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Introduction to multiphonics on the double bass

Content of this survey

The research on multiphonics on the double bass is presented in two main parts. In the first part called DEFINITIONS I explain the left-hand finger positions that are used to play multiphonics, present new concepts of bow placement and describe how to play pizzicato multiphonics. And I also suggest solutions on how to notate the different multiphonics. The second chapter called MULTIPHONICS ILLUSTRATED presents musical examples of multiphonics, from the basic use to complex colourative effects.


Multiphonics in wind instruments has been around for a while. Nowadays you often hear saxophone players utilizing the technique in jazz and contemporary music. In brass instruments the effect probably dates back even longer, and can be found in music even from the classical period: here the musician sings along with the lip-controlled pitch, and thus creates a quite audible series of difference tones. Woodwind players mostly use special fingering in combination with very precise embouchure. In string instruments, multiphonics is mainly a filtering technique, where the potential energy of certain partials of an (in most cases) open-string fundamental is restrained by a left-hand finger pad lightly touching the string. This favours the conditions for some of the remaining partials, separately or in narrow clusters.

In this survey I will keep strictly to the research of clearly defined and reproducible multiphonic sounds. The vast arrays of sounds that can be created with prepared instruments or amplification are not subject to this scrutiny.

What is multiphonics?

By carefully positioning the bow and a lightly touching finger on the string, the string spectrum can be conditioned to provide narrow bands of pronounced energy. This leaves the impression of multiple complex tones with the normal (Helmholtz) fundamental as the lowest pitch. The phenomenon is seen to be caused by two additional signal loops, one on each side of the finger, which through the repeating slip pattern get phase locked to the full loop of the fundamental. Within the nominal period, however, the slip pulses will not be uniform like they are during the production of a normal “harmonic“, but may vary considerably in shape, size, and timing.  For each string there are large numbers of bow/finger combinations that bear the potential of producing such tones. There are also two classes, depending on whether the bow (2.class), or the finger (1.class), is situated closest to the bridge. Touching the string with the finger closest to the bridge, as in class-one, will somewhat emphasize the (Helmholtz) fundamental, a particular audible effect of a narrow cluster that accumulates around the loudest sounding partial. In the class-two of multiphonics the partials are (usually) more spread out in the spectrum. Examples of the respective partial clusters are shown in figure 1 and 2.

Fig. 1. A class-one multiphonics where a narrow cluster that accumulates around the loudest sounding partial. The figure is a copy of figure 7 in Guettler and Thelin’s article Bowed-string multiphonics analyzed by use of impulse response and the Poisson summation formula. See this article for a precise description of the figure.

Fig. 2. A class-two multiphonics where the partials are spread out in the spectrum. The figure is a copy of figure 9 in Guettler and Thelin’s article Bowed-string multiphonics analyzed by use of impulse response and the Poisson summation formula. (Journal of Acoustical Soc. of America - January 2012.) See this article  for a precise description of the figure.

The position of the bow on the string determines the tone that is muted in the sounding spectrum, while the left-hand finger position determines which tones will be prominent in the sound. Multiphonics is applicable to double bass and cello, while less practical on shorter-stringed instruments.

Historical notes

The first comprehensive description of multiphonics is dated to 1995, when French bassist Jean-Pierre Robert published his bilingual book Les modes de jeu de la contrebasse – un dictionaire de son/Modes of playing the doublebass – a dictionary of sound in collaboration with IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). This research, which started in 1985, also made a noticeable impact on composers working in Paris and at IRCAM at the time. A similar description on the production of multiphonic sounds was later found in the article A personal pedagogy (2000) by the American bassist Mark Dresser. Dresser has been further exploring multiphonics, without being much influenced by the European achievements, and his discoveries where presented in the article Double bass multiphonics, published in the October 2009 issue of The Strad.

The composer Michael Liebman presented a detailed study on multiphonics on the cello and double bass in a compilation consisting of his piece Movement of Repose and the article New Sounds for cello and double bass, which were published in 2010. His study on new sonic possibilities of string instruments began in 1998 and manifested itself quickly in the compositions Movement of Repose (1998) for cello and Sonata for double-bass (2001), in which the second movement Legato sonore shows multiple variations of the multiphonic technique, as well as the articles Multiphonics Neue Moglichkeiten im Cellospiel (Das Orchester 4/2001) and Multiphonics: new sounds for double bass (2001, unpublished).

Multiphonics played with the finger position between bow and bridge (bow-above-finger multiphonics) was performed by Italian double bassist Fernando Grillo already during the 1970s.

Fernando Grillo, apparently in action with multiphonics of the first class. Picture from

Stefano Scodanibbio was for a short period the student of Grillo and in his early works e/statico (1980) and Joke from Sei Studi (1981/83) we find some of the first notated examples of double bass multiphonics. Bertram Turetzky, author of The Contemporary Contrabass (1989, rev.ed.) and one of the world’s foremost experts on 20th century double bass, surprisingly doesn’t mention the bow-above-finger multiphonics in his book but points out that he knows of no music employing string multiphonics. Nevertheless, he says, they do exist and, as with most other harmonic techniques, the contrabass is especially well suited to the task (Turetzky, p.138).  He continuo to shortly describe the production of ”some multiphonic” sound by giving specific instructions of finger position, bow pressure and bow placement (p.139).

