In-Depth Look at Sul Tasto Violin Technique
In our beginner’s guide to learning the violin, you learned some fundamentals of violin playing, like proper bow hold, different bowing techniques (spiccato, martele, detache, etc.), and articulation. Now that you have mastered those basics (and maybe even played some impressive pieces), it’s time to explore more advanced techniques.
One such technique is sul tasto (pronounced as sool tah-stoh), popular among professional violinists as a subtle and expressive approach to playing. It’s used for stylistic purposes, adding depth and color to the music.
But what exactly is sul tasto? How do you play and use it in your pieces? Are there any tips for mastering the technique? We’ll cover all this and more below.
What is sul tasto?
Sul tasto, an Italian term that translates to “on the touch,” is a technique in violin playing where the bow is placed over the fingerboard instead of near the bridge — where most other techniques are played. This creates a softer and more delicate sound, adding a dreamy and ethereal quality to the music.
You need a lighter touch and less pressure than you would use for other violin bowing techniques, almost as if you are caressing the strings with your bow. As such, you must play carefully and with control to produce a smooth, airy sound. You’ll find sul tasto abbreviated as “sul t” on sheet music.
Musical application of sul tasto
Violinists (soloists and orchestral players alike) use sul tasto to add a soft and delicate touch to their performances. It’s particularly useful in slow and lyrical pieces that aim to create an intimate and dreamy atmosphere.
Classical music, especially romantic and impressionist compositions, prominently features sul tasto to evoke nostalgia or melancholy. In contemporary music, sul tasto is used in film scores and soundtracks, adding a magical or dream-like quality to the music.
Some famous pieces featuring sul tasto include:
- Claude Debussy’s “La Mer,” where the sul tasto technique is used to create a serene and dreamy depiction of the sea, waves, and wind.
- Anthonín Dvořák’s “Violin Concerto in A minor, op. 53” uses sul tasto to achieve a soft and dreamy sound in the second movement, adding a sense of longing and nostalgia to the piece.
While these pieces are great examples of how sul tasto appears in classical compositions, it’s not limited to these contexts only. You can experiment with sul tasto in various musical genres and pieces where the desired effect is a delicate and subtle sound.
Sul tasto vs. sul ponticello
You’ll also encounter the term sul ponticello (translated from Italian as “on the bridge”) in your violin journey. Don’t mistake it for sul tasto; they’re two separate techniques that produce vastly different sounds on string instruments. The main difference is in bow position, with sul ponticello requiring you to bow on the bridge instead of over the fingerboard and the resulting sound.
While sul tasto creates a soft and delicate sound, sul ponticello produces a harsh, metallic sound. It’s a squeaky, harsh, and sometimes eerie tone that brings out the high harmonics of the strings.
Sul ponticello creates tension or adds a creepy effect to the music. It works well in horror movie soundtracks or pieces with a dark and ominous theme. In sheet music, you'll find sul ponticello abbreviated as "sul pont."
Sul tasto vs. flautando
Flautando (translated from Italian as “flute-like”) is another technique that shares similarities with sul tasto. Both techniques produce a soft and delicate sound by bowing over the fingerboard. However, there are subtle differences between them.
While sul tasto requires you to play at the end of the fingerboard with a lighter touch, flautando requires you to play at the fingerboard’s edge with very little pressure and a high bow speed. This creates a more delicate, airy, and flute-like sound than sul tasto.
Flautando is used primarily in orchestral music to blend with the woodwind section or add a sense of airiness and lightness to the music. It’s common in slow pieces, especially those with a mystical or fairy-tale-like quality.
When is sul tasto used in violin music?
So, when and how do you use sul tasto in your violin music? As mentioned earlier, violinists use sul tasto in slow and lyrical pieces, where the mood is intimate, dreamy, or melancholic. It’s an expressive technique that adds depth and emotion to the music, creating an ethereal and otherworldly effect.
You can use it in solo pieces, chamber music, and orchestral performances to achieve different musical moods. For instance, you can use sul tasto to create a sense of longing in slow movements, add a touch of magic and wonder in fantasy-themed pieces, or evoke nostalgia and melancholy in romantic compositions.
How to master sul tasto on the violin
Sul tasto is a subtle and delicate technique that requires precision, control, and musicality. It’s not a technique you can master overnight — you must get the bow strokes, pressure, and speed just right to produce a smooth and airy sound.
However, with consistent practice and these tips, you’ll soon be adding sul tasto to your violin-playing repertoire:
1. Bow placement, pressure, and speed
These are the most critical aspects of mastering sul tasto. You need to bow lightly, over the fingerboard, with little pressure and a slower bow speed. Use a lighter bow grip and keep your wrist flexible to control the speed and pressure. Bowing too hard and fast will produce a harsh or scratchy sound, ruining the delicate effect of sul tasto.
