Click on the headings below for examples of how composers of the past and present have used harmonics in their music.

Open and Stopped Harmonics »

In the third movement his Suite for Solo Cello, entitled Intermezzo e Danze Finale, cellist/composer Gaspar Cassado finishes the second phrase with three natural harmonics for a beautiful melancholic end to an emotional introduction.

© 1926 Copyright by Universal Editions. Permission of the publishers has been requested.

This example is from the first movement of British composer Thomas Ades‘s brilliant string quartet Arcadiana (1994).  The movement ends with this tricky passage of open and stopped harmonics.

© 1995 Copyright by Faber Music Ltd, London, reproduced by permission of the publishers.

Nicolo Paganini often used harmonics as eye-popping parlor tricks in his virtuosic compositions. The excerpt below is the from the cello transcription of Variations on One String on a Theme by Rossini. Here in measure 23 the main theme is restated entirely with touch-fourth harmonics.

© International Music Company. Permission to reprint has been requested of the publisher.

One of the most well-known examples of stopped harmonics in the mainstream cello repertoire occurs in the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1. In the third movement of his concerto, Saint-Saens writes a scale that ascends into the stratosphere.

This work is in the public domain.

TIP: Try this with touch-fifth harmonics instead of touch-fourths to get a more stable and clear tone from these harmonics. Start with a touch-fifth over an E♭ fundamental to get the initial B♭ and go up from there.


Sometimes we have to double-stop between open harmonics and stopped harmonics. Christopher Fisher-Lochhead writes the following combinations in his 2010 string quartet called “Dig Absolutely.”

© 2010 Copyright Christopher Fisher-Lochhead. Reprinted with permission from the composer.

In this short excerpt from Professor Bad Trip: Lesson 1 for small ensemble, Fausto Romitelli uses open and stopped harmonics along with harmonics glissandi. The notation at the end of bar 5 indicates a glissando to the highest possible harmonic on the G-string.

© 1998 Copyright by Casa Ricordi. Permission of the publishers has been requested.

Harmonics Trills »

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho opens Sept Papillons with this harmonics trill on the A-string, oscillating between the F♯ and C♮, which yield the pitches C♯ and E♮, respectively. The physicality of executing this trill offers a wonderful visual play on the title of the piece (“Butterflies”).

© 2000 Copyright by Chester Music Ltd. Permission of the publishers has been requested.

Chicago-based composer Marcos Balter uses many types of harmonics trills in his 2008 solo piece Memoria. In the first eight measures alone we find three varieties: a) stopped pitch to stopped node, b) open string to open node, and c) two different double trills. Adding in the tremolo and movements between tasto and ponticelloproduces some amazing and intriguing textures.

© 2008 Marcos Balter, Reproduced by permission of the composer.

Kirsten Broberg‘s string quartet Of Resonance employs harmonics techniques to create subtle, fragile textures. In this excerpt she writes timbre trills in all four voices. The cello part requires bariolage between an open harmonic on the A-string (with the thumb) and a touch-fifth on the D-string.  The second trill (the F♯) asks for a large stretch on the A-string; the D-string pitch is probably best achieved using the node above the one suggested, with the 3rd finger over the pitch “B”.

© 2007 Kirsten Broberg, Reproduced by permission of the composer.

Hans Thomalla‘s 2010 string quartet “Albumblatt” contains this great example of a harmonic-to-stopped-note trill. This one is difficult because you have to strike with the upper finger and then release it into the harmonic pressure of the lower finger. It yields an oscillation between D-quarter-flat and the C-sharp harmonic, which is slightly flatter than the normally-fingered C-sharp.

© 2010 Hans Thomalla, Reproduced by permission of the composer.

Harmonic Glissandi »

In this famous passage from his Cello Sonata, Shostakovich notates open harmonic glissandi. Here it is not so important that every pitch lands exactly in 16th-note rhythm, but that the end points of the gesture align with the pulse.

© 1962 Copyright by International Music Co, New York. Permission of the publishers has been requested.

George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae for flute, cello, and piano provides two examples of harmonic glissandi. First, in the variation titled “Paleozoic”, Crumb writes a series of open harmonic glissandi. Notice that he writes “sul D♯” — this is due to a re-tuning of the D-string up a half-step.

© 1971 Copyright by C.F. Peters, New York. Reproduced by permission of the publishers

The second example occurs earlier in the piece, in the “Archeozoic” variation. This is the first instance of the ‘seagull’ effect found in a major work.

© 1971 Copyright by C.F. Peters, New York. Reproduced by permission of the publishers.

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