Perfect Fifth Double Stops

March 9, 2011 at 09:40 PM · I don't know why, but when I have pieces or excerpts that have perfect fifth double stops, they're hardly ever in tune. In order to get them in tune, I have to kind of turn my hand out and lift up(ish) so that the tip of my finger falls directly (straight down) on the string...then I have the problem of hitting both strings. What should I do???

Replies (28)

March 10, 2011 at 12:16 AM ·

I would need to hear and see in person just what you're doing, since each hand/instrument/string combination is different.  But I can mention a couple of things that have helped me.

First, I make sure that the strings themselves are tuned in perfect fifths.  Second, I make sure that the finger angle is suitable for the instrument/string combination at hand, since some strings are thicker or thinner, and since the distance between them will vary from one fiddle to another.  I have hand size M, and I'm on the slender side.  I have three older instruments that I use in rotation; so when I'm working on a piece that has fifths, I first have to work out a consistent plan in slow motion on the instrument that I plan to use.

After thinking of these items, I did a site search on "playing perfect fifths" and found this thread from 2007.  There is a lot of good feedback on the subject there; coincidentally, some of it overlaps with what I listed above.

March 10, 2011 at 12:40 AM ·

Never push all the way down, relaxing your finger will make it much easier to play in tune. To modify the intonation, change the lateral placement of your finger on the fingerboard.

March 10, 2011 at 02:37 AM ·

 I'd like to elaborate on what I think Brian Lee is saying. I've been playing the Bach B minor Partita, in which this is a major issue. I find that the best way to adjust the intonation is to change the lateral angle. So here is my teacherly idea about how to do this. Let's say you are using your first finger for the fifth. Please draw a picture of a very symmetrical face on your fingernail, the white part being like a big smile of your face. Now, when you play your fifth, where is the face looking? Is it looking off to the side? See what happens if you try to get it to look straight forward, at you. Keep adjusting where the face is looking until things are in tune. Then, of course, you have to memorize the feeling of this slight contortion and practice immediately getting into it when your fifth comes along.

March 10, 2011 at 02:40 AM ·

You actually answered your own question. You need to find a finger shape that works for you. Players with small fingers will need to flatten the shape out so that you get an equal amount of flesh on each string. It takes a certain amount of experimentation to find what works for you. I believe there is an Ysaye scale method out there somewhere which includes practicing scales in all possible intervals including 5ths.

March 10, 2011 at 03:50 AM ·

Oh, and to elaborate on what I said earlier, I was observing a master class by Joseph Silverstein, and he said that, when playing a perfect fifth, you should only press down hard enough to avoid the notes sounding as harmonics.

March 10, 2011 at 05:35 AM ·

put your finger in the MIDDLE of both the strings, and swing your elbow from left to right in order to fix intonation.


also depends how big your pads are



March 10, 2011 at 07:38 AM ·

Whilst not disagreeing with most of what has been said here already, I would suggest though that 5ths and other intonation problems are also caused by faulty left hand position.

The pads of the fingers rather than the tips should be used, and the left hand should have either a flat wrist or a very slightly inturned one, so that the fingers are not pointing down onto the strings, but rather pointing at your face.

I find then that 5ths are no problem, and string crossing intervals of a 5th are safer too. Developing ear training and correct use of left hand means better intonation all round, and better tone production,

March 10, 2011 at 02:10 PM ·


A lot of good advice here, but Peter Charles is on to something.  Many intonation problems in double-stops are caused by a faulty left hand setup.  The first common mistake is that the neck is not on the base of the first finger (it is above or below).  Secondly, that the thumb is not at the corresponding right height for one's hand in relation to the first point of lining up, usually opposite the first finger.  Lastly, there is a tendency to want to over-rotate of the elbow inside.  All of these lead to an incorrect finger angle that makes intonation in double-stops very hard.  As basic as these above things sound, there are the key and the answer to intonation problems in double-stops, along with the last thing which Brian touched upon, finger pressure.  Mr. Silverstein has a saying that as soon as the left thumb presses against the neck, it is no longer useful.  Indeed, pressure between the thumb and base of the first finger cause tension and "lock" the hand preventing it from being able to adjust for intonation.  Keeping the thumb relaxed helps in keeping a light pressure and all the advantages that go with it.

