Did You Know? Musical Notes from the Penn State Laureate

March 16, 2009

Q: Why (and how) do the violins play with their bows going the same direction in an orchestra?

A: You may have noticed in an orchestra concert that the string players are usually playing with their bows completely coordinated in the same direction. It is almost like a choreographed ballet. Why do they do this? Is it planned, or do they just naturally fall into these patterns? To get a particular "articulation" (clarity or accentuation of notes) it is desirable for every string player to use a certain part of the bow. This helps to make the tone of each player blend together with the others and to create a synchronized, uniform sound from the whole section. The concertmaster (first chair violinist) is responsible for coordinating the markings for the bows in the music. He meets with the conductor to discuss how best to execute the conductor's interpretation of the music. Then the orchestra librarian transfers the markings into the music. The symbols that we use to tell us when to play down-bow are simple -- a square box without the bottom line designates a down-bow movement, and a V indicates an up-bow.

Please send any other musical questions that you always wanted to know but were too shy to ask to Penn State Laureate Kim Cook at kdc3@psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010