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I’m a self-taught wannabe composer who’s playing with strings in Sibelius and I’m trying to learn the intricacies of writing for different techniques, such as con sordino, sul pont., etc. My question is: In a passage where the strings change from natural/open to a technique that requires a physical modification to the instrument (such as installing a mute for sordino), must the composer write a pause/rest to give the players time to put the mute in place, or can the strings change technique fluidly with uninterrupted playing? And if there must be a break, how long should it be as a rule of thumb? A second? Five?

Here’s an image to illustrate the idea: A continuous passage …

Violin passage with uninterrupted change to con sordino

… vs. a break before the technique change:

Violin passage with break before change to con sordino

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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    A string instrument requires the use of both hands to play "fluidly & uninterruptedly", and very few string players have a third hand with which to apply a mute while doing this. – Michael Seifert May 12 '17 at 0:53
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    In general (I know, a dangerous way to start a comment), a switch from unmuted to muted or vice versa only makes sense if there's a significant change in theme or pace of the music, in which case you can pretty much guarantee there's time for the players to adjust the mute. If you simply want large dynamic change, that's what "ff subito pp" is for. Just as Beethoven :-) – Carl Witthoft May 12 '17 at 11:19
  • Fully agree with Carl Witthoft. Unlike with brass, the Sordino isn't that interesting for string instruments anyway: the small rubber ones that orchestral players generally use have very little effect on the sound – much less than the player can achieve with the bow alone – whereas the larger metal or wooden ones just give a pretty much “dead” sound which isn't very useful musically, only for practising. Usually, it's much more effective to specify sul tasto or dolce. For quick, clearly noticeable change you may contrast that with sul ponticello, or martellato etc.. – leftaroundabout May 12 '17 at 15:59
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    @CarlWitthoft Pathetique's fourth mvt begs to differ. ff con sordini is indeed a very precise effect ;) – Félix Gagnon-Grenier May 12 '17 at 17:05
  • @leftaroundabout "the small rubber ones that orchestral players generally use have very little effect on the sound". I disagree. The effect is indeed less impactful than brasses (which is true of pretty much anything: brasses are more impactful, period) but clearly changes the color of the sound. – Félix Gagnon-Grenier May 12 '17 at 17:07
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For what it's worth, here's what Berlioz has to say in his Treatise on Instrumentation:

The composer, when indicating the use of mutes in the middle of a piece (by the words con sordini), must not forget to allow sufficient time for putting them on. He should provide a rest in the violins, equal in length to about two bars in 4-4 time, moderato. The rest may be shorter when the words senza sordini indicate that the mutes are to be removed; this can be done in much less time.

If you do need a transition to or from mutes during continuous playing, you could perhaps divide a section and have half the players start playing with mutes at the same time that the other half end an unmuted phrase.

  • I thought there might be some written guidelines somewhere, but as always Google failed to find it for me. From what I gather from your and @alephzero’s reply below, a minimum of five–six seconds seems enough for expert players to slide a mute into position. At any rate, it’s clear you can’t just switch to playing sordino in the midst of a frenzied sequence, so my question has been answered. Thanks. – Walter May 12 '17 at 1:40
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    Remember Berlioz was writing about 150-year-old mute designs that simply clipped on top of the bridge. He was right that they are quicker to remove than to put on (to remove it, just pull), but only if you don't care where the mute ended up afterwards, because it wasn't attached to the violin or anything else! If you need it quickly later, balancing a mute on your knee while playing isn't as easy as having it permanently attached to the strings behind the bridge. And balancing it on the music rest doesn't work if you need to turn a page. – user19146 May 12 '17 at 2:15
  • @alephzero: Fair enough; I wasn't sure how much mute technology had changed since Berlioz's day. But as a trombone player, I am all too familiar with the need to awkwardly balance a mute on my lap when a thoughtless composer doesn't give me enough time to remove it and put it down carefully. – Michael Seifert May 12 '17 at 2:18
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    @MichaelSeifert most modern mutes are moulded soft rubber, or plastic. In Berlioz's time they would have been made from wood, usually ebony, and clip on top of the bridge, like a modern "practice mute". Violin mutes are too small to put on the floor and pick up quickly - the same size as an average coin. – user19146 May 12 '17 at 2:20
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Orchestral string players often have mutes that are clipped onto the strings behind the bridge, so they are quick to apply and remove, and don't get lost. One type has a small "handle" to make it easier to apply quickly. Another type just pushes against the face of the bridge, instead of being clipped on top of it (which is a bit more fiddly to do).

It's not an instantaneous operation, but 5 seconds should be enough time for a professional standard player.

This video doesn't really show a "quick change," but it gives a some idea of what is involved - not much, after a bit of practise.

  • Thanks for the reply! Between you and Michael Seifert above, my question stands answered. – Walter May 12 '17 at 1:41

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