Cheers and happy practicing!

March 10, 2011 at 02:41 PM ·


You are so right. Regarding pressure of thumb and first finger against the kneck, when we were quite young my very gifted friend, who did a lot more practsing than me from an early age, actually had a groove at the bottom of his first finger where the fingerboard had shaped his bone! I suppose he got it right in the end as he had quite a good career as an orchestral player.

March 10, 2011 at 03:56 PM ·

I can tell you how I fix a 5th.  Definitely start by getting those fingers flatter; as you've noticed, when you get up on the tips it becomes much harder to depress two strings.

Notice if you start adjusting all kinds of things as soon as you play a 5th.  If so, it helps instead to take your time and to get used to hearing which note is too low relative to the other one.  Without being able to hear that, you won't be able to fix it.

Almost always, the fix for me is to place the finger so that more of the pad covers the string that needs to be higher.  For example, I play middle C and the G above it, in first position with a third finger.  If I notice that my G is too low, I pick up the finger and replace it so that it's more on the D-string and less on the G-string.

Then I back up so that I get used to placing that 5th in that way.  You may find that every 5th and every finger needs to be placed differently, like others have said!

You can also get a good feel for 5ths on your particular instrument by practicing sliding up and down the fingerboard with a 5th, seeing if you can keep it relatively in tune!  Ricci makes it a point of pride that he can place a 5th anywhere on the fingerboard, in tune.

March 10, 2011 at 04:11 PM ·

 not sure of the op's level of playing.  although i agree that hand shape and finger alignment are important, i would like to remind the op to go back one more step.  framing the house correctly is important, but lets first go down to the basement and work on the foundation.  if the issue is intonation,  lets go with the basics of intonation.  as far as i am concerned, if one is really good at intonation,  the brain and ear will trump the hand and finger.

practice slower and practice first to get single note correctly.   (if you have to ask if this is slow enough, you are not focused enough on listening to the intonation:)

first play slowly all the base fingers.

then play slowly all the top fingers.

then putting down both base and top, but play only the base. (pay attention to finger and hand shape)

then putting down both base and top, but play only the top.  (same...)

then slur the base and top.

then slur the top and base.

with the above, the key is actually not finger mechanics, but really really listen.  how does it sound like for each double stop when the top is higher, or lower, and vice versa for the base.  have to be honest with yourself and try to own it.

with my kid, i do this with her for 5 days.  the last day, the day before the lesson, we put it together as double stops.   double stop is also about confidence.  that is one way to build it.

even with this tedious effort, she still manages to screw it up, haha:)

therefore, unless you are some sort of a genius who is capable of excelling in shortcuts, take the long road especially when you are young.  that is what i consider as deliberate practice, deep practice,,,in fashionable lingo.  

a good habit will save you the day when you need it later.



March 10, 2011 at 05:00 PM ·

I just lean a little bit more with the finger (I guess you'd say I press a bit more, but I keep the finger loose). Of course I have fat fingers, so this works very well for me.

March 10, 2011 at 05:14 PM ·

Very good points, Nathan. And the quote from Ricci. I have his interesting book "Glissando."

March 10, 2011 at 05:18 PM ·

Here's one more wrinkle: are you tuning in pure fifths or tempered fifths?  If you are using tempered fifths (as you would get by either tuning to an electronic tuner or consciously adjusting to a tempered scale) your open-string fifths are already a little out of tune.  If your hand position makes them even a tiny bit narrower, you'll hear it.

March 10, 2011 at 06:31 PM ·

Guessing here, but perhaps the problem (which I also suffer from) can usefully be thought of as inherent to the violin, rather than just an "operator error." The four strings generally differ slightly in tension, and they likewise differ in height over the fingerboard. Depressing a string changes its pitch slightly, sharpening the pitch as the string stretches; because the starting tension and the height differ, if you depress two strings to exactly the same point on the fingerboard, their pitches will change different amounts, yielding an out-of-tune  fifth.

The only apparent solution is not encouraging: when playing a double-stopped fifth, you need to stop each string in a slightly different place. Moreover, the difference would not stay the same as you move up and down the fingerboard, or aross the strings. In essence, I suspect, you need to learn a slightly different finger/hand position for each possible double-stopped fifth. Daunting! But maybe thinking about this as a possible underlying mechanism will help.

