What is “Good” Tone? Re-calibrating our Ears


Jascha Heifetz, Artist: Jacob Wayne Bryner www.Jacobbrynerart.com
(reprinted with permission from the artist)

During a Jascha Heifetz master class a student tries to blame her poor tone on an inferior instrument, whereupon the Master takes it from her and demonstrates otherwise. [1]

What is Good Tone?

Hermann von Helmholtz determined that the quality of tone depends on the form of vibration (Helmholtz motion), and the strength and number of the harmonic upper partial tones, which we now refer to as overtones. Helmholtz described the general characteristic of a perfectly formed string vibration (Helmholtz motion) as having a “metallic quality of tone,” [2] and it is this particular characteristic of a bowed string that maintains and sustains the higher upper partials (overtones) of a note. Striving for a “metallic” sound may not seem like the path to “good” tone, however it is this particular quality in the tone that assures us we are engaging the string in Helmholtz motion—the critical aspect of behavior in a vibrating string and what is needed to produce the highest quality of tone from an instrument. [3] Jascha Heifetz may not have known that it is because of Helmholtz motion that he could make the girl’s bad violin sound much better. However, he did know that tone is produced by the bow’s friction, speed and placement on the string, and could implement this technique flawlessly, thereby producing the widest amplitude [4] in the upper overtones. By producing Helmholtz motion he was able to bring out the best possible tone from an inferior instrument.

There has been much research done on the topic of “What is Good Tone.” Knut Guettler published his dissertation thesis in 2002, The Bowed String: On the Development of Helmholtz Motion and On the Creation of Anomalous Low Frequencies. His research focuses on a string player’s ability to start Helmholtz motion quickly on the very first note. Guettler believes there are three variables that can happen when the string is bowed:

  • Multiple slips, where more than one slipping interval occur during each nominal fundamental period
  • Periodic stick-slip from the very beginning, giving periods equal or close to the period length of the Helmholtz motion (in this thesis referred to as “perfect attack”)
  • Prolonged irregular periods (“creaky” or “raucous” sounds, usually with no clearly definable pitch) [5]

When I began research for my dissertation, I spent hours reading and re-reading the scientific language, trying to wrap my mind around what they were saying. Once I was able to decipher the scientific vocabulary and match it to bow technique vocabulary, I was amazed at how easy it was to understand. See if you agree:

  • Multiple slips – when the string tries to vibrate in Helmholtz motion, but a lack of bow pressure in combination with bow speed or bow placement does not allow the bow’s horsehairs to catch the string. This can also be caused by not having enough rosin on the bow, so the barbs of the horsehair cannot grab the string consistently. The note produced has an airy, translucent-sounding tone.
  • Periodic stick-slip from the very beginning – A Helmholtz corner (Helmholtz motion) is produced when the bow is pulled across the string with enough pressure in combination with bow speed and bow placement for the horsehairs to catch the string. This is the essential and the most fundamental bow technique that needs to occur to achieve a good quality tone, and upon which all dynamic variations are built. [6]
  • Prolonged irregular periods – There is too much bow pressure for the amount of bow speed. The horsehair is crunched into the string, not allowing Helmholtz motion to form naturally beneath it. The note does not sound like a pitch, rather more like a grunt.

Which of These Three Tones is Most Preferred?

Guettler found that string students who are just starting to play, actually prefer the sound of multiple slip. [7] He also states that, “the character of the noise plays an important part, as the listener’s tolerance of noise in terms of duration is almost twice as great for “slipping noise” as for “creaks” or “raucousness” during the tone onsets.” [8] To produce Helmholtz motion there needs to be friction between the bow and the string, and as a result, there is more ‘bow noise’ coming from the instrument. If the string is not engaged in Helmholtz motion, the sound produced is “airy” with almost no surface noise, and many people think this is a “prettier” sound. I have found that violin and viola students have the most challenge learning to play with Helmholtz motion, because of the close proximity of the instrument’s f – holes to their ear.

I had a seventh-grade violinist in my orchestra a few years ago, who had so much potential and seemed to take in everything I said at rehearsal, especially about playing in Helmholtz motion. I saw a transformation in her sound during the season, and by the final concert she was my concertmaster. I spoke to her about her amazing progress and asked what her private teacher thought of her wonderful tone quality. She said her private teacher cries at her lessons because she no longer plays with a “beautiful” tone. There is much confusion about what is “good” tone.

Re-calibrating our Ears

Tone quality is often a primary measure used to differentiate between the accomplished violinist and the unskilled violinist, therefore it is important to fully understand and recognize the characteristics of “good” tone. If string players understand how a bowed string vibrates, they are much better prepared to strive for that “metallic” sound, which helps them know and produce Helmholtz motion.

Please listen to Jascha Heifetz play the Bach Chaconne. Can you hear his “metallic” sound? His strings are engaged in Helmholtz motion.

The starting point for teaching tone-production is bow pressure. The word ‘pressure’ is not considered positive by most string educators. However, the common practice of asking students to apply “weight” to their bow can lead to more confusion than understanding. [9] The term pressure is clear for students. Because this component of teaching tone-production is habitually ignored, responsibly adjusting to the word pressure can be good. Concise and clear terminology is important.

If you are interested in knowing how I introduce Helmholtz motion to my students the very first time, click “Learn to Play in Helmholtz Motion”


[1] Previn, Andre, No Minor Keys: My Days in Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 33.

[2] Helmholtz, Hermann von, (1862), On the Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, Tran. Alexander John Ellis, 4th ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, Doves, 1912), 71.

[3] Helmholtz, Sensation of Tone, 1912, 71.

[4] Amplitude – how big a vibration is; the distance between the extreme movements of a vibration. This is commonly experienced as the volume of the sound.

[5] Guettler, Knut, The Bowed String: On the Development of Helmholtz Motion and On the Creation of Anomalous Low Frequencies, (Diss. Speech, Music and Hearing, KTH, 2002), 6. http://kth.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:9153/FULLTEXT01

[6] Helmholtz, Sensation of Tone, 1912, 83.

[7] Guettler, The Bowed String, 2002, 3.

[8] Guettler, The Bowed String, 2002, 3.

[9] Fischer, Simon. “Tone Production,” Strad 119, no. 1420 (August 2008): 76-77.

Additional reading:

Knut Guettler is a bassist and acoustical scientist. In his 2010 article, “Bowing Gesture Analysis ―For Whom, Why, And How?” Guettler talks about the problem of communicating between musicians and scientists. At the end of his article he outlines some reasons, including the difficulty in learning each other’s vocabulary. He also feels it is important for students to know how their instrument works to be able to get the most musical expression from them. http://viennatalk.mdw.ac.at/papers/Pap_01_20_Guettler.pdf

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2 Responses to What is “Good” Tone? Re-calibrating our Ears

  1. Alice Meyers-Paulin May 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    Very informative articel. Even I can understand the variations now. Almost want to pick up that instrument myself!

  2. Grace October 9, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    This article really helped me understand the true meaning of ‘good’ sound! Now I can use my bow more efficiently. Thank you Dr.Collins!

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