A paper on double bass timbre since the 1960s by Eric Daino

A paper by Eric Daino on timbre and the double bass.

Abstract: Double Bass Timbre

Timbre is the distinguishing aural quality of a sound, regardless of pitch or volume. Repertoire composed for the double bass since the 1960s exhibits a high frequency of extended techniques, used as a variant of timbre. This project serves to analyze these extended technical elements by examining their aural qualities, performance practices, and the context in which the composers of the late twentieth century have used them in their works.

The project analyzes specific works from the period that incorporate extended bowing, pizzicato, harmonic, and percussive elements and consults manuals on extended and standard technique for string instruments and recordings of the repertoire. The techniques were then practiced on a double bass. It is the goal of the project to offer informed opinions on the optimal contexts in which these techniques may be used by the performer or composer.

Introduction, Eric Daino’s Timbre and double bass paper

Double bass performance lends itself well to “extended” techniques, which the modern repertoire has enjoyed an increased frequency of since the 1960s. The surge of compositions featuring non-traditional performance elements in the 1960s and 70s stemmed most directly from Bertram Turetzky’s (b. 1933) open request for composers to write new music for the double bass in 1959.1 The results of Turetzky’s working relationship with composers gave a monumental boost to the depth and popularity of solo works for double bass. In 1974, Turetzky further inspired composers by publishing the first edition of The Contemporary Contrabass, an account of the different techniques the composers incorporated into their pieces. However, Turetzky’s explanations of the techniques lack aural analyses and details of performance practice. Regardless, the compositions from this period, the first wave directly commissioned by Turetzky and the second wave inspired by him after 1974, draw upon a wide pallet of unprecedented timbres.

This study catalogues the less traditional timbres available from the double bass and analyzes them with regards to the technical application and reception of the performance practices required to produce them. The aural qualities of extended techniques are dependent upon the methods by which the bassist performs them. The success of extended techniques in the musical context of a composition is dependent upon a composer’s insight towards performance requirements and the desired overall aural effect. While existing guides on extended string instrument techniques offer some performance practice suggestions, this study intends to be comprehensive in its conclusions for benefit in particular to composers as well as performers. In addition to technical explanations related to production, contextual examples are given of many techniques employed successfully in musical compositions for the purpose of referencing not only how these new timbres have been used, but more importantly what potential still remains for their use in the future.

Techniques have been arranged into four major categories: bowing, pizzicato, harmonics, and percussion. While many variants of traditional arco and pizzicato techniques exist and have been experimented with throughout the twentieth century and beyond, many of these techniques have already become familiar to many players and composers. Articulation complexities dealing with bow stroke and finger dexterity of pizzicato are not afforded a great deal of discussion in this study because, while still interesting and important considerations for performers and composers, these techniques do not expand the trimbral palette of the double bass.

The weight of discussion here is directed towards techniques that produce differing timbres than normale; normale being defined here as “traditional” arco and pizzicato sound. In this respect, the chapters that focus on techniques that deviate from normale timbres most dramatically require more intense investigation and may result in more radical conclusions regarding their applications.

Finally, many of these techniques are not specific to the double bass but are universal to bowed string instruments. Advantages to performing certain techniques on the double bass over other instruments are noted if present, but few techniques exist which are disadvantageous on the bass compared to the violin for example. For this reason, a great deal of double bass repertoire is consulted to examine the use of non-standard techniques, but repertoire and research for other string instruments applies to the bass as well; in some cases (such as subharmonics) notated examples of these techniques do not occur in the double bass repertoire and, while possible and effective on the bass, other repertoire must supplement contextual examples. Some conclusions, especially those dealing with notation, possess a great deal of universality and are intended to apply to the broader scope of string instrument technique in general.

1 Bertram Turetzky, The Contemporary Contrabass (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), x.

Table of contents for the entire paper





  • Registration 6
  • Above Left Hand 10
  • Angular Directions 11
  • Overpressure 12
  • Col Legno Battuto 13
  • Col Legno Tratto 15
  • Half Legno 15
  • On Top of the Bridge 16
  • On Fixed Objects 16
  • On the Tailpiece 17
  • Bow Substitutes 17


  • Snap Pizzicato 21
  • Pizzicato Effleuré 22
  • Below the Bridge, Behind the Nut 23
  • With Fingernail or Plectrum 24
  • Hammer On 24
  • Bi-tones 25



  • Natural and Artificial Harmonics 29
  • Pulled Harmonics 37
  • Harmonic Glissandi 38
  • Multi-Nodal Harmonics 41
  • Harmonic Flautando 43
  • Subharmonics 44
  • Multiphonics 50
  • Double Stops 55



  • Hand Initiated Techniques 68
  • On the Front of the Bass 69
  • On the Side of the Bass 73
  • On the Back of the Bass 74
  • On Solid Wood 74
  • On Other Parts of the Bass 75
  • Rubbing 77
  • Other Materials as Generators 79
  • Rubbing and Scraping 90
  • Body Percussion Sounds 91



APPENDIX A:Hand Percussion Techniques Table 102

APPENDIX B: Original Composition: Rhythm Studies 103

APPENDIX C: Original Composition: Sand Walk 116

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