1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bow

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BOW (pronounced “bō”), a common Teutonic word for anything bent[1] (O. Eng. boȝa; cf. O. Sax. and O.H.G. boga, M.H.G. boge, Mod. Ger. bogen; from O. Teut. stem bug- of beugan, Mod. Ger. biegen, to bend). Thus it is found in English compound words, e.g. “elbow,” “rainbow,” “bow-net,” “bow-window,” “bow-knot,” “saddle-bow,” and by itself as the designation of a great variety of objects. The Old English use of “bow,” or stone-bow, for “arch,” now obsolete, survives in certain names of churches and places, e.g. Bow church (St Mary-in-Arcubus) in Cheapside, and Stratford-le-Bow (the “Stratford-atte-Bowe” of Chaucer). “Bow,” however, is still the designation of objects so various as an appliance for shooting arrows (see Archery), a necktie in the form of a bow-knot (i.e. a double-looped knot), a ring or hoop forming a handle (e.g. the bow of a watch), certain instruments or tools consisting of a bent piece of wood with the ends drawn together by a string, used for drilling, turning, &c., in various crafts, and the stick strung with horsehair by means of which the strings of instruments of the violin family are set in vibration. It is with this last that the present article is solely concerned.

Bow in Music. — The modern bow (Fr. archet; Ger. Bogen; Ital. arco) consists of five parts, i.e. the “stick,” the screw or “ferrule,” the “nut,” the “hair” and the “head.” The stick, in high-grade bows, is made of Pernambuco wood (Caesalpinia brasiliensis), which alone combines the requisite lightness, elasticity and power of resistance; for the cheaper bows American oak is used, and for the double-bass bow beech. A billet rich in colouring matter and straight in the grain is selected, and the stick is usually cut from a templet so as to obtain the accurate taper, which begins about 4¼ in. from the nut, decreasing according to regular proportions from ⅜ in. at the screw to 3/16 at the back of the head. The stick is cut absolutely straight and parallel along its whole length with the fibre of the wood; it is then bent by heat until it is slightly convex to the hair and has assumed the elegant cambrure first given to it by François Tourte (1747-1835). This process requires the greatest care, for if the fibres be not heated right through, they offer a continual resistance to the curve, and return after a time to the rigid straight line, a defect often observed in cheap bows. The sticks are now of either cylindrical or octagonal section, and are lapped or covered with gold thread or leather for some inches beyond the nut in order to afford a firm grip. The length of the stick was definitely and finally fixed by François Tourte at 29.34 to 29.528 in.

The centre of gravity in a well-balanced violin bow should be at 19 cm. (7½ to 7¾ in.) from the nut;[2] in the violoncello bow the hair measures from 60 to 62 cm. (24 to 25 in.), and the centre of gravity is at from 175 to 180 mm. (7 to 7¼ in.) from the nut. In consequence of the flexure given to the stick, Tourte found it necessary to readjust the proportions and relative height of head and nut, in order to keep the hair at a satisfactory distance from the stick, and at the necessary angle in attacking the strings so as to avoid contact between stick and strings in bowing. In order to counterbalance the consequent increased weight of the head and to keep the centre of gravity nearer the hand, Tourte loaded the nut with metal inlays or ornamental designs.

The screw or ferrule, at the cylindrical end of the stick held by the hand, provides the means of tightening or loosening the tension of the hair. This screw, about 3¼ in. long, hidden within the stick, runs through the eye of another little screw at right angles to it, which is firmly embedded in the nut.

The nut is a wooden block at the screw end of the stick, the original purpose of which was to keep the hair at a proper distance from the stick and to provide a secure attachment for the hair. The whole nut slides up and down the stick in a groove in answer to the screw, thus tightening or relaxing the tension of the hair. In the nut is a little cavity or chamber, into which the knotted end of the hair is firmly fixed by means of a little wedge, the hair being then brought out and flattened over the front of the nut like a ribbon by the pressure of a flat ferrule. The mother-of-pearl slide which runs along a mortised groove further protects the hair on the outside of the nut. Bows having these attachments of ferrule and slide, added by Tourte at the instigation of the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, were known as archets à recouvrements.

The hair is chosen from the best white horsehair, and each of the 150 to 200 hairs which compose the half-inch wide ribbon of the bow must be perfectly cylindrical and smooth. It is bought by the pound, and must be very carefully sorted, for not more than one hair in ten is perfectly cylindrical and fit for use on a high-grade bow. Experience determines the right number of hairs, for if the ribbon be too thick it hinders the vibration of the strings; if too thin the friction is not strong enough to produce a good tone. Fétis gives 175 to 250 as the number used in the modern bow,[3] and Julius Rühlmann 110 to 120.[4] Tourte attached the greatest importance to the hairing of the bow, and bestowed quite as much attention upon it as upon the stick. He subjected the hair to the following process of cleansing: first it was thoroughly scoured with soap and water to remove all grease, then steeped in bran-water, freed from all heterogeneous matter still adhering to it, and finally rinsed in pure water slightly blued. When passed between the fingers in the direction from root to tip, the hair glides smoothly and offers no resistance, but passed in the opposite direction it feels rough, suggesting a regular succession of minute projections. The outer epithelium or sheath of the hair is composed of minute scales which produce a succession of infinitesimal shocks when the hair is drawn across the strings; the force and uniformity of these shocks, which produce series of vibrations of equal persistency, is considerably heightened by the application of rosin to the hair. The particles of rosin cling to the scales of the epithelium, thus accentuating the projections and the energy of the attack or “bite” upon the strings. With use, the scales of the epithelium wear off, and then no matter how much rosin is applied, the bow fails to elicit musical sounds — it is then “played out” and must be re-haired. The organic construction of horsehair makes it necessary, in hairing the bow, to lay the hairs in opposite directions, so that the up and down strokes may be equal and a pure and even tone obtained. Waxed silk is wound round both ends of the hair to form a strong knot, which is afterwards covered with melted rosin and hardens with the hair into a solid mass.

The head, 1 in. long and 7/14 in. wide at the plate, is cut in one piece with the stick, an operation which requires delicate workmanship; otherwise the head is liable to snap at this point during a sforzando passage. The head has a chamber and wedge contrivance similar to that of the nut, in which the other end of the hair is immovably fixed. The hair on the face of the head is protected by a metal or ivory plate.

The model bow here described, elaborated by François Tourte as long ago as between 1775 and 1780 according to Fétis,[5] or between 1785 and 1790 according to Vidal,[6] has not since been surpassed.

That the violin and the bow form one inseparable whole becomes evident when we consider the history of the forerunners of the viol family: without the bow the ancestor of the violin would have remained a guitar; the bow would not have reached its present state of perfection had it been required only for instruments of the rebec and vielle type. As soon as the possibilities of the violin were realized, as a solo instrument capable, through the agency of the bow, of expressing the emotions of the performer, the perfecting of the bow was prosecuted in earnest until it was capable of responding to every shade of delicate thought and feeling. This accounts in a measure for the protracted development of the bow, which, although used long before the violin had been evolved, did not reach a state of perfection at the hands of Tourte until more than a century and a half after the Cremona master had given us the violin.

The question of the origin of the bow still remains a matter of conjecture. Its appearance in western Europe seems to have coincided with the conquest of Spain by the Moors in the 8th century, and the consequent impetus their superior culture gave to arts and sciences in the south-west of Europe. We have, however, no well-authenticated representation of the bow before the 9th century in Europe; the earliest is the bow illustrated along with the Lyra Teutonica by Martin Gerbert,[7] the representation being taken from a MS. at the monastery of St Blaise, dating in his opinion from the 9th century. On the other hand, Byzantine art of the 9th and 11th centuries[8] reveals acquaintance with a bow far in advance of most of the crude contemporary specimens of western Europe. The bow undoubtedly came from the East, and was obviously borrowed by the Greeks of Asia Minor and the Arabs from a common source probably India, by way of Persia. The earliest representation of a bow yet discovered is to be found among the fine frescoes in one of the chapels of the monastery of Bawit[9] in Egypt. The mural paintings in question were the work of many artists, covering a considerable period of time. The only non-religious subject depicted is a picture of a youthful Orpheus, assigned by Jean Clédat to some date not later than the 8th century A.D., but more probably the work of a 6th-century artist. Orpheus is holding an instrument, which appears to be a rebab, against his chin, in the act of bowing and stopping the strings. The bow is similar in shape to one shown in the Psalter of Labeo Notker, Leipzig, 10th century, mentioned farther on. On Indian sculptures of the first centuries of our era, such as the Buddhist stupas of Amaravati, the risers of the topes of Jamal-Garhi, in the Yusafzai district of Afghanistan (both in the British Museum), on which stringed instruments abound, there is no bow. The bow has remained a primitive instrument in India to this day; a Hindu tradition assigns its invention to Ravanon, a king of Ceylon, and the instrument for which it was invented was called ravanastron; a primitive instrument of that name is still in use in Hindustan.[10] F. J. Fétis,[11] Antoine Vidal,[12] Edward Heron-Allen,[13] and others have given the question some consideration, and readers who wish to pursue the matter farther are referred to their works.

There is thus no absolute proof of the existence of the bow in primitive times. The earliest bow known in Europe was associated with the rebab (q.v.), the most widely used bowed instrument until the 12th century. The development of this instrument can be traced with some degree of certainty, but it is quite impossible to decide at what date or in what place the use of the bow was introduced. The bow developed very slowly in Europe and remained a crude instrument as long as it was applied to the rebab and its hybrids. Its progress became marked only from the time when it was applied to the almost perfect guitar (q.v.), which then became the guitar fiddle (q.v.), the immediate forerunner of the viols.

Britannica Bow Earliest Crémaillère Type.png
Drawn from the ivory cover of the Lothair Psalter, by permission of Sir Thomas Brooke.
Fig. 1 — Earliest Bow of the Crémaillère Type (c. 11th century).

The first improvement on the primitive arched bow was to provide some sort of handle in a straight line with the hair or string of the bow, such as is shown in the MS. translation of the Psalms by Labeo Notker, late 10th century, in the University library, Leipzig.[14] The length of the handle was often greatly exaggerated, perhaps by the fancy of the artist. Another handle (see Bodleian Library MS., N.E.D. 2, 12th century) was in the form of a hilt with a knob, possibly a screw-nut, in which the arched stick and the hair were both fixed. The first development of importance influencing the technique of stringed instruments was the attempt to find some device for controlling the tension of the hair. The contrivance known as crémaillère, which was the first step in this direction, seems to have been foreshadowed in the bows drawn in a quaint MS. of the 14th century in the British Museum (Sloane 3983, fol. 43 and 13) on astronomy. Forming an obtuse angle with the handle of the bow is a contrivance shaped like a spear-head which presumably some useful purpose; if it had notches (which would be too small to show in the drawing), and the hair of the bow was finished with a loop, then we have here an early example of a device for controlling the tension. Another bow in the same MS. has two round knobs on the stick which may be assumed to have served the same purpose.

A very early example of the crémaillère bow (fig. i) occurs on a carved ivory plate ornamenting the binding of the fine Carolingian MS. Psalter of Lothair (A.D. 825), for some time known as the Ellis and White Psalter, but now in the library of Sir Thomas Brooke at Armitage Bridge House. The carved figure of King David, assigned from its characteristic pose and the treatment of the drapery to the 11th century, holds a stringed instrument, a rotta of peculiar shape, which occurs twice in other Carolingian MSS.[15] of the 9th century, but copied here without understanding, as though it were a lyre with many strings. The artist has added a bow with crémaillère attachment, which is startling if the carving be accurately placed in the 11th century. The earliest representation of a crémaillère bow, with this exception, dates from the 15th century, according to Viollet-le-Duc, who merely states that it was copied from a painting.[16] Fétis (op. cit. p. 117) figures a crémaillère bow which he styles “Bassani, 1680.” Sebastian Virdung draws a bow for a tromba marina, with the hair and stick bound together with waxed cord. The hair appears to be kept more or less tense by means of a wedge of wood or other material forced in between stick and hair, the latter bulging slightly at this point like the string of an archery bow when the arrow is in position; this contrivance may be due to the fancy of the artist.


Britannica Bow Tartini A.png
Britannica Bow Tartini B.png
Britannica Bow Tourte C.png
Drawn from bows the property of William E. Hill & Sons.
Fig. 2. — A, B, Tartini Bows; C, Tourte Bow.


The invention of a movable nut propelled by a screw is ascribed to the elder Tourte (fig. 2); had we not this information on the best authority (Vuillaume and Fétis), it might be imagined that some of the bows figured by Mersenne,[17] e.g. the bass viol bow KL (p. 184), and another KLM (p. 192), had a movable nut and screw; the nut is clearly drawn astride the stick as in the modern bow. Mersenne explains (p. 178) the construction of the bow, which consists of three parts: the bois, bâton or brin, the soye, and the demi-roüe or hausse. The term “half-wheel” clearly indicates that the base of the nut was cut round so as to fit round the stick. In the absence of any allusion to such ingenious mechanism as that of screw and nut, we must infer that the drawing is misleading and that the very decided button was only meant for an ornamental finish to the stick. We are informed further that la soye was in reality hairs from the horse or some other animal, of which from 80 to 100 were used for each bow. The up-stroke of the bow was used on the weak beats, 2, 4, 6, 8, and the down-stroke on the strong beats, 1, 3, 5, 7 (p. 185). The same practice prevailed in England in 1667, when Christopher Simpson wrote the Division Viol. He gives information concerning the construction of the bow in these words: “the viol-bow for division should be stiff but not heavy. The length (betwixt the two places where the hairs are fastened at each end) about seven-and-twenty inches. The nut should be short, the height of it about a finger's breadth or a little more” (p. 2).

As soon as Corelli (1653-1713) formulated the principles of the technique of the violin, marked modifications in the construction of the bow became noticeable. Tartini, who began during the second decade of the 18th century to gauge the capabilities of the bow, introduced further improvements, such as a lighter wood for the stick, a straight contour, and a shorter head, in order to give better equilibrium. The Tourtes, father and son, accomplished the rest.

After François Tourte, the following makers are the most esteemed: J. B. Vuillaume, who was directly inspired by Tourte and rendered an inestimable service to violinists by working out on a scientific basis the empirical taper of the Tourte stick, which was found in all his bows to conform to strict ratio;[18] Dominique Peccate, apprenticed to J. B. Vuillaume; Henry, 1812-1870, who signs his name and “Paris” on the stick near the nut; Jacques Lefleur, 1760-1832; François Lupot, 1774-1837, the first to line the angular cutting of the nut, where it slides along the stick, with a plate of metal; Simon, born 1808, who also signs his bows on the stick near the nut; John Dodd of Richmond, the greatest English bow-maker, who was especially renowned for his violoncello bows, though his violin bows had the defect of being rather short.

The violoncello bow it a little shorter than those used for violin and viola, and the head and nut are deeper.

The principal models of double-bass bows in vogue at the beginning of the 19th century were the Dragonetti, maintaining the arch of the medieval bows, and the Bottesini, shaped and held like the violin bow; the former was held over-hand with the hair inclining towards the bridge, and was adopted by the Paris Conservatoire under Habeneck about 1830; the great artist himself sent over the model from London. Illustrations of both bows are given by Vidal (op. cit. pl. xviii.).

Messrs W. E. Hill & Sons probably possess the finest and most representative collection of bows in the world. (K. S.)


  1. “Bow,” the forepart or head of a ship, must be distinguished from this word. It is the same word, and pronounced in the same way, as “bough,” an arm or limb of a tree, and represents a common Teutonic word, seen in O. Eng. bog, Ger. Bug, shoulder, and is cognate with Gr. πῆχυς, forearm. The sense of “shoulder” of a ship is not found in O. Eng. bog, but was probably borrowed from Dutch or Danish. “Bow,” an inclination of the head or body, though pronounced as “bough,” is of the same origin as “bow,” to bend.
  2. See F. J. Fétis, Antoine Stradivari, pp. 120-121 (Paris, 1856).
  3. Fétis, op. cit. p. 123.
  4. J. Rühlmann, Die Geschichte der Bogeninstrumente (Brunswick, 1882), p. 143.
  5. Fétis, op. cit. p. 119.
  6. Antoine Vidal, Les Instruments à archet (Paris, 1876-1878), tome i. p. 269.
  7. De Cantu et Musica Sacra (1774), tome ii. pl. xxxii. No. 18; the MS. has since perished by fire.
  8. See, for an illustration of the bowed instrument on one of the sides of a Byzantine ivory casket, 9th century, in the Carrand Collection, Florence, A. Venturi, Gallerie Nazionali Italiane, iii. (Rome, 1897), plate. p. 263; and Add. MS. 19,352, British Museum, Greek Psalter, dated 1066.
  9. See Jean Clédat, “Le Monastère et la nécropole de Baoult,” in Mém. de l'Inst. franç. d'archéol. orient. du Caire, vol. xii. (1904), chap. xviii. pl. lxiv. (2); also Fernand Cabrol, Dict. d'archéol. chrétienne, s.v. “Baoutt.”
  10. For an illustration, see Sonnerat, Voyage aux Indes orientales (Paris, 1806), vol. i. p. 182.
  11. Op. cit. pp. 4-10.
  12. Op. cit. vol. i. p. 3 and pl. ii.
  13. Edward Heron-Allen, Violin-making as it was and is (London, 1884), pp. 37-42, figs. 5-10.
  14. MS. 774, fol. 30. For an illustration of it see Hyacinth Abele, Die Violine, ihre Geschichte und ihr Bau (Neuburg-a-D., 1874), pl. 5, No. 7.
  15. See Crowd for fig. from the Bible of Charles le Chauve; and also King David in the Bible of St Paul extra muros, Rome (photographic facsimile by J. O. Westwood, Oxford, 1876).
  16. See Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français (Paris, 1871), vol. ii. part iv. pp. 265 D, and 266 note.
  17. Marin Mersenne, L'Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636-1637), pp. 184 and 192.
  18. Vuillaume's diagram and explanation are reproduced by Fétis, op. cit. pp. 125-128.