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I'm not a violin player, so I'm surprised when people say that starting with an upbow or a downbow makes a difference. As far as I'm concerned, it is a matter of preference, and different violin players have different opinions. But I heard sometimes starting with an upbow or a downbow makes certain parts easier than the others.

So, what is the difference between starting with an upbow and a downbow?

5 Answers 5

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Bowing on a violin is important: Playing downbow will start closer to the end of the bow where your hand is (the frog), which will allow your to transfer force onto the strings quite directly, allowing for strong and expressive playing. Playing upbow will start closer to the end that is away from the hand (the tip), which will give a lighter sound.

Now, a modern bow is weighted so that it is balanced quite far towards the middle, while on baroque bows you tend to have more mass towards the frog and less towards the tip, which will increase the effect of downbow and upbow massively. But even on a modern bow playing downbow will allow you put stronger accents and emphases on the notes.

This means that passages can get awkward to phrase if you reverse the bowing because you need to put in more bow control to get an accent on upbow or to avoid accenting a downbow.

Furthermore playing downbow is a little bit "easier", as it requires you lowering your lower arm while upbow requires you to lift it. This means that playing downbow will require less effort to get a big, fluent motion. On the other hand the upward motion makes a controlled spiccato (that is the bow shortly leaving the string after each note) easier.

Starting on particular bowing will affect the bowing of the following notes, unless you change bowing at some point, so it strongly how a passage is phrased and articulated, especially with baroque bows.

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    @justANewbstandswithUkraine Because not all professionals play a piece the same. Because bow will need compromises, and different people take different compromises. Because some people would do bowing changes while others do not.
    – Lazy
    Feb 18, 2023 at 8:52
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    @justANewbstandswithUkraine you can do a little drill to get the feel of it. Place your right hand something like 20 centimeter above a table, then clap the table with one clap. Then place the hand somewhat 20 cm below the table with the palm facing upwards and clap the table from underneath with one clap. That way you can clearly feel a difference between down and up. Of course it is not the same as playing with a bow, but it is somewhat similar. Professionel violinists do practice how to make a strong accent with an upbow but it is still more convenient with a downbow. Feb 18, 2023 at 16:59
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    @GrandAdagio When you play in an orchestra you play to the conductor's preference, not yours. You're a soloist if you play to yours. Also you hit elbows if you don't.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 19, 2023 at 4:18
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    @GrandAdagio To be more precise in an orchestra all string players of a section follow the bowing of the principal of their section (except in some cases, where random bowing is used, such as in cases of unmeasured tremolo). Usually it is this principal who devises what bowing to use. This is also the reason why the principals often sit in a way such that their bows can be seen well by the players of their section.
    – Lazy
    Feb 19, 2023 at 8:29
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    @GrandAdagio When all the violinsts in an orchestra performance play the same way, same bowing, you get the same phrasing, the same attack on the string, the same kind of sound. Thus you can get a beautiful unison quality. Feb 19, 2023 at 8:56
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Since a violinist doesn't hold the bow like a sword or hammer (!), but far more gently, there is naturally more weight at the frog end. This means that arm weight and gravity are both playing their part, making the sound stronger at that point.

At the other end, there isn't so much pressure, so the sound is not so strong, for the same reasons. So, most of the time, violinists will use this phenomenon to their advantage.

There will be times, though, where the phrase before and/or after deny this. That's where experience comes in. There's also the bank (section) of violinists to consider. Here the leader would want all of them to be bowing the same way, together. So it's discussed in rehearsal, and direction is agreed upon.

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    While a violinist may not hold the bow like sword I think it is safe to say he does not hold it like a bow either ...
    – Lazy
    Feb 19, 2023 at 8:51
  • When the bowing hand is near the strings, a violinist would have to exert significant upward pressure on the thumb to make the weight on the strings be less than the weight of the bow. When the bowing hand is far away, a violinist would have to push downward with the index finger to make the weight on the string exceed half the weight of the bow.
    – supercat
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:01
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They sound different! An imperfect analogy might be that a down-bow digs into the string, an up-bow draws a note out of it. The sounds can be matched, but it comes naturally to down-bow an accent, up-bow an upbeat.

Sometimes the difference is obvious. A composer writes A when he wants a drama, B when fairies come tripping in!

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Here, a teacher talks about bowing for a couple of minutes without picking up a violin to demonstrate! But she describes the difference pretty well I suppose.

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    There's also this where he explains the history, the difference, the guidelines, and plays some pieces in different ways so you can hear the difference: youtube.com/… I suggest you add this video to your answer. It makes it very clear.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 18, 2023 at 18:10
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As mentioned, bowing is a matter of personal and individual preference. That said, good bowing is often helpful in achieving the composter's intentions. The player however strives to be able to produce what the music requires whether with an upbow or downbow. For practical reasons we can't always play an accented note with a downbow, even though the laws of nature make this the preferred option.

Starting with an upbow would naturally achieve a lighter touch and a downbow a stronger attack. An upbeat would normally be played with an upbow leading to the stronger downbeat (with a downbow). However, this is not always practical, depending on the rest of the phrase or bowing pattern. Similarly, a crescendo on a long note would naturally be easier starting with an upbow and decrescendo on a down, but sometimes the passage requires the opposite.

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  • Not sure what compost has to do with bowing!!
    – Tim
    Feb 18, 2023 at 15:31
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    @Tim How dare you - I always bow to my compost - out of respect! Feb 18, 2023 at 20:22
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    @chasly-supportsMonica More economical than composting your bow.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 18, 2023 at 21:45
  • @DKNguyen - lol Feb 19, 2023 at 0:04
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    @Tim But wouldn’t he be a decomposer then?
    – Lazy
    Feb 19, 2023 at 9:00
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Something that hasn't been mentioned yet specifically, is physiology. The anatomy of the arm requires a different combination of muscles to move the arm downwards than for moving it upwards. Additionally, an up bow requires working against gravity and, if misdirected could lift the bow off the strings. With the downward movement the muscles are assisted by gravity acting on the arm and bow (a) allowing them to use all their effort for controlling the bow and (b) causing the bow to dig in.

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