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Pizzicato [ pitːsiˈkaːto ] (from Italian "tweaked") is a way of playing string instruments of the violin family in which the strings are not plucked with the bow , but rather with the fingers of the right hand, which normally carries the bow, is plucked. Today it is usually required by the abbreviation pizz. At the beginning of the passage to be played pizzicato ; the return to playing with the bow is indicated by coll'arco or arco . The term “pizzicato” has also been transferred to the playing styles of other instruments.

Pizzicato on a double bass
Stanislaus Stückgold : Man with Violin (no year)

Pizzicato on the instruments of the violin family


Loudspeaker.svg Sound example: violin pizzicato

One of the characteristics of the sound of the pizzicato is that the string is separated at one end by the soft finger, in contrast to the guitar , where the shortening of the string by the frets also ensures a hard end on the fingerboard side. This mutes the sound almost immediately after it is torn. Longer reverberation is only possible with empty strings. On the other hand, the stiffness of the strings causes a strong inharmonicity : the partials do not vibrate in whole-number ratios, which reduces the perceptibility of the pitches. These two elements give the pizzicato the impression of being noisy. They are most pronounced with the high instruments violin and viola; the most resonant and clearest are pizzicati on the double bass.


Until the beginning of the 20th century, the execution of the violin pizzicato was not seen as a technical problem, the difficulties of which were worthy of discussion in educational literature. Most school works don't even mention it; a few dedicate short sections to it. The limited tonal design possibilities and its very short and dry sound have caused a certain contempt for pizzicato by many violinists. It still resonates with Carl Flesch in 1928 when, on the occasion of a review of Artur Schnabel's Five Pieces for Solo Violin, he wrote:

Schnabel is now trying to breathe a spiritual breath into this primitive means [namely the pizzicato], to animate it. Has this attempt been successful? On paper, yes, hardly in acoustic terms. The sound soul is mainly based on sound continuity, which is excluded from the start when a string is plucked. [...] An abyss between intention and effect [...]. "

The technique of the violin, however, was the model for the technique of the other string instruments. While the pizzicato actually does not pose a particular technical problem on the high string instruments, but on the other hand does not allow any essential variations and is usually only worn as an accompaniment to another instrument over longer compositional stretches, the low string instruments only had their own technical problem in the course of the 20th century Found way. For the double bass in particular, independent musical structures have emerged in jazz that are independent of the other string instruments and that are based on the diverse possibilities of the pizzicato inherent to this instrument.

The pizzicato on the violin

In his attempt at a thorough violin school (1756) , Leopold Mozart wrote about the basic movement of the violin pizzicato :

“[…] The beings are flicked with the index finger, or with the thumb of the right hand, or, as some people use to speak, pinched. But you never have to move the Seyte down if you speed it up; but always grab it to the side: otherwise, when it bounces back, it hits the handle bed and snares or loses the tone. The thumb should be placed against the saddle at the end of the fingerboard and the tip of the index finger should be used to flick the seyte, and the thumb should only be used when one has to take all of the accords together. Many always pinch their thumbs; but the index finger is better for this: because the thumb muffles the tone of the Seyten through the many flesh. Just do the test yourself. "

If the composer requires double stops, the middle finger is also used. More fingers are not available, because because of the lack of time when changing from arco to pizzicato and back, you almost always have to keep the bow in your hand. If there is enough time, the bow is taken in the palm of the hand and held by the little finger and ring finger, as well as the middle finger if it is not used for playing. Otherwise, only the splayed index finger is available for playing, without the thumb being able to support the fingerboard. Chords with more than two notes are therefore always arpeggiated .

