Science and String Playing



Here at String Visions, the term “String Theory” encapsulates the intersection of science and string playing. By definition, this is about the latest research findings in a number of scientific disciplines, all of which have a direct impact on string playing and string teaching. However, this simple-sounding category encompasses an incredible breadth of topics, with disciplines such as physics and string acoustics, sports science and motor learning, and kinesiology. String Visions will provide a link between string players and leading scientists in various disciplines through articles, interviews, and discussions. This will not only allow us to reach a deeper understanding and awareness of the sciences that have a direct impact on string playing, but will also give us exposure to the latest discoveries in these fields, helping us to become more informed teachers and better players.

The science involved in the vibration of the bowed string is the only well-understood example of vibration excited by friction. [1] However, a number of the important and fascinating discoveries by scientists in string acoustics have not been fully integrated into the general understanding and vocabulary of string teaching

In sports training centers all over the world a lot of time and money is invested into research about sports science. The study of sports science incorporates areas of physiology, psychology, motor control, and biomechanics, all of which are important to musicians. The physical aspect of playing an instrument has a tremendous amount of similarity to a great number of sports disciplines. There is so much that musicians can learn from the latest research in sports science.

Motor learning can be defined as the process of improving the motor skills – the smoothness and efficiency of movements – in order to master a particular task. As an area of research it has held a very important position in both physical education and psychology for more than 100 years. Many scientific experiments have taken place over the years, controlled by leading scientists in motor learning. To take a case in point, blocked practice has often been compared to random practice in scientific studies. Blocked practice involves giving total focus to one aspect of technique, practicing the same thing over and over until it is correct. Random practice on the other hand is where a number of skills are practiced in random order, with the goal of avoiding or minimizing repetition of any single task. While it is encouraged for musicians to use both methods, random practice has been proven by numerous experiments to be much more effective for long term retention. The idea of repeating a skill over and over is often a waste of time and has been proven to be less efficient in terms of practice technique. This point can be summed up in the words of the late Russian physiologist N.I. Bernstein:

The process of practice towards the achievement of new motor habits essentially consists in the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems. Because of this, practice, when properly undertaken, does not consist in repeating the means of solution of a motor problem time after time, but in the process of solving this problem again and again. [2]

Kinesiology, derived from the Greek words kinesis (movement) and kinein (to move), also known as human kinetics, is the science of human movement. Over the years I have read as many books about string teaching as possible. One of the books that had the most profound influence on me as a young teacher was: “The teaching of action in string playing” by Paul Rolland. In that book there are numerous examples of specific practice and performing techniques where string players can learn a tremendous amount from knowledge gained from kinesiology. One example is:

The speed at which a skill is first practiced should be approximately that of the speed at which it is to be used later. [3]

That quote is one of the most important aspects of instrumental practice. If the end goal is not clear in the mind of the performer, then practicing is a waste of time. In order to master a fast passage it has to be practiced fast in order to find the most efficient movement pattern. In addition the muscles involved with executing a fast movement is completely different than the muscles involved in executing a slow movement.

Kinesiologists work in the fields of sciences that relate to human movement, as well as in fitness and sport, occupational therapy and the movie animation industry. This discipline incorporates special equipment to measure human movement, including optical cameras or electromagnetic sensors in 3-dimensional space or in the 2-dimensional plane to measure telemetry. There are a great number of scientific discoveries that we can incorporate into our instrumental teaching and understanding from research in kinesiology.

Look at the video below to see how motion capture systems can be used to visualize bowing gestures in violin playing. The circular bowing gestures and the figure 8 bowings are very easy to observe. This experiment was supervised by Erwin Schoonderwaldt a brilliant scientist from Sweden who at the present time is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians Medicine in Hannover, Germany.

The Constrained Action Hypothesis refers to knowledge gained from measuring EMG (Electromyography) activity in performers muscles. [4] EMG clearly shows in numerous experiments that when performers utilize an internal focus of attention they constrain and interfere with automatic control processes that would normally regulate the movement, whereas an external focus of attention (focus on the movement effect) allows the motor system to more naturally self-organize. [5] Although many musicians intuitively understand this process, recognizing the scientific fact makes it much more powerful.


[1] Woodhouse, Jim and PM Galluzzo. “The Bowed String As We Know It Today.” Acta Acustica United with Acustica 90 (2004): 579-589.

[2] Bernstein, Nikolai A. The co-ordination and regulation of movements. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1967.

[3] Rolland, Paul. “The teaching of action in string playing: Developmental and remedial techniques for violin and viola.” 2nd ed. Illinois String Research Associates, 2000. Pg. 205. Also see the film series based off of the same material at

[4] McNevin, Nancy H., Charles H. Shea, and Gabriele Wulf. “Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning.” Psychological Research 67 (2003): 22-29. Link.

