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Pizzicato is a method of playing a bowed string instrument by plucking the strings with the fingers, rather than using the bow. This produces a very different sound from bowing, short and percussive rather than sustained. More rarely, pizzicato may be employed in the playing of the piano and other strung keyboard instruments, as one of the variety of techniques involving direct manipulation of the strings known collectively as "string piano".
Use in various styles of music
In some forms of popular music, such as jazz and bluegrass, pizzicato is the usual way to play the double bass. In classical music, however, string instruments are most usually played with the bow, and composers give specific indications to play pizzicato where required. There are some pieces in classical music which are played entirely pizzicato, including the second movement of Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, the ninth movement of J.S. Bach's Magnificat, the third movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony, and the fourth movement of Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4. Vivaldi, in his cantata Cessate, omai cessate, in the "Ah Ch'Infelice Sempre" part, combined both pizzicato and bowed instruments to create a unique sound.
"Pizzicatto" or "Pizzi" or various forms thereof are also the names of numerous presets in music-producing programs/synthesizers, and the sound is becoming progressively more mainstream in modern hip-hop music. Crunk artist Lil Jon may be the most well-known producer to employ the sound.
The first known use of pizzicato in classical music is in Claudio Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (around 1638), in which the players are instructed to use two fingers of their right hand to pluck the strings. Later, in 1756, Leopold Mozart in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule instructs the player to use the index finger of the right hand. This has remained the most usual way to execute a pizzicato, though sometimes the middle finger is used. The bow is held in the hand at the same time unless there is enough time to put it down and pick it up again between bowed passages.
If a violinist or violist has to play pizzicato for a long period of time, the performer may put down the bow, hold the instrument in the "banjo position" (resting horizonally on the lap), and pluck the strings with the thumb of the right hand. This technique is rarely used, usually in movements which are pizzicato throughout. A technique similar to this, where the strings are actually strummed like a guitar, is called for in the 4th movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (Scena e canto gitano), where the violins are instructed to play pizzicato "quasi guitara"; the music here consists of three- and four-note chords, which are fingered and strummed much like the instrument being imitated.
Other pizzicato techniques
Another colorful pizzicato technique used in the same Rimsky-Korsakov piece mentioned above is two-handed pizzicato, indicated by the markings m.s. and m.d. (for mano sinistra, left hand, and mano destra, right hand); here, the open E string is plucked alternately in rapid succession by the left and right hands.
It is also possible to execute a pizzicato with a finger of the left hand (the hand that normally stops the strings). This allows pizzicati in places where there would not normally be time to bring the right hand from or to the bowing position. This technique is quite rarely called for, but was used as a special effect by Niccolň Paganini in the 24th Caprice from his 24 Caprices, Op. 1. Left hand pizzicato is also used while bowed notes are being held in Gordon Jacob's Air and Dance for Viola and Piano.
Johannes Brahms calls for slurred pizzicati in his Cello Sonata No. 2. This is achieved by playing one note, and then stopping a new note on the same string without plucking the string again. This technique (known as "hammering-on" to guitarists) is rarely used on bowed instruments.
A further variation is a particularly strong pizzicato where the string is plucked vertically by snapping and rebounds off the fingerboard of the instrument. This is sometimes known as the Bartók pizzicato (or colloquially as "slapping" or "snap pizzicato"), after one of the first composers to use it extensively. Bartók also made use of pizzicato glissandi, executed by plucking a note and then sliding the stopping finger up or down the string. This technique can be heard in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, for example.
In music notation, a composer will normally indicate the performer should use pizzicato with the abbreviation pizz. A return to bowing is indicated by the Italian term arco. A left hand pizzicato is usually indicated by writing a small cross above the note, and a Bartók pizzicato is often indicated by a circle with a small vertical line through the top of it above the note in question.