The break point on the string usually does not match the "contact point" on the bow. While this strikes an average of a tenth of the swinging length of the string away from the bridge, the pizzicato is performed on the fingerboard and thus significantly further away from the bridge, on the violin, according to Carl Flesch, "about 12 cm from the bridge" . The closer the finger approaches one end of the string, the weaker the fundamental note is (theoretically) torn, the stronger the proportion of the higher partials, the brighter the sound, as the tone becomes quieter overall. These differences have only been used specifically to color the sound since the 20th century, but extremely rarely on the higher instruments violin and viola (e.g. in Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (1935)). In the second movement of his sonata for violin solo, Jürg Baur systematically used various sound possibilities of the violin pizzicato: Flageolette , different plucking directions (across or perpendicular to the fingerboard), plucking with one or more fingers placed next to one another (lighter or darker sound), various scratches.

The most important restriction for the tonal differentiation of the violin pizzicato is the small distance between the strings and the fingerboard (three to four millimeters), which means that the fingertips cannot be placed on the strings satisfactorily. The feeling of not being able to act freely with the finger anyway and therefore not being able to work on the sound as with arco playing has contributed significantly to the violinists' disinterest in pizzicato. Nevertheless, improvements in the sound of the pizzicato are repeatedly requested. Hermann Scherchen wrote in his textbook on conducting (1929): "The [...] pizzicato tone mostly only exists in the orchestras in its ugliest way: as a dry snap, as a noise breaking into the music." Scherchen was a string player himself, he wrote from the conductor's point of view. In the same year, the violinist Carl Flesch wrote: “Orchestra violinists usually have a better pizzicato than soloists.” The assessment of the sound quality obviously depends to a large extent on subjective criteria.

The modern double bass pizzicato

Ron Carter : Softer jazz pizzicato. The extended index finger is almost parallel to the string; The tip of the thumb supported against the fingerboard is clearly visible.
Gary Peacock : Jazz pizzicato with steep fingers. The hand is further away from the body than with the "classic" pizzicato, so that the index finger can be stretched out in a downward arm movement.
This double bass player probably does not play classical music, but uses a pizzicato technique that is more related to this area. The hand standing close to the instrument body only allows the finger to bend.

In contrast to the violin, the double bass offers sufficient possibilities to bring the fingers into a good playing position. In addition, jazz is always played without a bow. The hand is therefore free to shape the sound. From a multitude of variants of today's double bass pizzicato, which partly serve to color the sound, partly arise from the personal style of the musician, two essential basic forms emerge:

  • In its starting position, the finger is at right angles to the string. By bending the two lower finger joints, he brings the fingertip closer to the palm of the hand and thus sets the string vibrating, with only the fingertip touching the string. The arm moves only slightly; the string below is not touched. The sound is bright and transparent. This type of pizzicato is more common in the field of classical music.
  • The extended index finger is initially almost parallel to the string. It is pulled through with a swing of the arm to the string underneath, without bending. The area of ​​skin that causes the string to vibrate is relatively large; depending on the technique and the string, it can extend to the base joint. The sound is darker and fuller. If the sound is to be harder, the finger is straightened up in its starting position. Often the middle finger is placed on the index finger for support, or the string is torn with both fingers at the same time. This is the most common jazz pizzicato.

Special forms

The left hand pizzicato
Left hand pizzicato

In the pizzicato of the left hand, one finger is used to pick a note while the other is used to pluck the string. Since this other finger has to be over the vibrating part of the string, left-hand pizzicato is not possible when the little finger is needed to grip. These notes are then performed either by pizzicati of the right hand or by briefly striking the bow on the string. The symbol used today is a cross (+) above or below the corresponding note.

The pizzicato with the left hand is inferior to the pizzicato of the right hand in terms of sound and playing technique. Since the finger starts at the edge of the vibrating part of the string and not further towards the middle, as in the pizzicato of the right hand, mainly high partials are stimulated, which cause a relatively bright and not very stable sound. In addition, as long as the open string is not plucked, the left hand is hampered by the need to put another finger on the fingerboard. The free arm movement required for a good sounding pizzicato is therefore not achieved. The pizzicato of the left hand is used almost exclusively on the high strings violin and viola, on whose shorter strings the breaking point is proportionally more favorable and where the breaking of the strings requires less force. In any case, only individual tones or simple tone sequences that are specially tailored to the possibilities of this technology are possible.

