What is the Musical Saw or Singing Saw?

The musical saw is an almost lost folk tradition of making music with a carpenter's saw and a bow. Known also as a singing saw or a bowed saw, this instrument falls into the category of 'everything old is new again'.

History of the Musical Saw

The singing saw was very popular in the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that a saw can "sing" was discovered both in Europe and in America at about the same time. The singing saw reached its heyday in vaudeville, and died with it around world war II. Apart from the disappearance of its main performance venue, additional reasons caused the disappearance of this art form: all steel was used for ammunition - therefore no saws were made for awhile. Also, young men went to war, so there was no one to learn the singing saw from the older generation.
As playing the saw requires a strong left hand, most sawists were men. One well known lady saw player was actress Marlene Dietrich. She has played the saw at her performances for the soldiers during WWII, on radio, and for friends at parties.

For a concise account of the 300 year history of the musical saw watch Saw Lady's TED talk (the lecture starts at 2:32 after the demonstration):

 

 

How do you play the musical saw?

Most saw players play sitting down, but some play standing up, and some play kneeling down. The common denominator is that the saw is held with the handle between the player's knees. Most right-handed musical saw players hold the tip of the blade with their left hand, and bow with their right hand.
Usually the teeth of the singing saw face the player, and the bowing is done on the blunt end, which faces the audience.

What creates the sound is the friction of the bow on the blade, which causes the blade to vibrate. The vibrations are the sound. This is why the Hornbostel-Sachs system of musical instrument classification places the singing saw in the plaque friction idiophone with direct friction group. Along with musical instruments such as the daxophone and the triolin, this group is of instruments that produce sound by being rubbed either against each other or by means of a non-sounding object.

Bowing a musical blade differs from bowing a violin in that with a violin every note must be bowed, whereas with the saw one can play many notes with just one bowing: you can bow, then separate the bow from the saw and continue to bend the blade into many more notes. So long as the vibrations last one can play different notes without re-bowing.

What does a musical saw sound like?

Unlike it's violent connotation with bloodbaths and deforestation, the saw makes an angelic, otherworldly, spiritual sound. While the carpenter's tool has a masculine connotation, the saw's sound has a feminine one - it sounds much like a soprano opera singer singing without words.
Because the saw doesn't have a resonating box, when played outdoors it sounds thin, like a whistle. The room a saw is played in becomes its resonating box and the natural acoustics augments the saw's sound and gives it a fuller, rounder sound.

Who invented the musical saw?

There is no one person who can claim to have invented saw playing, and not even one country that can claim to be the origin of this art form. Much like the violin, we don't know who was the very first in history to play such an instrument. We know that carpenters and lumberjacks around the world started playing music on their saws at about the same time, without one knowing of the other. The fact that one can make sounds with a saw is still being discovered by carpenters today by chance during regular wood work. The blade bends and a noise comes out. An intrigued carpenter then tries to recreate the occurrence and "re-invents the wheel", as the saying goes.

What are the difficulties of playing a musical saw?

Playing a saw involves continuous bending of the blade with one hand in one direction. Bending steel is quite a workout. Therefore continuous playing over a length of a few hours may result in pain in the bending hand. Doing so as a daily practice over years  may cause imbalance in the player's back, resulting in one shoulder being lower than the other. That is why an ergonomic way of playing is paramount for the serious musical saw player.

Misconceptions about the musical saw

You bow on the teeth, because each tooth is a different musical note.
Really not so! Not only are the different notes not in the teeth, but if you bow on the teeth side you will not have a bow in a second!

Musical saw playing is a new invention.
Really not so! Saw playing has been around for 300 years.

Playing music can only be done on a saw made specifically for music.
Really not so! Any non-electric, full-bladed carpenter's handsaw plays.

Unusual musical saw fact

There is a Guinness World Record for 'Largest Musical Saw Ensemble'. Established July 18, 2009 at the NYC Musical Saw Festival, the new record of 53 singing saw players playing together triumphed over the previous record held in Poland of 26 sawists.
While the festival had 60 sawists attending and performing together on stage at other years, that does not qualify for an official Guinness World Record. Only an act conducted according to the strict Guinness rules qualifies.
The NYC Musical Saw Festival was founded and directed by Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz annually for 11 years.

Who is the most famous person to have played a musical saw?

While her fame was due to her singing and acting and not to her saw playing, movie star Marlene Dietrich (1901 - 1992) is the most famous person to have played the singing saw. She learned to play the saw in 1920 for a stage show in Berlin. Her musical saw teacher was Polish actor Karol Juliusz "Igo" Sym. Marlene, who already played violin, fell in love with the singing saw and tried to get her performance of it to be included in her films. Alas, it repeatedly resulted in the saw playing scene being cut from the movies. She played her saw at her shows for the US troops in 1944, on her radio shows and at parties.

