Musical saw

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A busker playing a musical saw in Prague Musical saw 2.jpg
A busker playing a musical saw in Prague
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A musical saw, also called a singing saw, is a hand saw used as a musical instrument. Capable of continuous glissando (portamento), the sound creates an ethereal tone, very similar to the theremin. The musical saw is classified as a plaque friction idiophone with direct friction (132.22) under the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification.



[The musical saw is] a flexible handsaw played by holding the handle between the knees and bending the blade while bowing along the flat edge. The musical saw is found in the folk music of Russia and rural America, and is a popular vaudeville instrument. [1]

The saw is generally played seated with the handle squeezed between the legs, and the far end held with one hand. Some sawists play standing, either with the handle between the knees and the blade sticking out in front of them. The saw is usually played with the serrated edge, or "teeth", facing the body, though some players face them away. Some saw players file down the teeth which makes no discernable difference to the sound. Many—especially professional—saw players use a handle, called a Tip-Handle or a Cheat, at the tip of the saw for easier bending and higher virtuosity.

To sound a note, a sawist first bends the blade into an S-curve. The parts of the blade that are curved are damped from vibration, and do not sound. At the center of the S-curve a section of the blade remains relatively flat. This section, the "sweet spot", can vibrate across the width of the blade, producing a distinct pitch: the wider the section of blade, the lower the sound. Sound is usually created by drawing a bow across the back edge of the saw at the sweet spot, or sometimes by striking the sweet spot with a mallet.

The sawist controls the pitch by adjusting the S-curve, making the sweet spot travel up the blade (toward a thinner width) for a higher pitch, or toward the handle for a lower pitch. Harmonics can be created by playing at varying distances on either side of the sweet spot. Sawists can add vibrato by shaking one of their legs or by wobbling the hand that holds the tip of the blade. Once a sound is produced, it will sustain for quite a while, and can be carried through several notes of a phrase.

On occasion the musical saw is called for in orchestral music, but orchestral percussionists are seldom also sawists. If a note outside of the saw's range is called for, an electric guitar with a slide can be substituted. [2]


Sawists often use standard wood-cutting saws, although special musical saws are also made. As compared with wood-cutting saws, the blades of musical saws are generally wider, for range, and longer, for finer control. They do not have set or sharpened teeth, and may have grain running parallel to the back edge of the saw, rather than parallel to the teeth. Some musical saws are made with thinner metal, to increase flexibility, while others are made thicker, for a richer tone, longer sustain, and stronger harmonics.

A typical musical saw is 5 inches (13 cm) wide at the handle end and 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide at the tip. Such a saw will generally produce about two octaves, regardless of length. A bass saw may be over 6 inches (15 cm) at the handle and produce about two-and-a-half octaves. There are also musical saws with 3–4 octaves range, and new improvements have resulted in as much as 5 octaves note range. Two-person saws, also called "misery whips", can also be played, though with less virtuosity, and they produce an octave or less of range.

Most sawists use cello or violin bows, using violin rosin, but some may use improvised home-made bows, such as a wooden dowel.


Musical saws have been produced for over a century, primarily in the United States, but also in Scandinavia, Germany, France (Lame sonore) and Asia.[ citation needed ]

United States

In the early 1900s, there were at least ten companies in the United States manufacturing musical saws. [3] These saws ranged from the familiar steel variety to gold-plated masterpieces worth hundreds of dollars. However, with the start of World War II the demand for metals made the manufacture of saws too expensive and many of these companies went out of business. By the year 2000, only three companies in the United States—Mussehl & Westphal, [4] Charlie Blacklock, [5] and Wentworth [6] —were making saws. In 2012, a company called Index Drums started producing a saw that had a built-in transducer in the handle, called the "JackSaw". [7]

Outside the United States

Outside the United States, makers of musical saws include Bahco, makers of the limited edition Stradivarius, [8] Alexis in France, [9] Feldmann [10] and Stövesandt [11] in Germany, Music Blade in Greece and Thomas Flinn & Company in the United Kingdom, [12] based in Sheffield, who produce three different sized musical saws, as well as accessories.

Events, championships and world records

The International Musical Saw Association (IMSA) produces an annual International Musical Saw Festival (including a "Saw-Off" competition) every August in Santa Cruz and Felton, California. An International Musical Saw Festival is held every other summer in New York City, produced by Natalia Paruz. Paruz also produced a musical saw festival in Israel. [13] There are also annual saw festivals in Japan and China.