The left-hand pizzicato was used very rarely in the 17th and 18th centuries. It spread through Niccolò Paganini and has since become an integral part of the virtuoso literature of the 19th century. The most notable example is Paganini's Duo Merveille , in which a melody line to be played arco has to be accompanied by the same player with a bass line in left-hand pizzicato. Further well-known examples can be found in Paganini's Caprice No. 24 (Var. IX, here denoted by a circle, which usually means open string or flageolet ), the Aires gitanos ( gypsy tunes ) and the Carmen Fantasy by Pablo de Sarasate . It is only since the 20th century that it has sometimes also been required outside of virtuoso literature, for example in the Sonate pour Violon seul (1927) and in Erwin Schulhoff's 2nd string quartet , in the gigue from Igor Stravinsky's Duo concertante for violin and piano (1931-32 ), in the 3rd string quartet by Arnold Schönberg or in the second movement of the violin concerto by Alban Berg .

However, due to its poor musical usability and its inferior sound quality, the left-hand pizzicato is not considered a full-fledged violin technique. Carl Flesch wrote in 1929:

Pizzicato with the left hand has only a very limited right to exist. […] It sounds […] thin and torn, because the finger cannot make a far-reaching movement. In the lower positions the string is prevented from reverberating by touching the fingerboard, while in the higher positions, with the exception of the E string, it is impossible at all. A violinist of some intelligence can only be expected to study in his boyhood when he still enjoys purely playful artistic skills. [...] "

Bartók pizzicato
Bartók pizzicato

A pizzicato that is performed so strongly that the string hits the fingerboard with a loud snarl when it snaps back, was the first challenge of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in his "Battalia", then Gustav Mahler again in the scherzo of his 7th symphony : There A note for cellos and double basses marked with five (!) fortissimo is marked with the following note: “Tear so hard that the strings hit the wood” (bar 401). This noisy form of the pizzicato is best known for its frequent use by Béla Bartók , who also introduced the now common symbol of a small half-crossed circle.

In jazz and related musical styles, this type of pizzicato (" slapping " or "popping") is a common double bass technique. It is also widespread on the guitar and the electric bass .


Early days

Gaudenzio Ferrari : Angels making music. Shown are a violoncello (bottom center), a viola (diagonally right above) and a violin (dark brown, diagonally left above the violoncello, the violin neck meets the lute neck). The finger and bow position of the angel playing the violin seem to indicate a pizzicato.

Pizzicato playing on the viola da gamba was already known in the 16th century ( see below ). Because of this, and because of the ubiquity of plucked instruments, it is assumed that pizzicato belonged to the violin technique from the beginning. In what is possibly the earliest depiction of the entire violin family, Gaudenzio Ferrari's depiction of angels making music in the Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli in Saronno (approx. 1535), the angel playing the violin seems to be plucking his instrument.

Monteverdi, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda : The pizzicato as the percussive climax of the fight scene. It is played out more sharply in other recordings.

The pizzicato for the instruments of the violin family can be verified for the first time in Monteverdi's theatrical scene Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda . It was composed and performed for the first time in 1624, but was not printed in Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals until 1638. In his setting of Tasso's text, Monteverdi sets the climax of the first fight scene between Tancredi and Clorinda on the text words "In grim pissing off / they need the rapier button, the helmet and shield to push." The string chords at this point are provided with the note: "Qui si lascia l'arco, e si strappano le corde con duoi diti" ("Here you put the bow away and tear the strings with two fingers"). The pizzicato, characterized by the word strappare as quite strong, fulfills a double function at this point: on the one hand, the unknightly thrusting with the helmet is onomatopoeic; on the other hand, the pizzicato is the percussive climax of a stringent musical line of improvement.

