Help in the gerbil zone...

December 13, 2010 at 11:21 PM ·

Is this an idea who's time has come (see profile pic - could not figure out how to post an image to this forum other than a link)?  make the lines bold every three or four so that its easy to read what note it is.  Or is this part of the mystique of violin (or any other instrument)....


[later edit - my profile pic has changed - but you get the idea from the description]

Replies (47)

December 14, 2010 at 12:04 AM ·

Once I started learning the higher positions, which I did when I was about 10-12 weeks into lessons with my first teacher, I actually found it quite easy and natural to read higher.  In my case, probably similar to others' experience, it was mostly a matter of getting accustomed to seeing more ledgers above the staff more often -- 3 (E), then 4 (G), then 5 (B), then 6 (D).  Soon I could instantly recognize what the notes were and hear the pitches in my mind -- second nature.

Having to read 6 ledgers is less common; often the 8va marking takes over instead.  Otherwise, the staves would require greater vertical separation, calling for more frequent page turns -- I especially notice this in orchestral violin parts and full scores.

The bold ledgers in the pic indicate notes one 9th apart -- that might be one way to think of them; and today's electronic typesetting could easily handle the bold -- although the notes on those lines would probably come out bold as well.  The real techies among us could no doubt give more details here.

The top note is an ultra-high F -- clear off the violin fingerboard.  Is the image from a piano example?  I don't know the highest note on the keyboard, because my piano training didn't go much above the treble staff or much below the bass.
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BTW, Elise, was it you and/or Anne-Marie who pushed this Canadian air mass over us folks here below the 34th parallel?  Or did you open your south doors to get some of our heat?

December 14, 2010 at 01:04 AM ·

[Its our gift - in exchange for the Detroit smog blanket we get in August..  Enjoy.].

December 14, 2010 at 02:11 AM ·

 Depends on the fingerboard length where that ultra-high F would land. On my old fiddle the G next above is right on the end of the fingerboard – so that's one very high note that's relatively easy to place (incidentally, it plays clear on a Hill E, on a good day with a following wind).  That high G occurs in the Dvorak vc I believe, and also in one or two of the Lipinski concertos, and that's without using harmonics, natural or otherwise.  A little higher takes you into Locatelli Land where the neighborhood dogs howl.

The top note on a piano is normally either A or C, depending on what you pay.  But only too often that high C sounds little more than a loud click; that's what you get when you strike a very short high tension string with a felt hammer.  To get a proper sound at that pitch you really need either a wind instrument (church organ or piccolo) or a violin. 

December 14, 2010 at 02:20 AM ·

 The Canadian cold air also seems to be making its way fairly rapidly to the UK and mainland Europe, courtesy of a somewhat distorted jet stream up round Greenland.

December 14, 2010 at 02:48 AM ·

This is a horrible response, but I've found that the best way is to just play things that require you to read ledger lines.  It can feel like learning a new language completely, but the more you do it, the easier it will get!  It also helps if you remember which notes are ones are on lines, and which are on spaces.  So, the E above third position D will just look like a C, but higher.  The next highest F-sharp will look like a D, but with more ledger lines.  Probably not fool proof, but just my two cents.  

December 14, 2010 at 03:22 AM ·

You are right of course, I mean thats how its always been done but why do we have to stick with that?  The point is that the five-line standard was probably never designed to deal with such high notes.  Actually, I have no idea when the extra lines were added or what instrument dictated their need.

It would seem to be so easy to adapt the line system to make it easy to read (hey, its hard enough playing them anyway).  Or perhaps this is like medicine used to be where the latin words were used in order to make it difficult so that only the physicians would understand? 

December 14, 2010 at 04:26 AM ·

Elise, thanks for the "gift."  Actually, I am enjoying some aspects of it.  When it's cold, the heating system cycles on frequently, which is great for violin practice.  I keep the place at 72 F./22 C. in the daytime and 65/18 at night.  For tonight's practice, I had full traction in the hands.

My baby sister, who now lives in New York State, said in an e-mail a couple of years back: "Don't send us any more storms from the South.  They turn into nor'easters and create a mess."  At least the cold spell wasn't a payback gift from her.

