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My brother is a beginning cellist and I was helping him annotate "up bow" and "down bow". I find it particularly strange that the "up bow" symbol is similar to a V. Intuitively, I would have thought it would be ^ or an up arrow.

I thought I would find the answer to this for a quick Google search, but haven't yet turned up any information. Is there any known historical reason for the use of these two symbols?

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It's not just bowed instruments. Similar, or the same symbols are also used for organ pedaling and guitar picking. (The latter isn't so much of a stretch, given that it's still a string instrument.) – Joshua Taylor Jun 10 '14 at 18:23
The V is for the French word "Vileine" (not sure about the spelling), because up bow naturally sounds less nice (nowadays, people tend to practice until up and down sounds equal). There is a symbol with a French origin for down bow as well. – 11684 Jun 11 '14 at 12:54
Is it the word "vilaine"? I'm doing my best to find a source linking this with string bowing... – Bob Broadley Jun 11 '14 at 15:20

This is one of the best questions I've seen for ages. I've looked for a while, but can't find a definitive answer, but hopefully I can give some useful information.

Two things: the up bow mark doesn't really describe an upward direction, but instead that the bow is pushed, rather than pulled as in a down bow. So, this helps to explain why this doesn't use an upward pointing arrow. The orchestration book on my desk, Walter Piston's Orchestration, points out that these signs are,

more clearly expressed by the French tire (drawn) for down-bow, and pousse (pushed) for up-bow.

I figured that trying to find out when bowing marks were first used might yield the reasoning behind the symbols used. This webpage has some detailed information about the early uses of bow markings in string music. Interestingly, it mentions that the violinist Ferdinand Franzl used bowing marks, but that they were,

inverted versions of the modern signs

At the bottom of the webpage there is a link to another webpage describing the continuing development of string bowing markings - but unfortunately the webpage linked to no longer exists, oh well!

Just one observation of my own, the upbow on string instruments is more suited to creating a crescendo (getting louder), with the downbow more easily producing the opposite; to my eyes this makes the upbow symbol "look right" (it is similar to an upward crescendo symbol). Equally, the downbow on strings is more effective at creating a strongly accented "heavy" articulation, and the downbow symbol somewhat resembles the marking for marcato.

Sorry, to not be able to give you a definitive answer - I hope this post gives you some useful information though.

EDIT: @tohuwawohu points out here that the upbow marking resembles the tip of the bow (where you start when executing an up bow), this "pointy" marking also being appropriate as the tip is also called the point of the bow (punta d'arco in Italian, pointe in French). And, the downbow marking resembles the frog (or heel) of the bow, where you start when executing a downbow.

As I say, @tohuwawohu deserves credit for this additional information.

UPDATE: the search continues, especially considering @11684's comment above (below the OP's question) - I'm trying my hardest to find a source to back that comment up.

In the meantime, I have found an example which uses t (tirer, to pull) for down-bow and p (pousser, to push) for up-bow, as mentioned above. It can be found in this book. See extract below from Principes de violon (1718) by French violinist and dancing master Pierre Dupont:

enter image description here

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Thank you for trying, it's a good start, and there's some interesting ideas here :). This is a real stab in the dark, I don't even play cello, but perhaps up-bow was inspired by the V-shape of the thumb and index finger as you push the bow up the cello. I'm interested that there's not an easily found answer to this question. – Leo King Jun 10 '14 at 13:45
No problem. I'm sure a string player will respond with a far less conjectural answer than mine! – Bob Broadley Jun 10 '14 at 13:57
That sounds like a compelling theory! I'll share that with my brother if he's interested (I think this question was of more interest to me, though.) – Leo King Jun 10 '14 at 17:49
You might be able to draw the information from the archived version - hope this helps! – Bergi Jun 10 '14 at 18:14
I'm a viola da gamba player - it's common for us to use t and p for 'down-bow' and 'up-bow', which we call 'pull' and 'push', respectively. And actually, because of the inverted bow hold for a viol, the 'strength' of a stroke is inverted, i.e. our push (equivalent to an up-bow) behaves more like a down-bow on a violin. I've always thought the modern bowing symbols were derived from the shape of the bow, but that's pure speculation on my part. Some viol players do use the modern symbols, preserving their meaning in terms of bow direction (and inverting the effect). – Matthew Walton Jun 13 '14 at 12:30

At first sight, i would suppose the symbols are inspired by the different shapes of the bow's frog and tip respectively. But that's a mere guess, without corroboration by sources.


Here's an illustration showing a bow's frog (above - notice the orthogonal shape) and tip (below - showing the characteristic "pointy" shape):

By Henry Saint-George (1866-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image: By Henry Saint-George (1866-1917) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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+1 I think you're probably right here. I've edited my answer to acknowledge your information and answer - I hope that's okay. If not, I'll take the information out... – Bob Broadley Jun 10 '14 at 14:38
@BobBroadley: no problem - feel free just to use the info! – tohuwawohu Jun 10 '14 at 14:48
That's what I always though as well, but I don't have any sources either. – leftaroundabout Jun 10 '14 at 21:54
Might I recommend a picture to enhance this answer? – kojiro Jun 11 '14 at 16:59
@kojiro: Very good idea - fortunately, Wikimedia Commons has an illustration showing frog and tip as well. – tohuwawohu Jun 11 '14 at 17:51

An older German encyclopedia (Brockhaus, 4th edition, 1885-1892, see "Bogenführung", attention: not only German but also black letter) gives also the upside-down variants with the inverted meaning for both bow-up and bow-down marks. I found no reference for it, but could imagine, that these were abandoned to ensure orientation-independence. Note, that quite a few ornamentation marks are turned upside down and are written to the other side of the note system depending on the direction of the note stem, like staccato-dots, marcatos, fermata etc, a practice I found also mentioned as possible (even if not recommended) for bow markings in "Behind the Bars". So having not only the direction, but also the form of the sign, might have been quite an advantage before electric note stand lamps.

And obviously any symbol is more international than terms in whatever language.

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