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Playing Harmonics on Strings

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
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String players also use harmonics, although not as much as brass players. Harmonics on strings have a very different timbre from ordinary string sounds. They give a quieter, thinner, more bell-like tone, and are usually used as a kind of ear-catching special-effect.

Normally a string player holds a string down very tightly. This shortens the length of the vibrating part of the string, in effect making a (temporarily) shorter vibrating string, which has its own full set of harmonics.

To "play a harmonic", the string is touched very, very lightly instead. The length of the string does not change. Instead, the light touch interferes with all of the vibrations that don't have a node (Figure 3.7) at that spot.

Figure 4.43 String Harmonics

The thinner, quieter sound of "playing harmonics" is caused by the fact that much of the harmonic series is missing from the sound, which will of course affect the timbre. Lightly touching the string in most places will result in no sound at all. This technique only works well at places on the string where a main harmonic (one of the longer, louder lower-numbered harmonics) has a node. Some string players can get more harmonics by both holding the string down in one spot and touching it lightly in another spot, but this is an advanced technique.