Harmonics can be divided into “Natural Harmonics” and “Artificial Harmonics“. But before we talk about the differences, let’s talk about the similarities.

Harmonics take us into a different physical and sound world from normal stopped notes and can teach us a lot, especially about “not forcing”. For both the left hand and the right hand, harmonics teach us to use delicacy and lightness, rather than pressure. When using harmonics we are transformed from opera singer into child soprano, from bass (or tenor) to falsetto (countertenor). When playing harmonics, volume, vibrato, density and intensity are replaced by purity, lightness and innocence. Compare the following two versions of Mary Had A Little Lamb:

mary sing and harmonic


For harmonics we can use a point of contact somewhat closer to the bridge than for normal (stopped) notes. In fact, no matter how close to the bridge our bow is, it is quite difficult to get the sound of a harmonic to “break”. “Sul ponticello” doesn’t exist for harmonics. Harmonics also encourage us to use faster bow speeds and less bow pressure than we would for “normal” notes.


Harmonics give our left hand the unique, wonderful and almost magically effortless experience of playing without finger pressure. The simultaneous combination of total relaxation of finger pressure with the need for tension in other parts of the hand can however create some curious situations:

Firstly, the complete absence of finger pressure can lead us to unconsciously relax the hand so much that we no longer separate the fingers sufficiently to reach the required distances, especially in the case of extensions. Try Mary’s Harmonic Lamb with natural harmonics (above) to see if this is also true for you. This problem possibly only significantly affects smaller hands.

Secondly – and only in the case of artificial harmonics – we need to combine this complete relaxation of finger pressure with the very firm pressure of the stopping finger (usually the thumb) that is necessary in order to produce a clean clear harmonic.


One of the complications associated with harmonics is that there are usually several different possible ways (fingerings) to obtain the same harmonic pitch. There are not only just several different natural harmonics which give the same pitch but we also have the possibility of using different artificial harmonics to play any possible harmonic pitch. Because of this large choice, composers often don’t know how to notate harmonics in the most practical cellistic way. Sometimes composers will just write the pitches they want, with the harmonic sign over each note, for example:

mary harmonic simple notation

This type of  harmonic notation requires that the cellist work out the most appropriate fingering, and we will often need to rewrite the notes according to how they will be played. We saw above how this “Mary Had a Little Lamb” tune could be played entirely with natural harmonics. But it could also be played using artificial harmonics. In both cases it needs to be almost completely rewritten in a way that, instead of writing how it sounds, we write what we actually need to do in order to make those sounds, for example: (and see also the version with natural harmonics above)

mary arti harms

At other times, composers may try and work out the best fingering. If they get it right then we are lucky …. we don’t need to rewrite anything. But quite often they get it wrong! In these cases, once again, we may need to rewrite the passage or some of the notes in it. The following example, from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, illustrates these two situations. First is what Stravinsky wrote ….and then the cellist’s playable (renotated) version.

Often, as in the above examples, we will end up using a mix of natural and artificial harmonics where the composer has just specified “harmonics”.

For a detailed discussion of Natural and Artificial Harmonics, click on the following links: