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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe

HOW TO PLAY STRING HARMONICS...

In 2020 I wrote a piece of music called 'Moonlight over the Ocean'. Once when I was on summer holiday with my family in a town on the Northumberland coast called Seahouses, we sat on the beach late at night, in the the pitch darkness watching the moon rising over the ocean. My son had a little audio speaker and was playing ambient mood music through it from his phone and we just sat there taking the moment in. It was calm and beautiful and my daughter said that it was one of her favourite moments 'ever'. The sea was like a milk pond and that moment felt incredibly special. I thought about the pull of the moon on the tides and about how further out to sea there would be that deep swell of the ocean and I decided to try and compose a piece that described what I was thinking as I sat there.

'Moonlight over the Ocean' for string quartet and piano was the result. One of the features of the piece is harmonics, played by all the instruments at some point in the first half of the piece. I felt harmonics would work because they give that pure sound and can depict the shafts of light that lie on the surface of the water, the reflection of the moon. They punctuate the piano chords that depict the swell of the ocean and the ripple of the triplets in the viola part.


Composers have long used harmonics, both natural and artificial, to create certain moods and different kinds of note sounds. The pure clean sound of a natural harmonic is created by placing our fingers very lightly on the string, bowing firmly near the bridge and with a flattish bow hair. The length of the string between the bridge and the nut of the violin can be divided up into different lengths and that determines what note the harmonics play. For instance, if we place our finger lightly about half way between the nut and the bridge, and we play that note, we hear a note that is exactly an octave higher that the note we would be hearing if we were playing a stopped note. If we placed our finger a third up we would hear a note an octave higher than the next highest open string. And a quarter of the way up it would be a note two octaves above the string we are on. There are lots more harmonics in between these notes. This way of playing harmonics works the same on all the strings, and indeed on all the stringed instruments. On cellos and basses, because the strings are so much longer, there are many more harmonics to be heard.

I don't think it is ever too early to learn about, and have a go at playing, natural harmonics. I have a pupil who was very interested in the sounds he could hear when he moved his finger lightly up and down over the string. He enjoyed hearing about harmonics, what they were and how they could be used. Most people probably worry most about finding where the different harmonics they see in a score are to be played. But you needn't worry on this occasion! As with all my music there are performance notes that accompany the piece and in these particular notes I have explained every single harmonic in the score and I've shown how it is played and where on the instrument it can be found.


I have created a YouTube video which highlights the things I am talking about in this post and in it I demonstrate how to play the harmonics. If you are interested in watching this video then here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6vo-4yoPnk


And if you click the link below it will take you to 'Moonlight over the Ocean' and you can read all about it and have a listen to a clip of it. I hope you have enjoyed this post and another will be coming soon!!


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