I know -- I shouldn't keep calling her "baby sister."  But -- let's face it -- to me, that's who she will always be.
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Ah, yes -- fingerboard length.  My three older instruments all have fingerboards that end around the ultra-high C, a fourth below the ultra-high F in Elise's image.

December 14, 2010 at 10:15 AM ·

Why not make the finger board so that it has an extension under the E?  That way you might get into the pygmy-mouse zone ...

(insufferably cute)

Or maybe one could not get close enough to the bridge to play the note..  Luthiers: would that work?

December 14, 2010 at 10:55 AM ·

In (between 2:30 and 3:00) you can see the baroque violinist Enrico Onofri playing fingered notes beyond the end of the fingerboard.  I suspect this must have been standard in the period when required by the music (Vivaldi in this instance, and in the Locatelli concertos, of course).
In more recent times Kodaly's Op 8 for unaccompanied cello covers a range of up to 5 octaves, the top octave admittedly being easier to reach on the cello than it would on the violin.

December 14, 2010 at 11:07 AM ·

The violin's neck, and therefore its fingerboard, is a vibrating part of the violin, as you should be able to feel through the left hand when playing (if you can't then your hold may be too tight). I would think, subject of course to what the luthiers have to say on the matter, that if you lengthen the fingerboard the extra inertial mass is going to dampen the neck vibrations to some extent and therefore have an effect on the vibration of the instrument as a whole. Perhaps there are critical fingerboard lengths (and weights?) where the effect is bad, and others where it is good.

I remember in my classical guitar days that the tone would slightly deaden if I gripped the neck tightly, or if someone put their hand on the guitar's head (equivalent to the violin scroll). 


December 14, 2010 at 11:10 AM ·

But the fingerboard has been extended multiple times through history - a small extension under the E could hardly have much effect....

December 14, 2010 at 11:23 AM ·

In his magnificent tour de force for solo piano, the Opus Clavicembalisticum, the pianist-composer Sorabji clarified the intricate polyphony in places by using three or four staves. Typically, the topmost stave would have a second treble clef to indicate that that stave was to be played an octave higher than written. 

December 14, 2010 at 11:51 AM ·

"a small extension under the E could hardly have much effect" 

I wonder. You couldn't say that about small changes to the design or position of the sound post or bridge, for example. The violin is such a complex acoustic structure that an apparently insignificant change in one area can have large scale effects elsewhere – for good or bad. 

December 14, 2010 at 12:15 PM ·

Trevor and Elise, there is a length which is considered standard for a fingerboard. However, I haven't found any reason that this is sacred, except that musicians are accustomed to finding fingerboard surface under the string up to a certain note, so they can be thrown an unpleasant curve when its not there (fingerboard shorter than standard). I've made fingerboards "too long" numerous times with no apparent ill effects.

The fingerboard and neck vibrate, but when doing so, they emit hardly any sound during playing. This leads to some interesting theories. One is that energy used to vibrate a non-sound-radiating part is wasted, and it might be better to make these parts in a way that they resist or reflect vibration. Think of how waves in water reflect off a solid wall, versus how they are dissipated by a gradually sloping shoreline, or vegetation growing in the water. There's no question though that changing the vibrating behavior of these parts can influence the sound, even if they don't produce sound themselves.

As Trevor has said, the parts of a violin interact in some ways which are still not fully understood, and the acoustics are so complex that it's difficult to nail down what physical change is responsible for what tonal change. When I get frustrated with it all, I remind myself that there are some highly trained acoustics and vibration engineers who study violins, just because they find it to be such fascinating and complex challenge.

December 14, 2010 at 12:31 PM ·

Cellists take care of the ledger-line problem by reading music in multiple clefs: bass, tenor, and treble (and treble an octave down - what some call the "Dvorak treble clef" and others the "trouble clef," which is no help at all, just an archaic tradition, since it places the notes on the staff just one off from the tenor clef). But this does all help with sight reading. The tenor clef brings the notes down a f5th (just over one string), and the treble clef brings them down a 9th below that. With this done nicely, it is rare to see a note with more than 3 ledger lines, rare but never say never.

Violists, as you know, get a bit of help too, going from alto to treble clef (a 7th worth).

