Piano vs Violin music theory?

September 22, 2010 at 02:20 PM ·


i'm an adult amateur who just started to learn violin about 3 years ago,

and i find it pretty entertaining, though frustating sometimes, :D


ok let's just get to the point,

i sometimes confused about why some people says,

"take the piano lessons first and you will have a better understanding in music theory",

Ok,  some says that violin teachers mostly spend their lesson time  trying to introduce, or correcting technique, (ok, so to say, violin, in some cases, are technically more demanding.), so that music theory is second to be concerned (some says so, not my opinion).


from what i read and heard, some says it's easier to see the note on piano so that you can get the idea of scales theories for example, (G Major, Minor etc, etc). 

(i'm not saying piano is easier to learn),

but i just wonder,

why can't violin be used the same way as piano to learn music theory?

are there theories that on piano repertoire that don't exist on violin's?


i'm not talking about musicality development, or dynamic controls, sight / note reading speed, hand coordination, just the theory itself.


yes, people who learn piano at first, might be better when they learn violin, yes.

but how about from Violinist learning piano for the first time , yes tons of notes raining down simultaneously on such harmonic instruments are challange to get used to (as a violinist), but are there any others theory difficulties that the violinist might face when learning piano?


just wondering,

Replies (31)

September 22, 2010 at 02:45 PM ·

 Learning theory using the piano is the way to go, because the piano gives you a visual picture of intervals, chords, and scales. On a violin, if you play an open E string, then play 1st finger F#,  you have played two notes that are a whole step apart, but you can not see the whole step from E to F#.  If you play the same notes on the piano, you can clearly see the whole from E to F#. If you do not learn theory by way of the piano (or keyboard) , then you are only making things harder on your-self. 


September 22, 2010 at 07:30 PM ·

Piano also gives you a way to move things around theory-wise with your left hand.  Oftentimes, the melody of a piece is just the surface.  (This is something that has been frustrating me lately as an early starter on piano and recent starter on viola; one note at a time feels like thin broth when you're used to handfuls of the things at once.)

You can throw something into a minor key, or swap out a dominant seventh for a diminished by messing with the left hand.  There's no "left hand" on a violin, no bass line.  It's melody only.  You have to rely on the ear to just sort of know, "Ah, I'm going into V of V right now ... " and a lot of players don't even know that much, or they know it but it's all subconscious and not well understood.  On a piano, you cannot avoid it, because it's a guarantee that your left hand is doing all that explicitly.  When you're in C and arping G-D-F on your left hand, for example, you cannot fail to know that you are in a dominant seventh situation.

One can teach music theory on a violin or other fretless instrument, but it's often the very complex graduate-level stuff that comes up.  Various intonations, this or that temperament, that sort of thing.  That won't make any sense until you're learned the more built-in theory that comes on a piano.

As for what a violinist might find hard in a piano ... I don't know.  I'm in the other boat.  :-)  Just as you said probably, bunches of notes at once.  Also, you can't adjust them on a piano.  The rotten thirds in the bass on a piano will annoy you.  The fifth aren't too bad, but the thirds beat like crazy in the bass.  Fretless strings can adjust for that and play nice thirds.  *grumbles*

September 22, 2010 at 09:48 PM ·

I do think piano is the best instrument for starting to learn music. It's much more accessible & it allows the novice to get a grasp on the basics of music before tackling the not-so-small task of getting a decent sound out of a stringed instrument. I agree that the keyboard helps as a visual aid & I also think it's extremely beneficial to start out reading more than clef.

September 22, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·

I must agree that theory is easiest to visualize on the piano, and I do often use a keyboard to illustrate a theory concept.  However, I am a big fan of violin-centric theory for violinists and find it very fun to teach!   using scales, modes, finger patterns and charts, arpeggios, and for the record I do talk pretty early about the differences in tuning--we don't go into all the mathematics but we do go through the concepts and apply them. 

Really I think the things people find hard to teach on a violin are 1) scale patterns/key signature; 2) chords.  The visual on piano is much more straightforward there.  But again, though I may use the piano as a one-time visual reference, I usually do teach those things straight from the violin.  I think  maybe I just teach it more from a spatial and aural understanding than may be "traditional" but then it is not hard to put down on paper and look at in terms of traditional theory.  But it does take intentionality, whereas theory is almost built in to piano playing.  That may be another reason people like it.

For what it's worth!

September 23, 2010 at 02:53 AM ·

As one who started piano lessons as a kid soon before taking up violin, I definitely can attest to the advantages of piano training in relation to learning music theory.