The musical saw in literature

The 2nd book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', has a scene of a death-day party for Nearly-Headless-Nick. The entertainment at this party is an orchestra of 30 musical saw players. This scene did not make it into the Harry Potter movie.poems mention the musical saw
Many poems mention the musical saw, written by such poets as W.H Auden, Mark Hastings, Alex Cigale and Van Morrison.

The musical saw in movies

The singing saw can be seen and heard as a musical instrument in movies, such as in the French movie 'Delicatessen', in 'Swing Your Lady' with Ronald Reagan and Humphrey Bogart (1938) and briefly in 'Cabaret' with Liza Minelli. It can be heard on sound tracks of movies such as 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', 'Masque of the Phantasm' and 'To Die For'.

Is any saw a musical saw?

Any non-electric, full-bladed saw can play. However, there are saws made especially to be musical saws. They usually have a more pliable blade, have a length of at least 28" and are made of better grade steel. To see different types of saws manufactured for music making click here: different Musical Saws

The musical saw today

Saw Lady plays musical saw photographer Ignacio Guevara

Photographer: Ignacio Guevara

Today, Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz is reviving this unique art form, and her goal is to give the singing saw its rightful place as a genuine musical instrument. She is by no means the first to believe in the saw as an orchestral instrument: Aram Khachaturian wrote a solo for a saw in his 'Concerto for Piano & Orchestra' and contemporary composer George Crumb included the musical saw in his 'Ancient Voices of Children'.

Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz plays a 28" saw made of English steel. It has a range of two octaves and is considered a Tenor musical saw. She also plays a 30" saw which is considered a Baritone musical saw because its range (also two octaves) is lower. Her favorite saw is 32-1/2" and has 3 octaves on it.

All styles of music can be played on the singing saw. Saw Lady's repertoire includes classical music, tunes of American musicals and movies, original compositions and pop songs. She has also played singing saw on several rock songs.

Saw Lady's presentation of the ethereal woman's voice like sound of the singing saw delights adults and children alike, and presents a visual as well as an audio experience. A refreshing revival of 'everything old is new again' good time fun.

The musical saw is only one of many different novelty musical instruments that Natalia 'Saw Lady' Paruz plays. Presentations of 'Novelty Musical Instruments' are available both in concert form and in lecture-demonstration form. The music is accompanied by piano. When a pianist is not available a piano back-up tape is used. Performances are informal, entertaining and encourage audience involvement.

Musical saw poetry

Can words describe the sound of the musical saw?

Aided by thee. Urania's heavenly art.
With finer raptures charms the feeling heart;
Th'Musical Saw* shall join the sacred choir.
Fresh transports kindle, and new joys inspire.
Hark! The soft warblings, sounding smooth and clear.
Strike with celestial ravishment the ear.
Conveying inward, as they sweetly roll.
A tide of melting music to the soul;
And sure, if aught of mortal moving strain
Can touch with joy the high angelic train.
'Tis this enchanting instrument of thine,
Which speaks in accents more than half divine!
John Dunlap, 1772
* Harmonica in the original
(Note: The Greek Muse Urania is the muse of astronomy)

For more poems mentioning the singing saw visit the Musical Saw Poetry

History that relates to the musical saw

How far back in history does the saw go?

Ancient Egyptian hand saws:

One of the most common tools used by the ancient Egyptians was the saw. Craftsmen used saws for cutting wood into blocks or lengths.

This is an ancient Egyptian saw made of bronze (A metal made from mixing copper and tin), missing its wooden handle (which probably didn't survive the years).

Certainly flexible saws made of copper go back to Egyptian times. Or, if they were not flexible, at least they didn't have a stiff back. They were also shorter than today's saws.
The copper would have been hammer hardened and probably required very frequent resharpening.
Smaller, narrower keyholes saws of various sizes existed since then.
The standard handsaw starts showing up in one design or another in the mid-late 17th century and for the first time steel saws became fairly regularly available (at least in England).
By the mid 18th century in England the hand saw is almost fully mature - steel was expensive but available.
By the late 18th century Steel handsaws were the normal saw and by the early 19th century the shape has reached pretty much what it is today.
Thank you very much to Joel of the Museum of Woodworking Tools for this info.

Biblical Referance to the hand saw:

Isaiah Chapter 10 verse 15:

A 1866 Family Bible:
'Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?'

In more modern bibles the words vary slightly. A 1953 bible reads:
'Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?'

This verse verifies that the saw was in common use at the time the Book of Isaiah was written.
The Book of Isaiah describes events taking place between the middle of the 8th century BC and the middle of the 6th century BC.