To me the worst thing is reading hand-written music (yes it's still around - we did the Shostakovich 5th last year) and sometimes the notes with 5 or 6 ledger lines are below the horizon set by 3 ledger lines - sure makes it tough.



December 14, 2010 at 12:42 PM ·

But David, what about the lenghthening of the keyboard over the years - I thought most classical instruments (strads and del gesu's included) have longer fingerboards now than when they were made?  And if so has their sound been affected (I hesitate to say impaired)?

December 14, 2010 at 01:10 PM ·

The tenor clef is no problem at all for the cellist – s/he just plays as if in the bass clef but on the next string up.  One "interesting" experience as a cellist I once had was to sight read at zero notice in a concert an important viola part in the viola clef,  and there was no time to transcribe it. The viola clef is just one line on the stave away from the tenor clef, and therein lies the problem when sight reading.  Anyway, I just about survived the ordeal, but I would have been grateful for nice kind persons in white coats afterwards :-) 

December 14, 2010 at 03:16 PM ·

The answer to the question of why it is so difficult to read music many ledger lines above the staff seems to be that our brains are hard-wired when it comes to keeping track of multiple, similar objects. There have actually been studies done on this phenomenon, which affects animals as well as humans. It seems about three or four is the limit before the brain loses track. One researcher thought this would explain the system of counting where you draw one vertical line for each item until you reach four, and then the fifth is indicated by a diagonal line drawn through the first four verticals. After that, you start with a new vertical tick and repeat. The reason seems to be that once you get beyond four vertical lines, it gets harder to remember where each one is, esepcially bad for us musicians where each line represents a unique pitch.

As to how this all came about, I suspect that it's because the original staff and clefs were tailored for the human voice, and during the days of the modes ranges did not go much beyond an octave. I think the big villain here might have been the violin (shhh! don't tell anyone!!) as composers pushed the envelope and virtuoso players appeared who could play in extreme positions. It was probably expedient to simply add a ledger line. And then another. And then . . .

December 14, 2010 at 05:05 PM ·

Seems to make sense - but what of my suggested solution?  It retains the advantage of the leger line in that you only put them in when the notes are that high (as apart from adding another set of lines) and I think its very quickly legible..  But maybe there is a better idea?

If adopted we could start a whole business of retroactively applying bold lines to existing music :D

December 14, 2010 at 05:08 PM ·

"brains are hard-wired when it comes to keeping track of multiple, similar objects"

That may explain why the stave is normally 5 lines (sometimes 4 for chant, and sometimes 6 for lute tablature). Perhaps there is a deep connection with the fact that we are a pentadactylic species. 

December 14, 2010 at 05:30 PM ·

Elise, maybe what's saved us from being disappointed with the modern version is that we don't know what these old violins sounded like originally, with their original setup. ;-)

Just kidding, kinda. All the changes made to violins over the years, including neck, fingerboard, bass bar, strings, chinrest and bridge, are incorporated into our current concept of good sound. If I play a Strad which sounds great with the chinrest, and then play it without, it doesn't sound as good to me. But I grew up in the chinrest era, so that kind of sound is what I expect, and what I heard every time someone handed me a violin and said something like, "This is an unusually good Strad. Try it".

By the same token, if someone hands me a "baroque setup" violin, or a country fiddle, I probably won't care for the sound, and it's probably because my focus and experience has mainly been with the modern setups used by classical style players. It's tough to get away from conditioning.  It would be interesting to explore which type of sound would be preferred by someone who has never heard a violin before.

One other thing to consider: Playing styles have changed as equipment has changed. Even though not much has changed in the last 100 years besides strings, the new strings created some possibilities which weren't there before, and some players were quick to take advantage of them. This different style of playing is almost the norm now.

What's this about gerbils? I'm surprised someone hasn't taken that one into the "naughty zone" yet. LOL

December 14, 2010 at 05:53 PM ·

December 14, 2010 at 06:08 PM ·

I think it is a terrific idea - 9ths are close enough to octaves to make it easy to figure out.

Does anyone know if any of the music writing software programs (like Forte') have this feature?

December 14, 2010 at 08:03 PM ·

If not we can lay claim to it - a patent  :)

December 14, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

There was a really filthy story around about 20 years ago about a famous actor and a gerbil . . . but we won't go there.

Elise, the other thing that is often done, especially in orchestral parts, is to write it down an octave then label it 8va.  This is sometimes a major annoyance, done to save paper (more staves on a sheet without those pesky ledger lines)  but can be really handy if the part is so high that all the lines just blur together.

Where parts are written that high, it's not unusual to see rental parts where someone has written in note names occasionally.  Kind of a landmark.  Also, you juust learn to read intervals that high, rather than concentrating on note names.

December 14, 2010 at 08:26 PM ·

December 14, 2010 at 11:28 PM ·

Elise, the other thing that is often done, especially in orchestral parts, is to write it down an octave then label it 8va.  This is sometimes a major annoyance, done to save paper (more staves on a sheet without those pesky ledger lines)  but can be really handy if the part is so high that all the lines just blur together.

That is just the WORST solution - it just saves the publisher a bit of space on the paper.  I know I should learn to transpose (its basically an octive transposiiton) but I'd rather play the music.  In essence, Its another example of 'if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it'.  Music for those that have conquered the gerbil, not for those trying to tame their first one.

December 14, 2010 at 11:51 PM ·

I don't know if that's better or worse than the crammed in, handwritten ledger lines with uneven spacing where you can't even tell if the note is on a line or in a space.  Best solution: don't play that darned high!  Or, as I said earlier, forget about note names and which position is which, get in a good position, and just concentrate on the intervals.

December 15, 2010 at 12:28 AM ·

Lisa: thats what my teacher said too - that she does not know the note names, just follows the intervals.

Problem is what do you do when you have to enter a phrase with high-A?


December 15, 2010 at 12:47 AM ·

I just got used to the 8va solution, but then it's absolutely unexceptional in piano music.  Not common mind you, but when it shows up, we just shrug and play it.  I haven't confronted it yet on viola.  (I suspect that if I do, the clef will just change up to treble.)

December 15, 2010 at 01:43 AM ·

Elise, sadly it seems you wouldn't be able to get a legitimate patent out of this idea because of prior publication, i.e. here on this forum. In my working life as a patent attorney (now long retired) I occasionally had to break the bad news to a client that they wouldn't be able to get a valid patent because they had already revealed the essential features of the invention to the public in a newspaper column, on tv, or in a public lecture (which had been documented); not advising the client of this would, of course, have been grossly unethical.

December 15, 2010 at 01:46 AM ·

To all who have posted, just pray that the music you are about to play is essentially diatonic (and therefore reasonably predictable) and not atonal (and therefore quite unpredictable) :-) 

December 15, 2010 at 02:07 AM ·

Well, you can get a U.S. patent as long as you do it within a year. Goodbye to international patents, generally though.

December 15, 2010 at 03:17 AM ·

 As far as developing a new system goes,  I have no idea.  :)

December 15, 2010 at 09:34 AM ·

I was joking about the patent of course, as I see it it would be unenforcable since someone could always come up with a new wrinkle (e.g. see below) to achieve the same end - I'd just love to see the idea adopted so that its easier for me to read music! 

Incidentally one visitor (she is not an active member, I don't want to use names without permission [Hi there ;)] ) wrote to me and suggested colour coding the notes instead.  This has potential for communicating much more information than the suggestion here (e.g. mood, position etc) and is an interesting idea.  Howeer, if generally adopted this would be a nightmare for any colour-blind musicians (7% of men and a much smaller fraction of women) that might make it impossible for them to play.   

December 15, 2010 at 04:25 PM ·

Elise, with the entrance on the high A, knowing it's an A is 3/4 of the battle.  The rest is muscle memory- find it a thousand times until your hand knows where to go.  Brahms symphonies are infamous for giving the first violins multi-octave leaps.  It basically comes down to reach and pray!  I do like the bold line suggestion, though.  It doesn't help with actually making the shift, but it does give you a better, on-the-fly, idea of where you're going.  It would be especially helpful in crowded, poorly printed parts.