For a long time Monteverdi's use of the pizzicato as a means of building up musical forms remained without successor. In the earliest print that survives a pizzicato for the violin, Carlo Farina's Ander Theil Newer Padvanen, Gagliarden, Covranten… published in Dresden in 1627 , the player is instructed to imitate a guitar at the end of a loose series of imitations of various instruments and animals, “in deme you nimbt the violins under your arm / and sling them on as a real tension chitarrea ” . The imitation of other instruments, especially plucked instruments, remained the main task of the pizzicato for the entire 17th century. In Johann Jakob Walther's Hortus chelicus (1688) it is supposed to imitate the sound of "harps / lutes / kitarren / building " and in the latter function it is also prescribed for the figured bass part. Walther's Hortus Chelicus was, as is attested by many copies, widespread at the end of the 17th century and, due to its diverse technical requirements, was apparently primarily used as study material for violinists.

19th century

The most famous piece of music with a choral string pizzicato is likely to be the pizzicato polka by Johann Strauss (son) and Josef Strauss . Another well-known example is the “Pizzicato ostinato” from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony . In Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony for string orchestra, one movement is completely pizzicato ; the sentence is called "Playful Pizzicato".

The double bass pizzicato in jazz

The walking bass

Even the earliest recordings testify to the so-called walking bass as the most widespread bass basis of ensemble jazz , a line in consistent pizzicato quarter notes of the double bass, which offered the ensemble and the soloist improvising in complex rhythms a reliable metrical basis. Characteristic of early jazz is the doubling of the decisive bass notes by the left hand of the piano and possibly other instruments as well as the quarter-pulse by the big drum. In order to be able to prevail against wind instruments and drums, double bass players often used the style of playing known from European modernism as “Bartók pizzicato”, in which the string hits the fingerboard.

Especially with the bebop since the forties, smaller ensembles began to prevail, which offered the individual instrumentalists greater freedom. Pianists preferred more and more bass- less, relatively high-lying accompanying chords and left the bass function to the double bass alone. In the percussion, the quarter pulse was no longer represented by the big drum, but by the high-lying cymbal, which was separated from the double bass in terms of sound . Double bass players increasingly introduced rhythmic variants of the quarter movement (quarter rests, inserted eighth notes or triplets, etc.) and began to move into higher registers. Aurally they expanded the traditional Pizzicato by glissandi and intonation svarianten, especially from below "is smeared" tones ( "smear") .

One of the most important bassists of this older bebop, Ray Brown , gave photos in his double bass school to demonstrate suitable pizzicato movements. However, sufficient verbal explanations are lacking, so that one can only guess what Brown saw as essential. The "position for soft pizzicato playing, or ballad playing" shows, as is common today, the index finger placed on the string; the "position for heavy jazz playing" is playing with the index and middle fingers, which, as is common today, stand straight to the string. Both photos, however, show heavily bent fingers, which are less common today. The question of whether Brown's technique represents the not yet fully completed separation of the jazz pizzicato from a traditional “classic” pizzicato technique or whether it is due to a special personal style cannot be answered for lack of sources.

Scott LaFaro and the modern pizzicato game

A fundamentally new development was initiated by the trio of pianist Bill Evans , bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, founded in 1959 . The bassist's idiosyncratic, imaginative playing was initially difficult to integrate into traditional jazz. “LaFaro's guitar-like sounds, which he mostly played in the higher registers of the double bass, not only revealed new ways of expanding the instrument's expressive possibilities, but also tended not to follow the drummer's rhythm, but rather his own rhythmic and melodic structures as a counterpoint for the piano. ” Parallel to and in addition to Evans' pianistic developments, LaFaro worked the bass part into an independent partner for the piano with a previously unknown variety of sounds. The development of the trio is documented by a series of recordings; the highlight of this is the live recordings from the New York jazz club Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961.