Even before the first violin lessons, I started fingering and bowing simple tunes on a small-sized instrument.  I couldn't explain now how I managed this, especially since I'd never watched a violinist up close; but somehow I did manage it, and I'm sure that the piano background had something to do with it.

Although my piano skill is only elementary, I can appreciate something of what goes into mastering this instrument.  And what a good accompanist can do to enhance an overall performance -- I could never put a price tag on this kind of work.

September 24, 2010 at 06:58 AM ·

i see....

thanks for the enlightment guys!,

i'm thinking about taking piano lessons too,

(for me Piano, seemed more versatile in "De-stressing mind" purposes-:P)


so basically there is no theory on piano that does not exist in violin??

and secondly, sorry if it went of the topics, can you guys recommend good online violin lessons?, i heard that Violin master pro are "sucks",

need some advice for the good ones,-D

September 24, 2010 at 08:26 AM ·

You will find great joy in hearing so many notes at once. 

September 24, 2010 at 08:32 AM ·

PS Music theory is music theory.  If you could hear it all and understand it all in your mind, you wouldn't need any instrument at all to learn it.  But a piano provides a great concrete example.

September 24, 2010 at 10:15 AM ·

well, I'm not so sure about this piano centriclearning.  The problem with it is that notes are forever distinguished as white and black in your mind whereas in reality they are all medium grey.

The confusion of the violin is the fourths betweent the strings - thats intuitively even less easy to comprehend (and then with the ramifications of chord structures) than the white and black concept.  Yet guitarists are excellent music theoryologists.  Granted the guitar is based on chords and there are those fretty things to help you learn.

But perhaps the violin could give a different and maybe deeper understanding of music theory - but I mean real theory that is grounded on physics and not just the interrelationship between notes.  Its advantage (over the piano at least) is that you actually see and feel the strings that are the source of the sound.  Thus, you can learn theory based on string lenght and resonance.  Also, if you stay on one string and do not add the confusing fifths, the relationship between notes is very obvious - and there is no bias between white ones and black ones.  IMO the resulting knowledge may not move as fast if learned on a piano - but it is much deeper. 

While violin based theory learning may be inferior to piano with respect to classical music (I really don't know) I can see that it might be far superior with respect to many other music forms - most obvious jazz and blues where the note does not always have to be in the 'perfect' scale.  For example, just how do you teach bending notes and what it means to harmonic theory on a piano?

September 24, 2010 at 03:50 PM ·

 A lot of  music schools require a  knowledge of  the piano as a secondary instrument and require you to pass a barrier examination.  If a music school requires a barrier examination in piano for all their music major, then there must be a good reason.  That should be  a good enough  reason why we musicians must know the some piano.

@Vincent – if you want to ask another question, you should start another thread (topic). 

September 24, 2010 at 04:27 PM ·

I've struggled with the music theory part of this too. I really appreciate the answers I see here.

I've been on v.com for a while, but although I play the violin, I am not a 'musician'. I play for my personal benefit. I do want to advance my knowledge, and I am struggling with learning some of the theory on the violin.

The discussion on this post helps immensely.


September 24, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

There are definitely parts of music theory that crop up on stringed instruments that don't pop up on a piano, but you have to understand the piano-friendly stuff inside and out before you can really get a good grasp of what they are.

Pianos are built around the assumption that the circle of fifths closes.  Twelve fifths equals seven octaves.  If you start on a C and go up by twelve fifths on a piano, you wind up on another C.  This is THE fundamental assumption of Western music and the whole reason we have twelve different kinds of notes in one octave.  Between one C and the next one up, you have twelve possible notes, a half-step apart.

The problem is that this isn't quite true.  Taking the definitions of a fifth and an octave that come from string length, twelve PERFECT fifths actually overshoots seven octaves.  If you start on a C and go up by twelve PERFECT fifths, you actually end up a bit sharp compared to the C you should have landed on.

Pianos can cope with this easily since every note is made independently of every other note; it's essentially 88 separate machines meant to produce one note apiece, like a bell choir.  As a result, each fifth is slightly flattened to cram that overshoot down and squeeze twelve fifths into seven octaves.  Violins and guitars have a harder time since each string has to do triple and quadruple duty (and more!) and play many different notes.  You can't fudge one note individually without affecting many more.

But again, Western music assumes that the circle of fifths DOES close, even if it's only an approximation.  The piano and the harp are the only orchestra-friendly instruments that have that built in from the ground up.

