pitch bending part 2: water

One sound effect that I’m particularly fond of is pitch bending using water. By submerging a resonating object, you can bend the pitch down, or up if pulling the object back out of the water:

While the effect is generally simple, there are several aspects to consider when employing it in a piece.


One of my favorite uses of this technique happens in Scott Wollschleger’s American Dream. His notation is very ideal as well, showing both the exact pitch to hit:

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and a different indication for creating a sort of tremolo effect:

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It would also be perfectly acceptable to indicate a bend (via lines or arrows) without specifying a destination pitch, but Scott’s indication in the first example helps to guarantee some consistency.


When something is dipped in water, the submerged portion ceases to resonate. Because of this, there will be a rapid diminuendo when executed, regardless of how loud the initial strike is.

how to hold

In order for this effect to be successful, it’s important that the player can properly hold the instrument being activated. For instance, a cymbal that you want to dip should be detached from the stand and equipped with something (a cymbal strap or similar grip) that aids in the dipping. Keep in mind that cymbals must be dipped vertically, or all sound will be muted. This makes bowing a cymbal will be a bit more difficult than usual, as one hand will have to hold the cymbal very firmly to make sure the bow can activate it. Crotales are an ideal instrument to use as they can be comfortably held in the center in one hand, not muting any frequencies. Small gongs also work well, since they usually come with a small rope that can be held with one hand.

consider the receptacle

To dip a resonating object into water, you need something to, well, hold the water. As obvious as this is, there does need to be some thought put into exactly what will be required to make the bend happen. Small instruments, such as crotales, are forgiving in that they are small enough to dip into a mixing bowl. The bigger the instrument, the more complicated it is to create this effect.

When choosing a receptacle, be sure that it is at least several inches larger than the item it needs to hold. There shouldn’t be any real risk of hitting the edges of the container on accident. It should also be deep to the point that it can hold enough water not only to execute the desired pitch bend but also so that there is room for error (you don’t want to be hitting the bottom of the container).

As a result of all of this, pitch bending becomes borderline impossible for anything exceeding the size of a medium(ish) cymbal. You would probably need an above ground jacuzzi to be able to bend a large tam-tam, but if anyone manages to make that happen, please send me a video. I bet it sounds amazing.

safety issues

Having water onstage is a potential hazard. The irony here is that amplification will greatly affect how audible the bend will be. I love water effects, but consider how many wires, laptops, etc. will be on stage during your performance, and if this will cause a serious safety hazard in your performance. If possible, be in touch with the venue to ensure that this is permissible; you wouldn’t be the first person to have a piece cut for this reason.

Watch Bearthoven perform American Dream: