alternating back and forth between arco and pizzicato is physically awkward and requires even more time to execute.  The following example from Nine Islands, Nine Dialects for solo cello by Holland Hopson includes vocalization interwoven with many changes between bowing and plucking.  This passage is fiendishly difficult to render at the designated m.m. 72.

Nine Islands, Nine Dialects; 8th movement for solo cello
by Holland Hopson

In the same vein, the tempo pacing required in playing a series of pizzicato snaps also cannot be overly fast.  A pizzicato snap, also know as a Bartok snap, occurs when the string is plucked in such a manner as to snap against the fingerboard of the instrument.  The symbol now is generally used to indicate a snap but for the sake of completely clear communication it should probably still be explained in performance notes to a piece.  This is one of the strongest and loudest types of pizzicato possible.  Indeed, soft dynamic contrast does not really exist with the snap on a string with normal tuning tension.  The string must be pulled directly up away from the fingerboard a sufficient distance so that when it is released it can come back and strike the fingerboard.  This is a loud gesture and the extra distance necessary to pull the string away from the fingerboard takes more time to render.  Perhaps the fastest tempo for a series of snap pizzicatos would be eighth notes at m.m. 88.  The following pizzicato snap accelerando in Rusty Banks's Big Fiddle Ballet can only go so quickly for this reason.

Big Fiddle Ballet; 3rd movement, "Rite of the Magical Rock Bluff" for solo cello
by Rusty Banks

Related to the snap on the louder end of pizzicato dynamics is the hand slap. This is done without the bow in the hand by the palm flapping against all the strings causing them to strike the fingerboard.  It must be anticipated that all four strings are sounded in this technique whether they have stopped pitches by the left hand or are just open strings.  Unlike the snap, slaps can be very speedy - as fast as sixteenth notes at m.m. 104.  This tempo can be greatly exceeded by bassists and cellists if both the left and the right hand alternate some combination of slapping or left-hand picking or strumming.  The greater part of three or four major rhythmic pulses must be allowed as a margin for the player to place the bow on the stand or in the lap and then pick it back up because this is a technique which really cannot be rendered with the bow in the right hand.  Bluegrass bass players often use this characteristic slap sound.  Dorothy Hindman enhances the sonic character of the slap with amplification in downingXnumbers where she refers to the technique as tamb. s.t.  She explains and describes in her performance notes that this abbreviation means tambura sul tasto.

drowningXnumbers for amplified cello by Dorothy Hindman


Pizzicato executed by the left hand is a very old technique and yet remains very potent.  Heinrich Biber in his early Baroque violin sonatas and Nicolo Paganini in his Romantic violin concertos and solo caprices wrote left-hand pizzicatos.  At this point in time, the symbol "+" used with notes to be picked by the left hand is so well-known that it does not really require any extra explanation in performance notes.  This is the slowest of all the plucking styles.  It is most facile on the open strings and remains possible while the bow is simultaneously sustaining left-hand stopped notes on other strings.  This needs to occur in a relatively simple counterpoint.  Left-hand pizzicatos on one or several open strings can be played as fast as eighth notes at m.m. 128.  Left-hand pizzicato where the hand must also stop a pitch it is plucking is again a very traditional technique, but it is drastically slower and more cumbersome to execute than on the open strings.  The left hand generally has to shift position for each different pitch which makes for a ponderous and fisty, finger-twisting motion.  Orlando Jacinto Garcia's Colores (cello) for solo cello contains two ultimately challenging passages of continuous left-hand pizzicatos at m.m. 92.  If the bow is playing the same string upon which a left-hand pizzicato is rendered, a brief scintilla of a higher pitched percussive sound articulates the stroke.  Left-hand pizzicatos can make the changing from pizzicato to arco much easier as evidenced in Monroe Golden's Fantasy for solo cello.

for solo cello by Monroe Golden

The contemporary guitar techniques of finger pull-offs and hammer-ons have their equivalents in similar left-hand pizzicato strategies.  These are played with vigorous motions pounding the fingers to the string or picking them sharply off.  They are easily notated in two- or possibly three-note slurs under the indication of pizzicato.  Brahms used this technique in the coda of the final movement of his Sonata No. 2 in F major for cello and piano.

A new innovation in plucking comes from using the fingernail to strike the string.  This produces a more sharply focused and brighter percussive attack at the beginning of the sound.  It can be executed either by the right or the left hand.  Here is an excellent example of a left-hand pizzicato with the fingernail from drowningXnumbers.

by Dorothy Hindman

Other examples are hammer-ons and pull-offs in Vox Balanae by George Crumb.

Vox Balaenae by George Crumb

The generally softer dynamic and slower speed of pizzicato are of crucial importance in writing and scoring that is possible to play and even pleasant and alluring to hear.  Many times balances between string pizzicatos and other families of instruments can be very problematic especially in loud passages.  However taking these parameters into crafted consideration, pizzicato remains an indispensable tool that creates incredible sound contrasts and textures on string instruments.





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