March 10, 2011 at 07:01 PM ·

 I'd like to elaborate on what I was talking about before, because when I got to my violin I realized that the finger isn't really facing forward, it's still quite to the side; but it's just more forward. And of course, this is just for my particular fingers. Some people have fat little fingers, some have long skinny ones -- it's going to vary.

The talk about correct positioning is certainly relevant, but you certainly don't have the same locked position for everything you play; it has to be malleable. You'll hold your fingers a little differently for a double-stop fifth than for a trill, or to use an extreme example, for a 10th.

March 10, 2011 at 08:07 PM ·

Laurie, I feel that your first post (about the face on the fingernail) was too visual. Again, you are using visuals - music and violin playing is totally aural - get the hand right and use ears and no problem! But it is easier said than done. (wink).

March 12, 2011 at 04:35 PM ·

You should read Simon Fischer's "Basics"!!!

March 12, 2011 at 05:11 PM ·


"You should read Simon Fischer's "Basics"!!!"

Who should read it? Is this a general reccomendation? I would certainly support it.

March 13, 2011 at 08:51 PM · I think she was talking to me Peter. lol. Thanks to everyone for their in put. My solution (so far) has been to adjust the placement of the pad of my fingers in between the strings. I've taken many of y'alls advice by not having the string completely touching the far, so good! Again, thanks to all!! Justin

March 14, 2011 at 10:21 AM ·


That's a relief, I thought I might be considered to be talking rubbish again, as I often do!

Very interesting discussion you started too, by the way!

April 12, 2011 at 05:48 AM ·

When I've got a fifth chord that's off, lifting my finger to correct it usually isn't an option due to the level of exposure of the part I play in whatever group I'm in. I typically am able to push the finger I'm using either to the right or the left to correct it. Pushing it to one side stretches one string and slacks the other, or stretches both, depending on how hard you do it.

April 12, 2011 at 01:29 PM ·

Whenever possible I try to play fifths as a cellist would: straight across.  I have very skinny fingers and I'm not going to lie, it's hard. 

April 12, 2011 at 03:37 PM ·

If the fifths are only slightly out of tune, my solution was to very  slightly tap the very top of the bridge inwards in order to slightly shorten the string length. On the E string side of the bridge I tap the bridge toward the pegs. This raises (sharpens) the E string note.  To flaten the E string note tap the bridge towards the chin rest.

This can also be applied to the G string side of the bridge. 


April 12, 2011 at 05:10 PM ·

@Matt Pelikan, I think the answer to your conundrum includes what has been said by others – use the least finger pressure on the strings you can get away with.

Two things will happen with that least pressure:  (1) the effect of the difference in tension between the strings will be minimized, and (2) you won't be hitting the fingerboard with the strings (which should be avoided whenever possible) so that the string height above the fingerboard is no longer relevant.

April 12, 2011 at 08:12 PM ·

Two violins? Each playing one note?

May 15, 2011 at 09:02 PM ·

Sometimes, technical problems stem not from the musician playing his instrument improperly, but from the instrument not being adjusted to the musician.

First and foremost, make sure that your strings are well maintained, not worn out and in tune. Also make sure that they are properly aligned, centered and spaced at the nut and bridge for your left and right hands to work comfortably. Secondly, make sure that your strings are not too high or too close to the fingerboard. Too low and you will have buzzing in FF and problems with left hand pizzicato. To high, and your finger will just slip between them while attempting to produce that illusive perfect 5th.

After all this is checked and solved, and only after this is all made clear, you may want to take a look at your left hand technique should that be the true source of your problems. Fellow violinists have posted here about the technical side of this issue and have done so most diligently. 


May 19, 2011 at 03:48 AM ·

So call me unconventional, but this way works every time for me, and usually every time the first time I teach it to a student - even the little ones:

1) Aim for the 'magic invisible string'. This lies directly between the two strings you will be stopping.

2) Approach the fingerboard from directly above, on the tip (yes), at a precise perpendicular angle, to avoid your finger causing the fifth to be too wide - which is what can happen when you use the pad.

When I do this I rarely need to adjust, but when I do I use my elbow. However, however... horses for courses... this is but one approach.

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