LaFaro dissolved the traditional walking bass lines in sequences of dramaturgically coordinated sound events. He used a wide spectrum of tonal colors through various plucking movements, but also double stops , flageolets , glissandi, etc. What had previously been the decoration and loosening of the walking bass line, became the real substance for him. This went hand in hand with a new sense of rhythm for the entire trio. Evans developed a varied Rubato game in which the harmony did not always change at the points provided by the improvisation template , but shifted against the beat. In the trio, various tasks were now taken on by different musicians, which in early jazz were sometimes performed by several at the same time:

  • Drums: Representation of the basic pulse and the bar structure in small drums or cymbals; in addition individual actions that problematize the meter;
  • Piano: harmony sequence in the left hand, omitting the bass, often shifted against the beat (against the drums); in the right hand main improvisation line;
  • Bass: harmony fundamentals; plus individual melodic or tonal actions as a voice against the right hand of the piano.

This concentration of tasks opened up greater possibilities for the individual instruments to shape their parts. At the same time, however, it also enabled a greater number of concurrent layers, through which the trio achieved the complexity of its interpretations.

Ten days after being admitted to Village Vanguard , LaFaro was killed in a car accident. However, the development initiated by him and Evans profoundly changed the playing of the double bass in jazz. Evans later worked with bassists such as Chuck Israels and Eddie Gomez . Many other musicians took up the instrumentation of the jazz piano trio of piano, bass and drums, which he, LaFaro and Motian had initially explored in terms of their artistic possibilities, and developed them further; since then it has been one of the standard lineups in jazz.

Other instruments

  • The use of the pizzicato on the viola da gamba by Silvestro Ganassi's theoretical treatise on the viola lettione seconda pur della prattica di sonare il violone d'arco da tasti (Venice 1542) is attested as early as the 16th century . In the 11th chapter Ganassi speaks of "percotere la corda" ("striking the string"), which has to be done with the finger and is indicated by a point. The earliest printed viol viola composition with a pizzicato is No. 10 Harke, Harke from Tobias Hume's The First Part of Ayres (London 1605), here denoted by the instruction “Play nine letters with your finger” (“Play nine letters [ie notes, since it is a tablature ] with the finger ”). - During the 17th century, a viol pizzicato to be performed with the left hand was sporadically required in England, which was called "Thump" . It is first found in Thomas Ford's Musicke of Sundrie Kinds in 1607 . It appears again in 1669 in John Playford's Musick’s Recreation on the Viol Lyra-way .
  • With the baryton , the sympathetic strings are sometimes plucked. The player reaches through an opening in the neck of the instrument with his left hand, so that a quick change between archery and pizzicato is possible. Examples can be found in Joseph Haydn's Barytondivertimenti.
  • With plucked instruments whose strings are plucked with the fingers or a plectrum anyway , "pizzicato" is a playing instruction to create a special effect by gently muffling the string with the edge of the right hand.
  • On the modern grand piano , the pianist has to get up in order to be able to pluck the strings. This way of playing is often required in avant-garde music. Since there is no room for a finger between the closely spaced strings, it allows neither a great sound nor fluency. In addition, it is only possible when the pedal is depressed continuously, since otherwise the dampers on the strings would suppress the sound, so that the individual tones become blurred. The need to simultaneously press the pedal and lean forward enough to reach the strings with your fingers creates an extremely uncomfortable and strenuous posture. - The pizzicato on the grand piano is often decidedly rejected by piano makers. The acid contained in hand sweat causes the metal of the strings to corrode over time, which noticeably worsens the sound of the instrument.
  • In the so-called “lip pizzicato” of the transverse flute , the airflow that creates the sound is released by suddenly opening the lips (the syllable “pü”) instead of through the tongue (the syllable “dü”). As a result, the lips cannot be in the position necessary for a sound-free sound at the start of the sound. Depending on the version, a short tone mixed with wind noise or just an air noise that causes a resonance with a certain pitch in the pipe of the flute is created. The lip pizzicato is not reminiscent of a string pizzicato in its actual acoustic expression, but in its percussive character. It has been prescribed frequently in avant-garde music since around 1970, but is only rarely used by today's flautists for older music.


