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In L. Mozart's book about violin playing, he goes to great lengths to explain how to determine which way to bow per note. I'm seeing a lot of arbitrary rules in the sense that that he doesn't really explain the ultimate logic behind them. It may look nice if everyone bows the same, but it doesn't mean it is the best.

Usually there are several side cases for the standard "alternate bowings, downbow on down beat" type of rule, of which I haven't figured out why he is mentioning them and he doesn't really explain why, but just how.

What is the ultimate "law" of bowing strokes? Is there a way to take a non-marked piece of music an determine the bowings that give the most correct way to play it (and what is correct then?)?

I'm not one to just blindly follow a set of rules, no matter who the authority. Obviously down bows and up bows are different and produce a subtle accent difference, and we usually want the accents to align with the meter, but is that the basis for all the rules?

I'd like a somewhat comprehensive answer, if one exists. A lot of technique is based on strong experiences, but I have yet to see how the bowing theories apply, except in multiple bowing instruments having a unity through their bowing direction... which looks nice but also provides an enhancement of the differences between them. While this is true, it doesn't explain why the specific rules were chosen, except as possibly a standard that everyone can agree on (e.g., like 440hz tuning standard). I'd like to know if there is something more to it, which should explain the rules he gives (the why part that he left out).

  • Just remember that since Leopold Mozart couldn't predict the future, his "rules" are fairly irrelevant for any music written after 1800, especially considering the adoption of the Tourte bow and abandoning gut strings! – user19146 Aug 23 '17 at 6:52
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alephzero has a point – with a Tourte bow, you could play something like 80% of all notes in the “wrong” direction and still get virtually the same sound. Indeed some solo players are known to play passages with completely unorthodox bowing and get perfectly fine results, not to speak of Irish Folk fiddle players who often seem to follow no system at all but random back-and-forth.

Nevertheless, I don't think those guidelines by e.g. Mozart are obsolete. A crucial part is indeed just to have any kind of (reasonably simple) rules, even if they're arbitrary: this allows the players to worry about other things and in particular relieves the voice leaders from having to explicitly communicate lots of extra information to keep the section in sync. Most of the time in an orchestra, the string players will just know intuitively what the bowing will be.

The rules are not in fact arbitrary though, because the original simplistic classification (nobilis: downbow, vilis: upbow) still holds in mainly the sense that it's easier to play confident, crisp accents with a downbow. Yes, it's possible to play such accents with an upbow, but it gets really exhausting for passages containing many notes which require powerful response. This is especially true for the low strings of the bass section, but probably at least somewhat significant for violins too.

Perhaps even more importantly, the standard bowing keeps a sensible feel for the music's pulse. A downbow has a “grounding” feel, as an extreme analogy like stomping feet in a march. An upbow has no such feel, it rather has something of a “taking breath” thing to it, so inverting the bowing can give a bit of a feeling of hyperventilation. At least is loses much of the common-pulse effect that a string section can have if playing well together.

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This will not be comprehensive, but I'll get you started.

In a piece written in 4-4 meter (common time), the first beat of the measure has a natural stress: ONE - two - three - four, ONE- two - three - four, etc. Well, as @leftaroundabout pointed out, the down bow naturally comes out with a bit more emphasis than the up bow, all other things being equal. So, generally speaking, it makes perfect sense to match up the down bow with the naturally stressed note of the measure. I like the way you described this: "we usually want the accents to align with the meter."

When you are learning to juggle, starting with the dominant hand is easier, but to get better, you must practice starting with the non-dominant hand also, and strive to make this as smooth and reliable as when you're doing it the easy way.

Similarly, percussionists have to practice rhythmic sequences in both dominant-favoring patterns and in the opposite as well. Just like dancers need to practice right-hand pirouettes AND left-hand pirouettes.

Well, once you get past the beginning stages of learning a string instrument, it can be surprisingly helpful to vary your practice of a piece that you've been working on for awhile, by sometimes starting with the opposite bowing from what you're used to. (It gets you out of your rut!) Do you see the connection with what I explained about dancers, percussionists and jugglers?

So, it can be helpful in one's training and practicing to bow everything "backwards," and counteract the natural tendencies of the bow, to achieve similar results even though you're doing things temporarily the hard way.

However, when performing, there are so many things to think about, one is generally better off sticking to the easy way whenever possible.

Part of what makes one way the "easy" way is that you can conserve energy by using gravity as your friend. This is especially important playing in orchestra. If your performance lasts 90 - 120 minutes, it would not be good to waste energy where it's not actually needed, because you will want to have maximum energy available for your performance. You want to be just about to run out of energy just when you are getting to the end of the last piece on the program. That is an optimal performance.

Your shoulder is somewhat stressed when you spend a lot of time at the tip, especially in the lower strings (D and especially G). So orchestral bowings generally try to minimize how long you have to park yourself at or near the tip -- except for very soft parts, where you really will need to stay at or near the tip for long periods, to get that special tip timbre.

Learning bowing conventions is one of the easy aspects of learning a string instrument. It will happen naturally as you progress, especially if you are playing in an orchestra during your training.

Good intonation, developing a repertoire of various types of expressive tone, these are things that take more work.

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If it's a law you want, let's try a law of physics: how a lever works. Compared to playing at the tip, at the frog you don't have to push nearly as hard to exert the same downforce on the string, because the lever arm is shorter.

This isn't "gravity." It works if you're hanging upside down, or in a helicopter flying a complicated trajectory, or in even odder situations. If Chris Hadfield had a violin instead of a guitar, he could have demonstrated this in orbit.

So, all else being equal, if you want a note to start with a strong accent, prefer to start it at the frog. Balance this rule against the many others that apply in a particular situation of phrasing and rhythm and accents.

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