Printer-friendly version weekend vote: Have you ever played on a scordatura (cross-tuned) instrument?

Laurie Niles

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Published: October 9, 2015 at 7:47 PM [UTC]

Have you ever played a piece that is "scordatura," that is, a piece that requires the violin (or viola) to be tuned to one or more different notes than the normal E,A,D,G (or A,E,G,C)?

Rachel Barton Pine's efforts on the viola d'amore got me to thinking about how foreign it would feel, to have strings tuned so differently. I have a hard enough time, trying to play anything on the guitar. But a seven-string instrument, that is tuned to D-A-F#-D-A-D-A? It's not something I've ever tired, and I'm guessing that at least initially, I'd be lost!

Which brings me to the fact that there are a number of pieces written for scordatura violin:

One that always comes to mind for me -- just because I like it so much -- is Mahler's Fourth Symphony, where the concertmaster plays a scordatura solo in the second-movement scherzo that requires the violin to be tuned up a whole-step. In the performances I've seen (and played in, never the solo part though!), the concertmaster simply has a spare violin at the ready, for this special part.

Scordatura is nothing new; Heinrich Biber required scordatura violin in his Rosary Sonatas, written in 1676. Mozart did it, too. A number of years ago, Lara St. John talked to me about playing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with her brother, Scott St. John, who played his viola part as Mozart wrote it: scordatura. That meant that the viola was tuned a half-step high, to Db-Ab-Eb-Bb. Very often, this piece is played without the violist opting for the scordatura tuning.

"Danse macabre" by Saint-Saëns requires the solo violin to tune the E string to an Eb -- not a huge change for the instrument, but certainly still something that requires some bending of mind and ear.

Most recently, I looked at a copy of Roman Kim's new arrangement of Bach's Air, thinking I'd make an attempt to read it -- until I saw that I would have to tune my E-string to a C#! It occurred to me at this point that, if you wish to practice something scordatura, you have to tune your violin that way to do so. An obvious observation, but still a bit of a barrier when you hit the reality of it. And to be honest, I didn't want to mess with my fiddle. It would make sense to tune a spare fiddle, if you have one, if you really want to learn and practice a scordatura piece.

So who has made the effort to do so? Have you ever played a piece that requires scordatura tuning?

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Posted on October 9, 2015 at 8:49 PM
It's interesting that the present tally shows only about 1/3 of responders have played scordatura. It's a technique that provides a much different sound from the instrument, which can be pleasing to the ears.

Besides the classical works mentioned, this practice is extremely common in many traditional settings, for example as discussed at length at, though they do provide the following amusing quote from James Scott Skinner: "All this sort of thing is pitiful, and makes the judicious grieve…The violin was never intended for such mutilation. An old idea was to tune the G and D strings to A and E and play reels etc. No artist would descend to such devices for the sake of mere applause. The province of art is to elevate and enliven, but surely never to tend to degeneracy."

As you suggest, Laurie, if one is doing this a lot then it is convenient to have a spare instrument cross-tuned and just leave that way for practice and performances, though one would still have to change for other non-standard tunings.

Off-topic, playing A=442, 432, 415, etc. tunings also create different sounds from the instrument, compared with A=440 (e.g. ref

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on October 9, 2015 at 8:52 PM
Bach's 5th Suite in C minor for cello, and the Kodaly Sonata Op 8 for solo cello. It is possible that Bach's 5th suite may have been intended for an instrument tuned in 4ths, such as the lute.

The Bach requires the A to be tuned down to G, and this enables easy-to-play chords which would otherwise sometimes require thumb position antics in the first position.

The Kodaly is written in B minor and requires the C and G to be tuned down to B and F# respectively, thus enabling very sonorous chordal writing.

Posted on October 10, 2015 at 12:47 AM
Fiddle Tunes!! Specifically Bonaparte's retreat and a Metis tune -Gilbert Anderson's Duck Dance. Cross tuning allows the fiddler to create a drone. Also, the extra ring tones sound really cool!
Posted on October 10, 2015 at 2:22 AM
what is different in the music? does the open E still appear on the upper space on the staff if the string is tune to Eb? or is that notation an Eb?

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 10, 2015 at 4:02 AM
Not on purpose! ;-)
OK, back in high school as concertmaster for the Danse Macabre.
From Hester De Boer
Posted on October 10, 2015 at 6:15 AM
In Swedish folk music scordatura tuning is used quite often. Most commonly is the use of a A-bass (G-string tuned one tone up), but when I studied in Sweden we also played in D-d-a-e, A-e-a-e and A-e-a-Cis. Especcially when you get open octaves on your violin the resonance increases a lot and it gives a lot of power and pleasure! One of my favorite tunings is when I tune my 5-string fiddle (originally C-G-d-a-e) to D-A-d-a-e. The 2 open octaves make the instrument resonate like crazy. :-)
From Peter Williamson
Posted on October 10, 2015 at 6:48 AM
In my youth.... I was fascinated by the Biber sonatas mentioned, so I experimented with the scordatura. I don't recall the details, but I think I was very dependent on the fingerings and had to memorise both the notes and the fingerings - reading from the music was almost impossible. I also tried playing without the scordatura - some of it was actually not too hard, although you do lose the resonance of the open strings. Some passages were impossible.
I stopped because I became concerned about the extra tension on the strings and the instrument when tuning strings up a tone or more.
In addition to the list above, some Vivaldi concertos require scordatura, usually for pedal notes. And the Bartok Contrasts (a short passage in the finale). And there's the Haydn symphony where the second violins have to tune the G string down a semitone - but I don't think that really counts as it's just for a few bars. I never tried scordatura for Scottish dance music but it would make a lot of sense.
Posted on October 10, 2015 at 1:11 PM
Appalachian fiddle has some old tones that use a tuning of DDAD, with the G string tuned down a fourth, and the E string tuned down a whole step. It sounds absolutely awesome, and doesn't require any increase in tension, which might challenge some instruments or strings. Cool fiddle tunes that use this include Washington's March and Lets Hunt the Horses.

Most DDAD tune tend to use the low D (G) as a drone, of course, though you can manage to play notes on it.

Another good tuning is to raise the G one step and the E down one step, giving you ADAD. Fine Times at Our House uses this one, as do many other old Appalachian tunes.

At one time these tunings were used in classical technique, as well, of course- Paganini's Concerto No 1, when played with Orchestra, had the orchestra playing in E flat major, and the solo violin playing tuned a half step up. This basically shackles the resonance of the strings in the orchestra (who had no open string resonances) as compared the the solo instrument (which is playing in a very violinistic key with all open strings resonating and the tonic on an open string). Of course, this technique is useless with piano since its resonance is the same in E flat as D Major.

Posted on October 10, 2015 at 9:39 PM
Very early in my journey to learn violin I was invited to play with a group of musicians who were enthusiastic about fiddle tunes and they gathered informally to play the tunes mentioned in several of the comments. What fun this group had! The consisted of mostly violins, a bass, and one or two other string instruments. I remember playing these classic oddly named fiddle tunes without much experience with their sound or in fact with my own instrument. I have since have had a few more years of instructions under my belt and am ready to revisit the collection of fiddle tunes with new respect for this genre.

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