  • Carl Flesch , The Art of Violin Playing , Berlin (Ries & Erler). Volume I: General and Applied Technology , 2nd edition 1929 and reprints; P. 34 f., Volume II: Artistic design and teaching , 1928 and reprints; P. 209.
  • Hermann Scherchen , Lehrbuch des Dirigierens , Leipzig 1929. Here quoted after the reprint Mainz (B. Schott's Sons) without a year.
  • Ray Brown , Ray Brown's Bass Method . Hollywood 1963 (Ray Brown Music).
  • Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (Ed.): Riemann Musiklexikon , Sachteil, Mainz: Schott 1967, p. 735
  • David D. Boyden, The history of violin playing from its beginnings to 1761 , Mainz 1971.

See also

Web links

Commons : Pizzicato  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

English-language videos for the double bass pizzicato:

Individual evidence

  1. Flesch II, p. 209
  2. Mozart 1756/1787 p. 52
  3. Flesch I p. 34
  4. ^ Alban Berg, Violin Concerto , 2nd movement from measure 125.
  5. Scherchen 1929 p. 65.
  6. Flesch IS 34
  7. cf. the videos linked under web links.
  8. cf. the autograph
  9. ^ 1st movement of the Sonata pour Violon seul
  10. 2nd string quartet , 3rd movement, bars 18 and 4th movement, bars 33–36
  11. 1st movement, bars 101-102
  12. ^ Alban Berg, Violin Concerto , 2nd movement from measure 64
  13. Flesch I p. 34
  14. ^ For example Boyden 1971 pp. 96, 146.
  15. David D. Boyden, Boris Schwarz, article Violin in: The New Grove. Dictionary of Music and Musicians , ed. Stanley Sadie. Volume 19, London (Macmillan Publishers Limited) 1980, p. 826
  16. Boyden 1971 p. 97
  17. Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi… libro ottavo 1638
  18. ^ Based on the translation by Johann Diederich Gries . Original: "dansi con pomi, e infelloniti e crudi / cozzan con gli elmi insieme e con gli scudi."
  19. Carlo Farina, Ander Theil Newer Padvanen, Gagliarden, Covranten, French Arias, together with a short quodlibet / of all sorts of strange inventions, never before seen in print / sampled a number of Teutschen Täntzen / all on Violen gracefully use up , Dresden 1627. - in the original there is another word that cannot be read in the Dresden copy due to moisture damage - is on the last printed page of the work, cf. [1] . Despite the word “viols” (i.e. viols ) in the title, the work is generally assigned to the violin in secondary literature.
  20. Boyden 1971 p. 195
  21. quoted from the 2nd edition: Johann Jacob Walther, Hortulus Chelicus. That is well-planted violin pleasure = garden ... Mainz 1694, index page. The instruction refers to the Serenata beginning on p. 123 . On Walther's pizzicato and its aftermath, cf. Greta Moens-Haenen , German violin technique in the 17th century. A handbook on performance practice , Graz 2006 p. 186.
  22. Walther 1694 p. 128
  23. Brown 1963 p. 6
  24. Brown 1963 p. 8. The photo on p. 7 (“position for good jazz sound” : only index finger, lower hand position than p. 6) seems to show a middle between the two.
  25. ^ Hanns E. Petrik: Bill Evans. His life His music His records . Oreos Verlag, Schaftlach 1989, p. 27.
  26. ^ Hanns E. Petrik: Bill Evans. His life His music His records . Oreos Verlag, Schaftlach 1989, p. 30. The recordings were first published on the records Bill Evans Trio. Sunday At The Village Vanguard ( Riverside RLP 9376), Bill Evans Trio. Waltz For Debby (Riverside RLP 9399) and Bill Evans. More From The Vanguard ( Milestone M-9125); after Petrik pp. 114–116 (there further publications).