(Tip no. 85 from 100 MORE Orchestration Tips, to be released in 2018)

Recently, I’ve seen a great deal of concern being focused on the scoring of pizzicato in double bass parts by composers in the Orchestration Online community. Of special focus are the precise nuances of duration. The following example was recently posted asking double bass players how and if they would play the notations differently.

The general response was two seemingly contradictory poles: the first, that a double bassist would definitely interpret each sign differently; the second, that despite all that, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference. But why is that? For the answer, it’s worth referencing Tip 59: Bass Drum Resonance from the original 100 Orchestration Tips, in which I point out that “the concert hall is part of the resonating body of the bass drum.” The same principle is at work with double bass (and lower cello) pizzicato: highly punctuated sounds in a concert hall excite sustain more than smooth sounds, due to the attack. What’s more, bassists will have a natural tendency to make any note sustain as long as possible, particularly at slower speeds.

The main takeaway here is to give your bass player the clearest and simplest notation possible, and eliminate fussy scoring. Instead of hanging ties or “l.v.” markings (or both), simply mark “sos.” for sostenuto at the beginning of a passage if you want an especially sustained note – though you’ll tend to get sustain from both the player and the hall anyway. And if you don’t want that, then mark “secco” or staccato articulation for a short, abrupt note. It’s a mark of experience to score pizzicato simply and economically, rather than with overfinessed variations of length and character. For instance, though the following two lines might be approached differently by the player out of respect for the composer’s directions, the general effect will be the same in a concert situation.

The biggest danger is obsessing so much over fine details that the notation confuses the player. An example of this is slurring groups of pizzicato notes or entire long phrases to simply express a sustained approach. In either case, the bassist might well wonder whether the composer intended to mark arco instead of pizzicato, as such scoring is typical of bowed legato passages. What’s more, confusion will arise in the case of slurred groups of notes, because slurred pizzicato is an actual technique of its own in which the beginning of the slur is plucked and then the following notes are fingered using the sustain of the pluck.

The frequent combination of double basses with cellos influences notation as well. It’s best to score pizzicato octave doubling in cellos and basses the same way; and since the cello cannot hope to match the extremely long, rich sustain of low bass notes, that means that both parts usually get simple quarter note scoring. This doesn’t mean that the bassists will shorten their sustain on the cellists’ behalf by any means; rather, their longer duration will suggest a sostenuto character in both parts.

This is not to say that subtlety isn’t possible or desirable, especially in more intimate situations like chamber music or solo scoring. But the reality is that there are many situations where the subtlest approach will make no difference. The faster and louder that a pizzicato passage is scored, the more true this is.