Choosing Bowings for Asymmetrical Figures

This article is a sub-page of the “Choosing Bowings” page.

Normally we plan our bowings to avoid sudden and extreme changes in bow speed (unless deliberately needed for special effects). This planning is especially necessary for figures in which the alternation of long and short notes note creates “asymmetrical” patterns (see also Dotted Rhythms) which, without any remedial action on our part, would lead us into an unwanted, inappropriate part of the bow. In asymmetrical figures we basically have three possible choices of bowings: the retake, playing several notes consecutive notes in the same bow direction (as in hooked, portato or flying spiccato bowings) and sleight of hand.  Let’s look now at these three possibilities:


If we can lift our bow off the string before or after the short note, then this enables us to move our bow, silently in the air, back to where we want it to be. This, along with “hooked bowings” (see below) is one of the easiest ways to solve the problems of bow division posed by repeated dotted figures.

retake in rest to opp dir MozBrahms

retake before short 3

The subject of “retakes” has its own dedicated page:

The Retake


In those asymmetrical passages in which the musical articulation does not allow us to lift our bow off the string and thus “retake” it, we can avoid the bunnyhop accents (see below) by using “hooked bowings”. Here, we “hook in” the little note in the same bow direction as the previous longer note. The difference between hooked and portato is simply the amount of connection we have between the notes

hooked bowings

The hook/portato is an alternative to the retake. Here below are the same three examples that we used to illustrate the retake, now bowed with the hooked bowing instead:

hook anstatt retake 3 exmpls

If our “short notes” are spiccato then we might play them all in the same bow direction, in a brief “flying spiccato”:

assymmetrical flying spicc

If we don’t use the hooked/portato bowing, the retake or the flying spiccato bowing solutions then there are two possible (but not obligatory/unavoidable) negative outcomes:

  1. an accent is caused on the little note(s) due to the fact that we need to use a suddenly much faster bow on it/them in order to get back to the end of the bow for the start of the next long note, or
  2. if we try to play the passage without accents on the short notes, our bow finds itself gradually working its way more and more to one end, which is why we could consider these bowings as “unsustainable”.

non-hooked bowings

The back legs of rabbits are much more powerful than their front legs. This is why their running rhythm resembles more a dotted rhythm than the regular binary flow of other animals whose front and back legs are symmetrical. Playing dotted rhythms with hooked bowings (or retakes) is a way to avoid sounding like a panicked rabbit because these bowings eliminate the possibility of unwanted “bunnyhop accents” being given to the short notes by the sudden fast bow stroke.


Unfortunately, not all asymmetrical figures are suitable for hooked, portato and flying bowings or retakes. Retakes require “air-time” to get the bow back towards the frog. Hooked and portato bowings require that we can relax the bow pressure (and speed?) on the long note in order to be able to “restart” the bow on the short note. But sometimes we can do neither! In the examples shown below, even though the bow is playing dotted rhythms (as shown in the second line), the “music” is not “dotted”: the notes flow uninterruptedly. Because of this, the “hooked” bowings that can make our life so much easier when playing dotted rhythms are much less appropriate here: we just don’t have time to stop and restart the bow (nor of course to retake it). So what then can we do in the following figures to avoid the bunnyhop?


mendelssohn symph

In these cases we need to make a choice between:

  • finding the best bowing with which to play the articulation as written. Even with absolutely the best choice of bow directions, we may still be required to be a little like a magician, using radical bowspeed (and pressure) changes to avoid the bow being taken to where the laws of physics want it to go rather than where we want it to be, but at the same time making those radical changes as imperceptible as possible to the listener
  • changing the articulation, while trying as much as possible to maintain the composers desired intentions

Our choice will depend on our answers to the following questions:

  • does the composer understand string bowings and deliberately wants to obtain the special “bunnyhop effect” (agogic accent) of the huge and sudden variations in bow speeds? In this case we might not change the articulation.
  • or, is the composer unaware that the articulation they are asking for, while perfectly uncomplicated for non-bowed instruments, is very awkward for a string instrument? In this case we could change it to something that sounds better, rather than sounding bad with the composer’s original suggestion.

Certainly, when transcribing music from other non-bowed instruments we have every reason to change the slurs to make the most asymmetric articulations more “bow-friendly” because it is only for bowed instruments that these asymmetrical articulations pose a problem. The following passage is originally for flute:


Often the “reverse bowing”  (upbow on the beat, and short note on a down bow) is more comfortable (as in the above example). This is especially so when the short note is on the higher string (as above) because the string crossing is greatly facilitated by going in the “right” direction (see String Crossings). But even if the short notes were to be on the lower string this “reverse bowing” still has many mechanical advantages.


“As it comes”, with respect to bowings, means simply alternating up and downbows with no fancy retakes, hooks or portatos. Sometimes we are lucky, and the asymmetries in a passage counterbalance each other in such a way that we can use “as it comes” bowings without the bow being inexorably pulled to a place where we don’t want it to be. In these (lucky, fortunate) cases, we can consider that the bowings “play themselves”:


This is like a very simple maths problem: we add up the beats going in one direction and then add up the beats going in the other direction, and then compare the two totals. For example, in the first four bars of the above example, even though the figures are all very asymmetrical, we play 7 semiquavers going out towards the tip and 5 towards the frog in each bar. This is quite balanced and the small difference is easy to compensate for with a minimal bowspeed correction, especially when, as in the above example, our need for a faster bowspeed corresponds with a crescendo and takes us towards the frog.

Bringing the bow “to where we want it” often means doing a crescendo towards the frog and a diminuendo towards the tip. In an ideal situation, bowing the asymmetrical figures “as it comes” does exactly that. If the phrase is in crescendo then we will bow it in such a way that the asymmetries take us from the tip towards the frog as in the following example from the same Bach Courante. If the phrase was to be in diminuendo, we could bow it in the opposite way:


Here are some more examples of this same phenomenon:

dotted as it comes good haydn dvorak


Here is a compilation of rhythmically asymmetrical repertoire excerpts for which neither the retake nor the hook can be used to alleviate the problems of bowdivision:

Rhythmically Asymmetrical Repertoire Excerpts