My amateur orchestra is playing Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The bass part has a number of notes with diamond heads. I’m not sure how to interpret them (and neither is our conductor who plays viola). In Viola and Cello diamond notehead notation interpretation the diamond notes are accompanied by regular notes to indicate which note to play and which to touch for a harmonic. This score has regular harmonics: Harmonics

Then it also has these diamond notes: Diamond heads

It also has diamond notes specifically for basses with five strings (which my section-mate happens to play): 5-string diamond heads

How do we play these?

  • I notice there is an asterisk next to the second excerpt. Could that maybe link to a note explaining the notation? Sep 12, 2023 at 5:46

1 Answer 1


Diamond example 1: The below comes from Leonardo Lebas, "String Harmonics in Ravel’s Orchestral Works", MMThes (Penn State, 2006), p. 8

Ravel [sometimes] wrote only a diamond-shaped note indicating the pitch where the node producing the desired harmonic is found on the string. These are the cases that cause more confusion because, most of the times, Ravel did not indicate in what string to play the harmonic, as Koechlin stated in his orchestration treatise (p 188, v.1). In theory, there may be more that one interpretation for this string harmonic notation but in fact, the actual sounds are clarified by the harmony or by the orchestral context.

Diamond example 2: The diamond-shaped note heads designate the position in which the harmonic should be played, and the regular note head above is the (harmonic) pitch to be produced. (Based on Leonardo Lebas, "String Harmonics in Ravel’s Orchestral Works", MMThes [Penn State, 2006], p. 8).

  • Rather like a violinist can choose where to play certain notes, why shouldn't contra-bassists be able to do the same? Obviously harmonics are more difficult when it comes to choice, but why be told?
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 9:57
  • @Tim because there are slight differences in the overtones when playing, say, 1st harmonic on one string vs. 2nd on another for the same pitch. Sep 12, 2023 at 17:10
  • Oh, that Ravel! It's more common for composers to mark a specific harmonic by indicating the string to use ( Roman Numeral I thru IV) plus the little "o" . Sep 12, 2023 at 17:11
  • @CarlWitthoft - but - that's how I've tuned my basses for the last 40 yrs... Obviously I've been out of tune all that time!
    – Tim
    Sep 12, 2023 at 17:36
  • 1
    @Tim please explain? When we play a harmonic, that is the fundamental that we are using to tune to. I was (I had hoped unambiguously) referring to the overtones off said harmonic that are generated when comparing one string's first to another string's second - or second vs. third as appropriate Sep 12, 2023 at 19:30

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