2. Finger placement
You must master proper finger placement before you can excel at sul tasto. Here, you will use the left-hand technique (your finger’s placement on the strings and the wrist’s flexibility) to control the pressure and string contact points. Place your left-hand fingers lightly and close to the end of the fingerboard, ensuring you don’t mute the strings. Keep your fingers relaxed to avoid tension in your hand. Remember, you want to caress the strings with your bow, not press down on them.
3. Practice scales and exercises
You’ve already covered scales (major and minor) in your violin lessons, so you’re familiar with their structure and fingering patterns. Practice playing a scale using regular bowing, then switch to sul tasto.
Notice the difference in sound and how your fingers, bow placement, pressure, and speed affect the outcome. Once comfortable with scales, try simple exercises like bowing open strings, half notes, and quarter notes sul tasto to improve your control and precision.
4. Listening and adjusting
As you play, pay close attention to the sound you produce. How does it sound? Harsh, scratchy, airy, or dreamy? Adjust your finger placement, bow position, pressure, and speed accordingly.
If your sound is too scratchy, try bowing lighter and slower. If it’s too airy, add a little more pressure and speed. This is similar to violin tuning, where you listen and adjust the strings to achieve the perfect sound. With practice, you’ll find the right balance of finger placement, bowing technique, and musicality to create a beautiful sul tasto sound.
5. Emotion and expression
Sul tasto is a highly expressive technique, and its true beauty lies in the emotions and feelings it evokes in listeners. Every violin piece has a story to tell, and sul tasto allows you to add depth, nuance, and beauty to that story.
Use your bowing technique, dynamics, and phrasing to convey the mood and emotions of the music. Let your violin sing, whisper, and sigh with sul tasto, and you’ll captivate your audience with its enchanting and ethereal sound.
6. Collaborate with a violin instructor
Finally, the most important tip to mastering sul tasto is collaborating with a violin instructor. A qualified and experienced violin teacher can guide you through the technical aspects of sul tasto, help you perfect your finger placement and bowing technique, and provide personalized feedback to improve your playing. Their guidance, support, and encouragement can help accelerate your progress quickly and confidently in your violin journey.
Trala is an innovative online violin learning platform that connects learners of all skill levels with world-class violin teachers. You’ll have access to personalized lessons, practice tools, and real-time feedback from expert teachers, including tips on mastering sul tasto.
With the Trala app (free on the App Store and Google Play), you can practice sul tasto techniques and receive instant feedback as you play. The signal processing technology in the Trala app listens to your playing and provides feedback on pitch, tempo, and tone. So, you can practice sul tasto between lessons with confidence and precision, knowing that you have the proper guidance to master this beautiful technique.
Related violin terms and techniques
Sul tasto isn’t the only technique violinists can use to achieve different musical effects and moods. Below are other related terms and techniques that you can explore with your instructor to enhance your musical expression.
- Pizzicato: A playing technique where you pluck the strings with your fingers instead of using a bow. This produces a short, percussive sound.
- Arco: It’s the standard bowing technique where you use a bow to produce sound on the violin. It’s the opposite of pizzicato.
- Col legno: A unique bowing technique where you use the wooden part of the bow to strike or tap the strings instead of the bow hair. It creates a percussive and rhythmic sound.
- Tremolo: A bowing technique where you rapidly move the bow back and forth across the strings to create a trembling or pulsating sound. It’s often used to add intensity and emotion to a piece.
- Vibrato: A subtle and controlled movement of the left-hand fingers to create a pulsating, warm, and expressive sound. It adds depth and emotion to the music.
- Legato: It’s a smooth and fluid bowing technique where you connect notes without breaks or pauses. It creates a flowing and connected sound, perfect for lyrical and melodic pieces.
- Harmonics: A technique where you lightly touch the strings at specific nodal points to create a high-pitched, ethereal sound. It adds a unique and dreamy quality to the music.
- Ricochet: A violin bowing technique where you quickly bounce the bow on the strings, creating a rapid succession of staccato notes. Ricochet is common in fast-paced and energetic pieces.
- Sautille: An off-the-string bowing technique where you quickly and lightly bounce the bow on the strings to create short and sharp notes. Like ricochet, it adds a playful and energetic quality to the music.
Connect with a violin teacher with Trala
Sul tasto is a versatile and expressive technique that adds depth, emotion, and beauty to violin music. It’s a subtle yet powerful tool for every violinist. Mastering sul tasto takes time, patience, and practice, but it's an achievable goal with the proper guidance and tools.
Trala is an excellent option for those wanting to learn sul tasto or other violin techniques, connecting students of all skill levels with expert teachers who can guide them through the nuances. Our teachers have experience in 30+ genres and styles, so no matter your musical interests, we have an instructor who can help you achieve your goals.
Let Trala help you master this enchanting technique and unlock your full musical potential — take your first lesson today!