It is unclear which piece was the first to directly employ multiphonic techniques other than the bow-above-finger multiphonics. Prior to 1990, multiphonic sounds have in some cases influenced composers to use the timbre and chords as generative sound material and concrete analytical musical tools. In her work Io (1986-87), for ensemble with live electronics and computer-generated tape, Kaija Saariaho draws harmonies from double bass multiphonics, whose spectrum is played on tape and then orchestrated for the ensemble. Saariaho also used cello multiphonics as generative source for harmonies in the earlier piece Lichtbogen (1986) for small ensemble and live electronics. Composed in 1999, the piece Ciel étoilé scored for percussion and double bass adopt several multiphonics that is obtained directly from the research of Jean-Pierre Robert. In the solo double bass piece Thrust (1989, rev. 1991), by Saariaho’ fellow Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola, the whole last part marked Rubato (Adagio) is dedicated to the exploration of multiphonic sounds. Hakola lived in Paris and worked at IRCAM during the 1980s, and his use of multiphonics is directly influenced from the work done by Robert and fellow musicians, composers and researchers in France at the time. Thrust is the first piece I have found with semitonic multiphonics, and Hakola also presents one of the most complex usages of the technique to this date!

Philippe Boivin uses quartertonic multiphonics in the fifth movement Spectral from his work Cinq algorithmes pour contrebasse seule (1991). Boivin was a long time collaborator with Jean-Pierre Robert, a working relationship that already manifested itself in the remarkable piece Zab ou la passion selon st. Nectaire (1981). In 1996, the Argentine composer Carlos Mastropietro wrote the piece En una cara for solo double bass where he uses both semitonic and quartertonic multiphonics. Mastropietro learned about multiphonics reading Fingerboards and overtones (1991) by Michael Bach, an artistically sketched book on contemporary cello technique. He then conducted his own experiments on a double bass, searching for ”a good technique for the left hand and the bow”. The result was an innovative use of multiphonics, presented in his personal notation, chord analysis and definitions. The piece gained some attention when it won the first prize at the 2000 International Society of Bassists (ISB) Composers Competition in the USA. A big leap forward was done with the research of Michael Liebman. This Russian pianist and composer, now living in Israel, discovered in 1997 what he calls the new multiphonic technique for cello and bass, and identify it as a similar sounding technique to that described by Bruno Bartolozzi in The new sounds for woodwind (1967). Liebman conducted his research independently, without any knowledge of the European and American advances. His thorough study introduces many new concepts concerning definitions, notation and combinations with other techniques. The second movement, Legato sonore, of his Sonata for double bass (2001) is an advanced musical exploration of his discoveries. Many of my own descriptions of chord colorization and combined techniques use expressions that are established by Liebman.

The way forward

In the material from Robert, Liebman and Dresser we find extensive information about the physics, technical production and timbre variations of multiphonic sounds, together with chord schemes (spectral analysis) that illustrate the most known multiphonic sounds. However, the acoustical implications in terms of string waveforms, etc. was never touched upon by these authors. And neither Robert nor Dresser has in their research any reference to multiphonics used in written music. My main aim of this presentation is therefore to illustrate multiphonics thru examples from composed works, were I will look at the practical use of the technique, from the production of single chords to effects that determine chord coloration. Initially, I compare previous research and suggest new definitions and suggestions for notation. And in the article Bowed-string multiphonics analyzed by use of impulse response and the Poisson summation formula, professor Knut Guettler presents his research into the acoustical realm surrounding the production of multiphonic sounds. This article has been accepted for publication (2011) in Journal of Acoustical Society of America.

Until recently, most research and use of multiphonics was done independently, without any interaction and knowledge of the work of others. We see that experiments have been done by a handful of composers and performers in Europe, Russia/Israel and America. Still there is an insufficient knowledge of the technique, if not non-existent, among musicians. Multiphonics on the double bass is a specialized technique, yet it carries a great potential for creating new sonorities, expanding the timbre of the instrument, and forming new theoretical and practical grounds for compositions. Since 2001 my own experiments with multiphonics have inspired several composers to explore the technique as well as incorporating it into my own music. So far, I have been involved in the creation of ten works where multiphonics have been used. The rising number of works with multiphonics has given me the opportunity to get experience with both composing and performing with the technique. And for the first time, I present a review of how the technique has been used in more than a dozen works.

I end my survey with presentation of a double bass duo from the composer Eivind Buene called Blacklight. This duo is originally part of the larger piece Into the Void (2008) for wind orchestra (with double bass) and a soloist group of saxophone, accordion, double bass and drums. In Blacklight he uses a combination of semitonic, quartertonic and bow-above-finger multiphonics in a contemplative and calmly breathing piece. The duo is relatively easy to play and is accessible also for intermediate students or players. It serves well as an introduction to multiphonic techniques and sounds.