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