[5] Wulf, Gabriele, Barbara Lauterbach, and Tonya Toole. “The learning advantages of an external focus of attention in golf.” Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 70 (1999): 120-126.,%20L%20and%20T.pdf

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10 Responses to Science and String Playing

  1. Cellimom May 14, 2011 at 7:41 pm #

    Oh, I think many musical things become clear with science. It means we can find out how to make a better soound scientifically, right? Some times, I feel vibration of surrounding during listening. It looks like they have a same frequency just like resonance. Does it good for good sound?

  2. Terry May 16, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    But what is an external focus in the cello-playing context? Is it just the resulting sound, or is there more to it? Is it possible that striving for that external focus tempts the student to make compromises that ultimately limit the student’s potential?

  3. Hans Jensen May 16, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Yes Terry I think you are on to something here. The student’s should never limit there own potential.

    From my perspective for a cellist or musician the external focus is actually focusing on the total end result and not only focusing on what the body is doing. Thinking about the arms and hands can be good when a new work is studied. But in the end all movement patterns have to take place intuitively. So when a cellist focuses on the end result all movement patterns are much more efficient and effective. Yo Yo Ma is a perfect example of that principle. Mr. Ma seems to only focus on the artistic end result. Listening to his performances I get the feeling that the cello does not exist. It is true music making.

    In one of the scientific studies:
    The following is an excerpt from here:
    Research has demonstrated that an external focus of attention is more beneficial to performers than an internal strategy during motor skill performance and learning (see Wulf, 2007 and Wulf & Prinz, 2001 for reviews). Operationalised along the dimension of direction, an external focus of attention has been defined as when a performerÕs attention is directed towards an outcome of, or the effects of, the movement being produced (e.g., a goal, target, intended effect). An internal focus is induced when a performerÕs attention is directed towards the actual bodily movements being produced during a movement (Wulf & Prinz). The benefits of utilizing an external focus have been demonstrated in a number of tasks, such as standing balance (McNevin, Shea, & Wulf, 2003), golf (Wulf, Lauterbach, & Toole, 1999), volleyball and soccer kicks (Wulf, McConnel, Gartner, & Schwarz, 2002). The observed detriment of an internal focus has been explained with reference to the constrained action hypothesis (McNevin et al., 2003; Wulf, McNevin, & Shea, 2001). Specifically, individuals asked to adopt an internal focus try to consciously control their movements. This constrains the motor system, inadvertently disrupting automatic control processes. In contrast, focusing on the movement effect by adopting an external focus allows unconscious or automatic processes to control the movement (Vance, Wulf, Tšllner, McNevin, & Mercer, 2004).

  4. Terry May 17, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Not to argue, but this information does differ some from internal things that I thought one should pay attention to.

    What about breathing? What about feeling for tension? Feeling to guard against thumb pressure or arm pressing? Easy flowing shoulder? Good balance on the chair and solid foundation on the floor?

    Perhaps it is not inconsistent to have external focus but also be aware of one’s body, I don’t know. This external focus principle is new information to me that I will have to think about and absorb.

    • Hans Jensen May 23, 2011 at 1:09 am #

      Hello Terry and thank you for your great and helpful comments.
      What is confusing here is the word Internal and External.

      For a weight lifter thinking about the muscles lifting the object is the internal
      and for the weight lifter thinking about the weights being lifted is the external.

      So the mind of the weightlifter should not think about the muscles involved but the weights being lifted.

      For the musicians we should not in a performance think about the muscles involved
      That of course is OK and necessary in practice. Creating a feeling of relaxed focused mind and body and relaxed breathing (as you say) actually helps in creating a state of mind where the performer can let the intuitive natural movement patterns take place.
      For a musician visualizing the music in our minds when performing and letting the arms and hands do there work without interfering creates better performances.

      Of course with all of these concepts we are all different and we each have to find our own ways.

      In my own teaching it has been extremely helpful for me to read and understand these concepts and also very helpful and beneficial for the students that needed it. It can be very reassuring for performers to know that their technique works the best when they don’t think about it.

  5. Erwin Schoonderwaldt June 18, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Great post, I totally agree with your approach, Hans! In my current project, I am looking more into the aspects of motor learning in string playing, and I came across the same issues. A very nice collection of interdisciplinary work in this respect is compiled in the book “Art in motion” edited by Adina Mornell, which provides a comprehensible introduction into these issues (see

    I have some thought about the paradox presented by the concept of internal and external focus. One thing to keep in mind is that the studies showing the benefit of external focus are mainly concerning a simple task that is performed in a laboratory experiment. Teaching and learning of music is a much more complex learning process, which means that the results of these studies cannot be projected without further reflection. Concerning internal/external focus my personal opinion is that it might be good at some stages to “go internal” and become aware of details of playing technique. However, it is then very important to internalize this by practicing, so that it later comes by itself when adopting an external focus.

    These are exciting questions, forming an important starting point for the quest in modern string pedagogy.

  6. Erwin Schoonderwaldt June 18, 2011 at 5:56 am #

    Just another minor comment on the above post. The animation of bowing gestures is the old version. A better version of the same recording (high-defination, and bow force coded in color) can be found at

    @Hans: Could you please replace the link?

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