Claire Curtis Violins

The Bow

The bow is the tool that connects the player and the instrument. Without a bow, the violin is just a funny-looking mandolin.


One legend credits the invention of the bow for playing music to King Ravanastron of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in about 3000 BC. His bow had the essential elements of a bow today: it was a curved stick with horsehair, which was drawn across the strings of an instrument to make music. A bowed instrument called a ravanastron, named after King Ravanastron, still exists on the Indian subcontinent.

Where did the idea come from? It's likely that the archery bow was the inspiration for stringed instruments. Cave paintings from about 30,000 BC depict hunting with bow and arrow, and Paleolithic arrow heads exist that are about 40,000 years old. Just about any society that uses the bow also knows that a musical sound can be produced by holding the bow against a resonating chamber and plucking the string. The mouth makes an especially satisfying resonating chamber, since the note can be changed by changing mouth shape. This technique is known in many diverse societies. (Here is a good picture of an Appalachian mouth bow player, and another picture of an African mouth bow player). The mouth bow may well have been the first stringed instrument.

But to use a second bow, strung with horsehair, to make a continuous tone -- that was an innovation! Wherever they may have originated, Ceylon, China, or Indonesia, bowed instruments seem to have entered Europe via the Middle East. During the crusades, European settlements pushed into the Arabian peninsula, and Islamic settlements were established in Spain and Italy. This cultural cross-fertilization led to an incredible amount of innovation. It was a glorious time, but unsettled, and in reaction, the Inquisition repressed much of the Islamic influence in Europe. That turmoil, in turn (and with much else) sparked the Renaissance. And led to the development of the violin.

The Development of the Bow

At the time of Stradivarius, the bow had not yet been standardized into the form we know it today. Many Medieval depictions show a bow curved away from the hair, very much like an archery bow. But a bow like this is hard to control, and loses power at the end of the stroke. A straighter bow works better, and a reverse curve gives the bow liveliness and control along the entire length of the bow. Several means were developed to control the tension on the hair. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the bow reached its final form; an innovation often credited to Nicholas Pierre Tourte. This is not quite fair, because the individual innovations can be seen elsewhere, but his name certainly became linked with the first modern bows.

More information:

A Bow on the Couch by bowmaker Andreas Grütter (external link)
A delightful and very informative look at bows and bowmaking, by a bowmaker who lives in Amsterdam.

The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (external link)
No one has found a better wood than Pernambucco for bows. It has the ideal qualities of flexibility, resiliance, strength, and willingness to take a curve. The wood grows in the rainforests of Brazil, which are disappearing at an alarming rate. IPCI is an organization dedicated to the sustainable harvest and replanting of this scarce resource.

Science Friction article from Strings Magazine (external link)
A review of carbon fiber bows, most priced between $500 and $1500.
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