A Guinness World Record for the largest musical-saw ensemble was established July 18, 2009, at the annual NYC Musical Saw Festival. Organized by Paruz, 53 musical saw players performed together. [14]

In 2011 a World Championship took place in Jelenia Góra/Poland. Winners: 1. Gladys Hulot (France), 2. Katharina Micada (Germany), 3. Tom Fink (Germany). [15]


This is a list of people notable for playing the musical saw.

Marlene Dietrich

German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, who lived and worked in the United States for a long time, is probably the best-known musical saw player. When she studied the violin for one year in Weimar in her early twenties, her musical skills were already evident. Some years later she learned to play the musical saw while she was shooting the film Café Elektric in Vienna in 1927. Her colleague, the Bavarian actor and musician Igo Sym, taught her how to play. In the shooting breaks and at weekends both performed romantic duets, he at the piano and she at the musical saw. [34]

Sym gave his saw to her as a farewell gift. The following words are engraved on the saw: "Now Suidy is gone / the sun d’ont [sic!] / shine… / Igo / Vienna 1927" [35] She took the saw with her, when she left for Hollywood in 1929 and played there in the following years at film sets and Hollywood parties. When she participated in the United Service Organizations (USO) shows for the US troops in 1944, she also played on the saw. Some of these shows were broadcast on radio, so there exist two rare recordings of her saw playing, embedded in entertaining interviews. 1. Aloha Oe [36] 2. other song [37]

In fiction

Composers and compositions

Beginning from the early 1920s composers of both contemporary and popular music wrote for the musical saw. One of the first was Franz Schreker who included the musical saw in his opera Christophorus (1925–29) where it is used in the séance scene of the second act. [38] Other early examples include Dmitri Shostakovich: he included the musical saw, e.g., in the film music for The New Babylon (1929), in The Nose (1928), [1] and in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934). Shostakovich and other composers of his time used the term "Flexaton" to mark the musical saw. "Flexaton" just means "to flex a tone"—the saw is flexed to change the pitch. Unfortunately, there exists another instrument called Flexatone, so there has been confusion for a long time. [39] Aram Khachaturian, who knew Shostakovich's music, included the musical saw in his Piano Concerto (1936) [1] in the second movement. Another composer was the Swiss Arthur Honegger, who included the saw in his opera Antigone in 1924 . The Romanian composer George Enescu used the musical saw at the end of the second act of his opera Œdipe (1931) to show in an extensive glissando—which begins with the mezzo-soprano and is continued by the saw—the death and ascension of the sphinx killed by Oedipus.

The Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi wrote a part for the saw in his quarter-tone piece Quattro pezzi per orchestra (1959). German composer Hans Werner Henze took the saw to characterize the mean hero of his tragical opera Elegy for young lovers (1961).

Other composers were Krysztof Penderecki with Fluorescences (1961), De natura sonoris Nr. 2 (1971) and the opera Ubu Rex (1990), Bernd Alois Zimmermann with Stille und Umkehr (1970), George Crumb with Ancient voices of children (1970), John Corigliano with The Mannheim Rocket (2001).

Composer Scott Munson wrote Clover Hill (2007) for saw and orchestra, Quintet for saw and strings (2009), The World Is Too Much with Us for soprano singer, saw and strings (2009), Ars longa vitas [ sic ] brevis for saw and string quartet (2010), 'Bend' for saw and string quartet (2011) many pieces for jazz band and saw (2010–2013), Lullaby for the Forgotten for saw and piano (2015), and many movie and theater scores containing the saw.

Chaya Czernowin used the saw in her opera "PNIMA...Ins Innere" (2000) to represent the character of the grandfather, who is traumatized by the Holocaust.

There are further Leif Segerstam, Hans Zender (orchestration of "5 préludes" by Claude Debussy), and Oscar Strasnoy (opera Le bal).

Russian composer Lera Auerbach wrote for the saw in her ballet The Little Mermaid (2005), in her symphonic poem Dreams and Whispers of Poseidon (2005), in her oratorio "Requiem Dresden – Ode to Peace" (2012), in her Piano Concerto No.1 (2015), in her comic oratorio The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie (2016) [40] and in her violin concerto Nr.4 "NyX – Fractured dreams" (2017).

Canadian composer Robert Minden has written extensively for the musical saw. [41] Michael A. Levine composed Divination By Mirrors for musical saw soloist and two string ensembles tuned a quarter tone apart, taking advantage of the saws ability to play in both tunings. [42] [43]

Other composers for chamber music with musical saw are Jonathan Rutherford (An Intake of Breath), [44] Dana Wilson (Whispers from Another Time), [45] Heinrich Gattermeyer (Elegie für Singende Säge, Cembalo (oder Klavier), [46] Vito Zuraj (Musica di [ sic ] camera (2001)) [47] and Britta-Maria Bernhard (Tranquillo). [48]

See also

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