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The bow is held a short distance above the string and allowed to bounce, resulting in a series of short, distinct notes. This occurs because of the elasticity of the string and the natural springiness of the bow.
The speed with which the spiccato is performed depends on bow placement. At the balance point – about a third from the frog – the spiccato will be slow, while above the middle of the bow the speed will increase. The speed can also be controlled by varying the height of the bow above the string: the higher the bow bounces, the longer the time required for the bow to return to the string, and therefore the slower the resulting spiccato.
The character of the spiccato can be varied by altering the tilt and placement of the bow to use more or fewer hairs. When using the full bow hair, the bow bounces more and has a shorter character, while when the bow hair is angled, the character of the spiccato becomes more mellow and longer.
According to David Boyden and Peter Walls in the New Grove Dictionary, the terms spiccato and staccato were regarded as equivalent before the mid-18th century. They cite, for example, Sébastien de Brossard's Dictionnaire de musique, 1703, and Michel Corrette's L'École d'Orphée, 1738. Spiccato meant, they write, "simply detached or separated as opposed to legato."
The distinctive use of the term spiccato for the bouncing bowstroke emerged in the later 18th century. Although it was an important technique for 19th-century violinists, its use increased significantly in the 20th century.
The ability to perform spiccato was facilitated by the development of the Tourte bow – the modern bow, in which the bow had a concave curve, developed by François Tourte partly in collaboration with Giovanni Battista Viotti.