Being a professional musician, I get asked all kinds of questions, such as: “How does a reed work?”, “Why does a piccolo sound like that?”, “How do you expect to build a retirement fund with a career like this?”, and “Are all bows made of horse hair?”. The question about what a bow is made of is a common one, especially from younger students. I mean, who can blame them? When they even lift their finger in the general vicinity of the hair on the bow, their teacher goes . But, why?
Not all bows are made with horsehair. Most still are, but there are also bows made with synthetic hair.
Bows, while resilient when used correctly, are delicate. The horsehair needs to be cared for and protected, much like a small child (well, sort of). The bows also need extreme detail and care while being assembled, which certainly does not help the pain a string player's wallet feels each time they have to purchase a bow. The steep price of the best bows is not accidental- the process of choosing the perfect hair, perfect wood, and shaping it with precision down to the last millimetre is not a simple task.
There is, however, one way to save some money when purchasing a bow: synthetic hair. There is a bit of appeal there- synthetic hair is not as delicate as horse hair, it can be more consistent during assembly, making the process easier and therefore lowering the price.That being said, there is a reason why you will not go see the New York Philharmonic and see the concertmaster with a synthetic bow. Sure, they are good for the wallet and you’ll certainly be able to afford groceries for an extra few weeks when you purchase a synthetic bow over a horse-hair bow, but the sound is what matters the most. Many share the same sentiment, which will generally be something incredibly opposite of, “Wow! This synthetic bow sounds so beautiful and rich!” (No, seriously, even the most tone-deaf person on the planet would be able to hear the difference between a synthetic and horsehair bow).
That being said, there are some pros of owning and using a synthetic-haired bow: you may never have to get it rehaired, since it is…not really hair. The humidity does not necessarily affect it, and neither does the climate. Fake bow hair will also end up being more consistent in sound and resonance since it does not get worn down or change with the weather like horse hair will (but that does not mean the sound is amazing). The most positive attribute of synthetic strings, I think, is the ability to get a nice ombre blue and purple bow- for fashion purposes, of course.
While colorful bows would be more ideal on the eyes than the bleached white or black color they are now, the things you give up to have a pretty red bow are essentially the core of what makes a string instrument sound good. The depth of sound, the warmth, and the choice in changing the sound completely goes away. There are not hundreds of options where you can choose which one you like the most and make your own, individual sound with it- they all are built the same, made uniformly, and will generally all sound similar. If you want to learn how to play violin, violin lessons in Beaverton. The lack of individuality and, on the other hand, completely unique sound that will stand out (and not in a positive way) make the synthetic bow something that not many will even humor while on a search for a new bow.
So, to answer your question: No. All bows are not made of horsehair… but at what cost? (Ears…hearing… that’s the cost…) The sound of a synthetic bow is so different even to the ears of a non-musician, which makes them essentially useless in a professional setting where you definitely do not want that to be the case.
There is usually a reason why people ask this question in the first place, usually it is likely because bows without horsehair are hardly ever talked about- they may even be a little bit taboo- and people are just wondering what else could possibly be out there in the bow market. Since we are on the topic of the bow market and the strange things that come along with it, what else could you possibly need to know about a string bow?
You read that right. Horse hair is a natural fibre, making it susceptible to natural processes, such as attracting little bugs. These bad boys, scientifically known as dermestids, love to munch on natural fibres, making a bow the perfect choice for a fancy dinner. The violin case becomes their own personal Versailles, which can cause a multitude of issues for the player. When a bow gets brought into a shop to be repaired, there's usually a 15 to 20% chance that the damage was caused by bow bugs. While bows are not the only thing in the instrument family susceptible, they are among the most common snacks for these guys. Luckily, the damage is generally fixable and the infestation in cases can be reversed. Permanent damage from bow bugs can be fixed by a quick rehairing, but the emotional damage from having a bug infestation in your case cannot be fixed in the instrument repair shop.
Luthiers, (no, not related to Lex Luthor, super-villain and CEO of LexCorp) the craftspeople who repair and build stringed instruments, recommend getting a bow rehaired every six months to a year at max. There are obviously many factors that contribute to how often a bow must be rehaired, but that seems to be the general consensus among professionals. Just like the hair on your head, the hair on that bow will become brittle and even break off if it is not taken care of (hello, split-ends!). The climate, humidity in the case, how often you practice and how well you take care of the bow will certainly decide how often you should get it rehaired. Taking care of the bow correctly and consistently will also provide longevity for the bow as a whole; you can get a bow rehaired a million times, but there will inevitably come a time when a bow must be laid to rest. This, as I have said before, is a hefty financial blow, but an important investment. Let that be a lesson: take proper care of the bow!
Skip ahead if you are not comfortable with… ahem…death.
Horse hair is integral to making bows, so there must be many horses to make the sheer amount of bows on the market exist in the first place. Luckily (if you can even say that in this context), the horse hair used on bows is usually taken from horses that are being slaughtered for other things as to not waste. The death of a horse is never a positive thing, but…actually, I have no but for that statement.
Interestingly enough, due to the very extensive and detailed process that is making a bow with perfect hair, horses from specific colder climates are used. Canada, Mongolia, and Siberia are just a few examples. The hair on these horses is much thicker and generally stronger due to the cold weather, (which I can attest to, as a woman with very strong human hair who grew up in one of the snowiest cities in the U.S) making their tail hair perfect for bows.
The hairs that are collected are then cleaned intensely because, well, they are their tails after all. You can put the pieces together on that one. After the deep cleaning, the hairs are then sifted through by hand, the worker choosing only the ones that are perfect. This is an incredibly involved process, especially when you think about the fact that there must be about 140 to 160 perfect horse hairs to fill out an average bow. What makes the horse hair perfect for picking? The length, the strength, no split ends, a beautifully soft and luscious sheen…oh, how we all wish to have that…Anyway, the criteria are quite specific. While it may seem tedious and almost too exhaustive, even one small difference in the hairs or the inclusion of some bad hair can make a bow sound completely different, and even just plan bad. Once all the hair has been chosen, they are then grouped togehter and… voila! You have yourself some new hair for a bow.
Sorry y’all, but the use of horse hair makes these bows non-vegan. Surely you did not end up at this article to learn about a new delicacy to have as an hors d'oeuvre at your next dinner party, but it may be important to know.