January 9, 2013 at 04:47 AM · I've practised and practised but can't remember what the high notes actually sound like. Oddly, however, in context of a piece I seem to be pretty good at hitting them. For example in the Beethoven romance in F there are two leaps, one to G and the other to F - perhaps more guinea pigs that gerbils but you still have to nail them. After practicing this extensively I do hit them every time - but ask me to do the same in another piece and it seems I have to learn all over again :-\ Perhaps with enough pieces and enough memorization it will start to gel - actually I think it is, I'm certainly not afraid of the big bad gerbil zone any more :)

January 9, 2013 at 05:58 AM · The evolution of written music is a fascinating study and goes somewhat hand in hand with music temperament. A book once blogged here is “Temperament” by Stuart Isacoff . After reading this post this book may be right up your alley.

January 9, 2013 at 10:52 AM · hi Royce - I sometimes wonder why we stopped at 5 lines and why they never evolved further - say dotted lines between sets of 5. Maybe it just took up too much of the page for a score!

Of course with the digital age this limit is not really there any more - digital music could expand and contract as needed....

January 9, 2013 at 11:16 AM · hi Elise, with your new profile pic the problem seems to have disappeared, I see only four lines there :-)

January 9, 2013 at 11:30 AM · LOL! Actually, I was waiting for someone to notice - just wish I had a note on one of those lines... now that gives me an idea.....

January 9, 2013 at 02:20 PM · Back to the op,I do really think this is(just)a matter of practice. I read those skyscrapers easily in treble clef. in alto I sometimes need to stop and count out ledgers to know what pitch name something is, even though my viola playing is at a pretty advanced level.

January 9, 2013 at 03:10 PM · Elise-I always wondered about that too. I remember in music lit back in 1983 looking ay Gregorian chants written on four staves some five and the dots (notes) at that time called ‘neumes’ . Before there were “keys” they used a system called ‘modes’. Anyway, it just dawned on me to check Wikipedia and I’ll post the link bellow;

The book I posted earlier is an excellent read and talks about why and how we have the notes & notations that we do today.

One source says that it was quite a debate about as firey as why some simitones would make it on keyboards and why the others would not. 5 staffs with ledger lines was easier on the eyes and people sight read best if the staffs were not more than 5. Notations in the staffs could set the body of a piece allowing notes that went outside the staffs to be improvised 'ad-libitum' by the performer.

January 9, 2013 at 06:10 PM · Having played mainly 2nd violin, I don't run into extreme ledger lines too often. When I do get them in orchestra music, I usually pencil in the letters, at least for the first note or two so I get started right. I am grateful when rental parts come with such notations unerased!

The few times I have played first violin, I did temporarily get better at reading the super-high notes. However, that ability was quickly lost with lack of practice.

January 11, 2013 at 07:56 PM · In this day and age I don't see why lines above the ledge couldn't be dashed and/or grayed with every n (like every 4) solid.

Or perhaps there should be a Super-Treble cleff??

But then I'm sure years of musicians who had to suffer through would visit anyone who made such a cleff in their dreams and rob them of their beauty sleep until they started to look old and decrepit and wisps of hair fell out while they clutched them in agony and swore "I'm sorry - I'll take it all back just please leave me alone!"

Or something.

January 11, 2013 at 10:09 PM · I wonder if the fact that there are 5 lines in the standard stave and the difficulty many have in quickly identifying notes more than 3 lines outside the stave, are somehow related to the fact that we have 5 digits on our hands and the brain's pattern recognition requires extra training to recognize patterns (eg a group of lines) with significantly more than 5 components. Locatelli's concertos must have looked frightening to many of his contemporaries.

There are some virtuoso piano works which require more than two staves, such as some of the piano and organ works of Khaikhosru Sorabji which may have three or four. In these, the topmost treble stave may have two treble clefs side-by-side to indicate that the notes thereon are to be played an octave higher, and an extra bass clef will likewise have two bass clefs indicating that the notes are to be played an octave lower — in this case a full-size Bosendorfer is the preferred instrument!

January 11, 2013 at 11:25 PM · I think the 5 lines of the staff make it easier to sight read, having a middle line that divides the staff in two thus desiphering notes above and below this line.....Also..., the 5 lines of the staff encompass an octave....Hmmmm, convenient that.

But the notes on the ledger lines...well, that takes, reading them and writing them.

And the notes in Goebbel's zone, sometimes one does'nt even need to read them.....just fly up an octave and there you go, same notes an octave higher?

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