So basically, you will learn the fundamentals of Western music on a piano.  You will learn the places where these fundamentals are fuzzy around the edges on a violin.  But it's best to learn the fundamentals first.

FWIW, I bought a textbook on music theory fairly recently, thinking it would be some grand thing.  I was actually a bit disappointed to find out that it's all stuff I already knew -- and the only reason I knew it was because it had soaked in without my realizing it with all those years of piano.  You cannot avoid learning music theory on a piano.

September 25, 2010 at 03:22 PM ·

Thanks a lot Guys!!-:D

ah, i got my mind enlightened,

and my friends  have suggested some really good websites, with interactive tutorial for music theory, really helpful when no one to ask around here-:D


and responding to many statement here, i mostly agree that we can learn music theory easier on piano(or so to say), IMO,-:)



September 25, 2010 at 11:32 PM ·

Besides, I wrote something that I thought was really smart.  But noone noticed (ok so maybe noone actually cared) !!  Keep the lines open :D

September 26, 2010 at 12:52 AM ·

Elise, I've just started reading this thread, and I was a little puzzled by your reference to the fourths between the violin strings - I assumed it was a typo for fifths, a typo doubtlessly inadvertently generated by the following discussion of guitar strings which are nearly all tuned in fourths. 

In my day, when I did my grade 8 for cello I was also required to have a pass in grade 5 in theory.  This didn't necessarily require a knowledge of playing the piano (although I was a pianist) but was mostly paper work with ear tests - including recognizing intervals, cadences, and various types of chords and their inversions.  My teacher also taught me figured bass, but I can't now remember whether that came up in the exam - four part harmony and transposing did.

September 26, 2010 at 12:59 AM ·

not doing so good with numbers am I?  But the idea still holds... There, I fixed it...

So much for the intelligent thingy... :\

September 26, 2010 at 03:49 PM ·

@ all: by the way, i want to emphasize the word "here" in my last post, are referring to my town here, NOT this discussion forum, i don't mean to offend anybody.

you guys are are really helping me up, keep sharing your ideas!

John Cadd: nope I didn't say we're done dude!, inputs here are really interesting, so i thought that i'd keep an eye.

Elise: i noticed your thoughts Elise, i didn't mean to overlook it, really, but bear in mind as my musical skill are limited (especially in theory part), so sometimes i just take the ideas into my mind, and as i'm no specialist,  actually i have to confess that my technical skill are waay better than my theory and sight reading speed , 

September 27, 2010 at 04:22 PM ·

@ John Cadd

I have been meaning to get back to you concerning your charts. I viewed your charts very carefully. I think you did a great job in showing how the notes on the violin finger board are compared to how the notes are placed on the treble clef. I think your charts are great for a beginning student who is trying to understand this concept. I am curious how your charts would look if you changed the finger board to look more like a finger board, and space the notes how they are spaced on the finger board. Let me tell you how I look at things. I have background of being a pianist, so when started to learn the violin, I applied my knowledge of the piano to the violin. The way I used the piano to learn the finger board of the violin was the following: I found the notes of the open strings on the piano. Then, I realized that every open string was a keyboard (whole, half steps). Hence, my thread called “playing scales using a single string”, or something like that. In my mind, I do not play(or read) the fingerboard, I am playing the keyboard, it just looks different. I guess we could write a book on this stuff. Hope I answer your question. If not, feel free to let me know.

September 27, 2010 at 10:33 PM ·

John--I did not mean to say that I personally find scales hard to teach on a violin, just that I think that's one of the things many people find intimidating.  I use solfege patterns, emphasizng how the half-steps fall, to teach the scales on the violin, and from there it's easy to take it to notation.  You had actually sent me a copy of your finger charts, which i really like--they are an extension of the ones i draw up and I will probably use them--thank you!

the other thing I said people may find hard is chords--again, I don't find this terribly hard to teach, using arpeggios, but I do use a piano when I teach chords and harmonies to help reinforce the sound.  Then of course the logical next step is harmonic progression and the circle of fifths.  this is one thing I do find violinists tend to be weaker with.  Can it be taught on a violin--yes--especially with arpeggios I think the harmonic sequence can be taught very naturally and the circle follows with it.  However, I must give the pianists this, that their instrument lends itself much better to developing an aural sense for harmonic progression--that is something I still work on as a violinist and as an arranger--I hear horizontally much better than I hear vertically, and have a hard time always combining the two.  any suggestions to help work on this or teach this better?

September 27, 2010 at 11:34 PM ·

Still not entirely sold.

