4.6 String Harmonics
Cliff Colnot. Director of Orchestras, De Paul University
The purpose of this section is to provide extensive examples of natural harmonics, and of artificial harmonics which are produced on the bowed string instruments by lightly touching a third, fourth, or fifth above a stopped tone. The goal has been to provide a comprehensive reference while realising that instrument size and hand size may make some of the examples impractical.
A string set into vibration will vibrate not only along its full length but also along fractions of its length. At least ten identifiable pitches are simultaneously produced, giving a tone its characteristics colour. These tones are the harmonic series, the natural foundation of musical acoustics, and each tone can be isolated by preventing smaller string lengths from vibrating.
I recommend that composers and arrangers write bass harmonics at real pitch with a note of explanation; otherwise, the standard 8va transposition should be shown with a small accompanying notehead indicating the sounding pitch. Whatever notation is used, explanatory notes should be provided at the beginning of the score and the parts.
Special thanks to Dan Armstrong, Stephen Balderston, Loren Brown, Tom Hall, Peter LaBella, Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky, Brad Opland and Collins Trier for their invaluable advice.
- A diamond indicates finger location, a round note with a circle above it indicates sounding pitch.
- When harmonics are played, the string’s fundamental is cancelled.
- Using artificial harmonics allows greater control of pitch. Natural harmonics ring longer than tones produced by stopping the string.
- Touching one octave above the open string produces a tone one octave higher than the open string.
- Touching a fifth above the open string produces a tone one octave and a fifth higher.
- Touching a fourth above the open string produces atone two octaves higher.
- Touching a major third or a major sixth above the open string produces a tone two octaves and a major third higher.
- Touching a minor third above the open string produces a tone two octaves and a fifth higher.
- Diamonds alone always refer to natural harmonics.
- Some higher natural harmonics tend to be flat, and the use of artificial harmonics may be preferable.
Natural Harmonics: Violin
Natural Harmonics: Viola
Natural Harmonics: Cello
Natural Harmonics: Double Bass
- Touching a minor third above a stopped pitch produces a tone two octaves and a fifth higher than the stopped pitch.*
- Touching a major third above a stopped pitch produces a tone two octaves and a third higher.*
- Touching a fourth above a stopped pitch produces a tone two octaves higher.
- Touching a fifth above a stopped pitch produces a tone one octave and a fifth higher.
*These touch points have limited application and are not illustrated.