Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for December 2017

The History of the Bow

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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 hurdy-gurdy. You see, what they have in common is friction.

In a hurdy-gurdy, rosin (ground 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 to keep the tension up, you can achieve quite a lot of control over the quality of the sound that comes from a string as you draw the prepared bow across it.

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, teeth, or a finger.

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, South America. The jaw harp qualifies as this sort of bow, although it’s been bent and stylized and even made from metal nowadays, depending on whether it was invented in China, the Appalachian US, or Europe.

But that’s not what this article is about. This is about a hair-strung 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 same name.


There are paintings and sculptures depicting plucked string 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 10th century CE, but it’s more likely that they got the idea from traveling in Central Asia.

Sources are consistent in asserting 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 the 10th century, a bow was applied to a lute, and that’s the oldest ancestor of the modern violin. As early as the 12th century. Fiddles developed a waist to allow greater access to the strings with the bow.

The crwth (pronounced “krooth”) is a bowed harp that looks a lot like a lyre with a central support bar. It’s Welsh. (They’re funny about vowels.) The simple crwth goes back to the Roman invasion of Celtic lands, and the bowed version to about the 11th century CE.

The vielle came into being in the 9th 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 from using rattan to using wood in Asia. By the time bows got to Europe, wood was the only material under consideration. Wood isn’t as easily bent as rattan so using wood created a structure that kept the hair from tangling with the stick or snapping it.

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 9th century Persia. In China, there was a bowed zither in the 9th or 10th century. In Europe, there were fiddles by the 10th century. Sachs estimates that the 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.

There’s a bowed lute in China 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 before the 9th century. The hu ch’in was a small snakeskin-covered drum with a long stick attached and two strings stretched down the length of it, like the neck of a fiddle. It used a bow that 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 underhand.

Quite some time and experimentation later, around 1700, the modern violin bow was pioneered by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713, Italy). It was short and not 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 19th century and is still used (by François Tourte, 1747-1835, France). In this bow, 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.


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 to facilitate flexibility. 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 bone carving that curved toward the hair with the tip pointing upward, like a spear, which is why it’s called a pike’s head. After 1650, the head became part of the stick, and was also often curved like a pike’s head. In the 18th century, the head continued its curve until it was at right angles to the stick.

Horse hair 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 (20th century or later 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 12th century. In Italy, the hair was knotted at both ends of the stick as late as the 16th 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 17th century, the frog contained a piece of wire that extended down the stick. It adjusted 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 18th century, the teeth were replaced by the 4.5-inch screw that’s still used today. The head of the screw is turned to adjust the hair’s tension. The hair is held together at the frog by a little wedge.

The frog (and screw) end of the stick is held in the player’s hand. There are as many ways to hold the bow as there are instrument types, historical periods, and nationalities. I’ll discuss that in a minute.

The archetier (the name for a bow-maker) uses between 150 and two-hundred hairs per violin bow. Wider bows use more hairs.


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 murdered slowly. 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 (in order of popularity):

  • Plain: For legato (or connected) notes
  • Detaché: For notes of equal value that are bowed singly
  • Martelé: For a hammered effect, where the stroke is given unusual pressure and released suddenly
  • Sautillé: A short rapid stroke in the middle of the bow that bounces off the strings
  • Jeté or ricochet: “Throwing” the top third of the bow so that it bounces a series of rapid notes on the down-bow
  • Louré: A slow stroke with slight separation between slurred notes
  • Staccato: A series of martelé notes made in the same stroke
  • 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. Attributed to Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824, Italy).
  • 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
  • Tremolo: Moving the bow rapidly back and forth on a single note
  • 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
  • Col legno: Striking the strings with the stick instead of the hair
  • Ondulé: A form of tremulo, but between two strings instead of on one

There are more styles than this—too many to list—depending on what sort of instrument and music you’re playing.

Hand Positions

In the 12th century, the viol/vielle/rebec was held on one knee. The bow was held with the hand in a natural extension of the arm, palm outward, with the thumb on the frog. The forefinger rested on the stick and the third finger damped the hairs.

Folk fiddles, like the 12th century rebec, can be played on the knee or tucked under the chin like a modern violin. There are three types of folk bows: one that’s arched into a semi-circle, one that’s more like a crescent moon, and one that has the hairs parallel to the stick, like a modern violin’s bow.

Bows from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were either the semi-circle or parallel types.

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.

Modern bows are held with the thumb between the hair and the stick and the remaining fingers on the other side of the stick. The fourth and third fingers can 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.


“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000

“The Interpretation of Early Music,” by Robert Donington. W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1985

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.


Written by Melanie Spiller

December 14, 2017 at 11:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized