7. Air sounds

Air sounds may be produced in a variety of ways, including by activating the strings, or other parts of the instrument. This entry concerns air sounds that are made possible by activating the strings. For air sounds involving other parts of the instrument, please see the entry entitled Bowing the Instrument in this Catalogue. Air sounds involving the strings are best achieved by dampening, or half-stopping the strings with the left hand, while contacting the string with the bow with low enough pressure that the string does not vibrate at the fundamental pitch.

Air sounds, or “toneless” sounds, appear in repertoire for modern string instruments written since the mid-20th century, particularly in the string writing of composers such as Helmut Lachenmann. Examples include Lachenmann’s solo violin piece Toccatina (1986, p. 5), and his string quartets such as “Reigen seliger Geister”(1989, p. 3) and Grido (2002, p. 1). Further examples can be found in Michelle Lou’s Porcupine (2012, p. 14), among many others.


Air sounds on the baroque violin:

A wide variety of air sounds are possible on the baroque violin, particularly as a consequence of the extra left-arm effort required to make the gut strings resonate. By not employing this pressure, it can readily be possible to effect an air sound, whereby the bow on the string creates friction without the string sounding a clear fundamental pitch. This is particularly successful on the thickest raw-gut string, the D string, and somewhat more difficult to achieve on the lowest silver-wound G string.


The following is an example of air sounds on each of the strings of the baroque violin.

Video example 7.1 – air sounds on each string of baroque violin


Suggested notation:

An “x” notehead, possibly at a specific pitch to indicate approximate left hand position on the instrument, or on the pitch of the applicable string if left hand position is irrelevant, with “Air” above the stave, as in Figure 7.1 below.

Figure 7.1 – example of a possible notation for a passage in air sounds.