One of the amazing things about the violin is that as long as you do not use any open strings all the scales are the same fingering - you just move the hand up the instrument.  Thus, the fingering for A is the same as A#, just slide up half a note.  The really confusing issue is relating the scale to written music

Hey, wait a minute, perhaps one could write music that way (if it hasn't already been done, though I bet it has, I'm just not aware of it) where the piece is written in relative notes and not on a 5 bar stave.  This would work exceedingly well for the violin (using the approach above) and would do away with transposing entirely. 

September 28, 2010 at 12:26 AM ·

If you are going to discuss music theory, the piano is a good instrument because it is easy to see the intervals and chord changes.  If you are going to use music theory on a violin (rather than talk or analyze), you are most likely improvising something on the violin.   In that situation, it is important to have "muscle memory" about the subject because there is no time to think about music theory in the normal sense of "think".  My book, Arpeggios, Rhythms and Scales, has fingerings for all 7th arpeggios in all keys.  The fingerings have been selected as repeatable patterns so learning can transfer from one key to another.  Yes, starting with the 1st finger on the root note (the 'fretless approach') does that also, but it is not practical for improvising in most chords - try A flat in 4th position on the D string and just improvise away by ear on the melody fragment that some other instrument just played.  7th arpeggios also set a muscle/memory framework for getting to augmented notes for adding color to an improvisation.

So it comes down to objectives. The violin is a great place to learn music theory if your objective is improvisation, but success requires a different, i.e., non-piano, approach to build the necessary "mental/muscle" abilities.

September 28, 2010 at 12:55 AM ·

Wow.....I cant play the piano for peanuts and I love music theory!


The piano keyboard just lays all the notes out in a line, many times I had drawn the diagram of a keyboard at the top of my manuscript, I suppose one could just write the note names which would serve the same purpose, and not forgetting the enharmonic changes.....


A,A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#...................all the theory is in here.

September 29, 2010 at 10:53 AM ·

The study of 'Musical Theory' is thouroghly understood by a graduated process.

Seek out the recommended biblography in the musical syllabus.

A keyboard or a diagram of a keyboard will assist in your endevour to complete your task.

Musical Theory will not include fingered chart systems.

September 30, 2010 at 12:43 AM ·

Musical Theory is the study of the elements that make music -- Rhythm, Melodic invention, Harmony and harmonic funtion , Structure , Form, and Ear Training, etc. This can all be achieved without playing instrument, but it helps to play an instrument and the piano keyboard provides the best visual aid.

The fingered chart systems provide a map of the violin finger board so that musical notes can be located............ *without reading musical notation*...........which will be your first task in the study of *Theory*.

October 3, 2010 at 01:16 AM ·


October 3, 2010 at 08:00 AM ·

well, i'am no expert,

but in my case, John's chart is useful for me, really, and coupling it with Dounis daily warm up technique i found it helpful.-:)



October 4, 2010 at 01:28 PM ·

Of course you can use violin to learn music theory.  However, on a piano you get full chords and an easy to see scale, whereas on violin you can play only one or two notes at a time (well most of us).  That and you can see the scale laid out before you in a nice neat row, it just makes it easier to see and hear the applied theory on a piano.  10 fingers instead of 4 ...

October 5, 2010 at 01:28 AM ·

 Well , as I said in my comments earlier in this thread: In most schools, piano is required and you must pass a piano barrier no matter what instrument you play. All music students should know some piano. That is not coming from me, that is coming from the music schools.

John, I agree.  Your charts should be printed in the beginning violin books so student can relate where the notes are on the finger board to where the notes are on the treble chef. It would be good for you to write a scale book for beginning violin players, and use your charts as the visual.  But your charts do not work for me , cause I made the connection of using the keyboard to understand the notes on the violin. So, when I was looking at your charts, I realized your charts were to late for me, but your charts are great for  other students who have not made the connection.  By looking at the chart I sent you, you can clearly see where all the notes are on each string.  That is what helped me.  It sort of a layout of the keyboard. Hope that makes sense.  If not, please let me know and I will have a go at it again.

October 5, 2010 at 04:47 AM ·

John, is there a chance I could get a copy of the chart also? If not, can you suggest a good substitute resource?

October 5, 2010 at 07:46 PM ·

 @ John Cadd, 

I think I see what you are talking about.  Sorry, sometimes I am a little slow.  I will give it more thought, and reply on this thread.  

October 7, 2010 at 01:04 AM ·

John, yes I agree. I would like to see you publish you charts.  They would be very helpful to string teachers all over the world. You can do the same thing for viola, cello, and bass.

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