When a note is marked pizzicato in the written music, it is played by plucking the string with a finger rather than with the bow. This produces a very different sound, short and rapid rather than sustained.
In jazz, and some forms of popular music, pizzicato is the usual way to play the double bass. In classical music, however, string instruments are most usually played with the bow, and composers give specific indications to play pizzicato where required. There are some pieces in classical music which are played entirely pizzicato, such as the second movement of Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony, or the fourth movement of Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4.
The first known use of pizzicato in classical music is in Claudio Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (around 1638), in which the players are instructed to use two fingers of their right hand to pluck the strings. Later, in 1756, Leopold Mozart in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule instructs the player to use the index finger of the right hand. This has remained the most usual way to execute a pizzicato, though sometimes the middle finger is used. The bow is held in the hand at the same time unless there is enough time to put it down and pick it up again between bowed passages.
If a violinist or violist has to play pizzicato for a long period of time, they may put down their bow, hold the instrument in the "banjo position" (resting horizonally on the lap), and pluck the strings with the thumb of the right hand. This technique is rarely used, usually in movements which are pizzicato throughout.
It is also possible to execute a pizzicato with a finger of the left hand (the hand that normally stops the strings). This allows pizzicati in places where there would not normally be time to bring the right hand from or to the bowing position. This technique is quite rarely called for, but was used as a special effect by Niccolo Paganini in the 24th Caprice from his 24 Caprices, Op. 1.
Johannes Brahms asks for slurred pizzicati in his Cello Sonata No. 2. This is achieved by playing one note, and then stopping a new note on the same string without plucking the string again. This technique is not much used.
A further variation is a particularly strong pizzicato where the string rebounds off the finger-board of the instrument. This is sometimes known as the Bartók pizzicato, after one of the first composers to use it extensively. Bartók also made use of pizzicato glissandi, executed by plucking a note and then sliding the stopping finger up or down the string. This technique can be heard in his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, for example.
In music notation, a composer will normally indicate the performer should use pizzicato with the abbreviation pizz. A return to bowing is indicated by the Italian term arco. A left hand pizzicato is usually indicated by writing a small cross above the note, and a Bartók pizzicato is often indicated by a circle with a small vertical line through the top of it above the note in question.