Open string versus fourth finger

April 9, 2011 at 01:41 AM ·

I'm raising this topic since I  often use an open string in 1st position in ascending phrases/scales and fourth finger on the next string down in descending ones, particularly when the tempo is allegro or faster.  I have an idea that I may have been taught this at some stage, but it could be just an idea which has got into my head.  I usually find this principle more convenient in any case, but it would be interesting to learn others' views on this aspect of violin playing.

Replies (35)

April 9, 2011 at 02:28 AM ·

Kinda depends on what your violin sounds like.  Many student violins are torture with open strings whereas a good baroque one is better...

I use them liberally depending on the phrase.

April 9, 2011 at 01:25 PM ·

I have a definite "reach" problem with my fourth finger.  If I can just drop it a half-step above the third finger, I'm OK.  If there's any kind of a stretch involved, I opt for the open string.  It doesn't "flow" quite as well, but it's the only way I can play without my hand cramping up.  I hope to eventually overcome the limitation -- it's getting a LITTLE better -- but for now this is what works best for me.

April 9, 2011 at 01:50 PM ·

I can appreciate Marsha's difficulty.  For the same reason, I don't like fourth finger extensions and prefer a change of position.  However, this is only a practical point -- there's no principle involved here.

April 9, 2011 at 04:35 PM ·

For some reason, scales are often taught using open strings on the way up and 4th fingers on the way back down.  Not sure why.

If you can get by without ever using the open E, it would be a good thing.  It does stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  Open G, there's obviously no alternative.  A & D are the grey area.  In a run or other quick passage, they're probably fine.  On a sustained note, not the best choice.  Do you know positions other than first yet?  You refer to "a change of position" so I assume so.  Using 2nd or 3rd can often help.

April 9, 2011 at 08:35 PM ·

If you play Irish, English or Scottish folk music (which is rooted in the Baroque), open strings, including the E,  are generally preferred. I suspect this style of playing dates back to pre-metal string days when a gut E would sound like a continuation of the gut A, and an open gut E wouldn't sound too different.

Today it's probably gone too far the other way where players (and conductors) seem to be terrified of the open E. I remember a string workshop in Bristol where a tutor spent a good 45 minutes persuading otherwise advanced amateur violinists how to get a good tone out of an open steel E; we cellists (I wasn't playing the violin then) watched in almost open-mouthed disbelief  –  we didn't have problems about playing our open top string (the A).

I've seen conductors actually tell amateur adult orchestras not to use the open E, presumably because those conductors (1) have had horrible memories of screechy out-of-tune Es from juvenile orchestras, and (2) demand a perpetual vibrato. The problem therefore perpetuates. On the other hand I've played under one or two enlightened conductors, themselves professional violinists, who didn't mind open Es, and even positively encouraged them, provided they weren't obtrusive in context.

April 10, 2011 at 11:03 AM ·

Convenience is one consideration when it doesn't particularly matter.  The open E has a particular color.  Sometimes it's appropriate, sometimes not.  I'm not a "rules-y" violinist so I think first and foremost, consider the musical character.  It's not always sweet or pretty.  I once got questioned for using open E in the first movement of Barber -- which if I recall is what Hilary does, and I think the quality of it that sets people's teeth a little on edge is just right for that agitato section, to folks reading it's after the first page if you've got the part -- but when I said I preferred it there, the teacher let it go (he was more flexible than some)...or if you're playing Copland's Hoe-Down, for instance, open strings are also desirable and covering every one with vibrato would just sound pretentious.

April 10, 2011 at 11:26 AM ·

Nicole refers to covering open strings with vibrato at the end of her contribution.  Can anyone advise me on how to soften the sonorities of open strings by doing this sometimes?

April 10, 2011 at 11:50 AM ·

As far as scales go, I've been taught the same principle. There are two reasons that I can think of. Open strings on the way up would be okay because the next note after that will stop the ringing of the open string once the finger is placed. On the way down, playing an open string would not be good because the open string would continue to vibrate causing unwanted intervals and generally sounding sloppy.

The second reason might be that as you ascend in pitch, everything is getting brighter in color anyway, so an open string doesn't stick out as badly. On the way down, everything is getting darker sounding so an open string might interupt that progression.

As far as playing open strings in an orchestra - generally speaking, unless there is a good reason for it or it's a fast passage, doing so in a professional orchestra could be the beginning of the end for you - enlightened or not.

April 10, 2011 at 12:10 PM ·

Nicky Paxton

"Nicole refers to covering open strings with vibrato at the end of her contribution.  Can anyone advise me on how to soften the sonorities of open strings by doing this sometimes?"


If it's a longish note then you can vibrate on the octave note above or below to give the open string a different colour.

April 10, 2011 at 12:59 PM ·

you can also sneak in some alternating pressure on the bow ;)  I've found that if you put your finger on the nut (and thus not touching the vibrating part of the string at all) and vibrate you get a very muted effect.

But I see the open string as a genuine part of the violin colour.  Although its arbitrary in a sense (you can't make an open sound with any note, just those four) its part of what a violin is and can be used to effect.

BTW my violin, with the Evah Pirazzi E gtives a lovely open - perhaps gut E's do the same.

April 10, 2011 at 05:35 PM ·

Re 4th finger usage causing hand cramps: I have found with students with short pinkies that giving the 4th finger "extra length" by swinging the left arm closer to the body (as though you were playing on a lower string) for any 4th finger usage helps alot.  To train yourself to do this automatically takes a little time but it can become a swift and automatic motion with practice. Start with a more exaggerated motion and move to a more subtle version as you get used to the idea. As far as when to use - whatever makes the phrase flow is the most appropriate. I subscribe to the "open going up", "4th going down" philosophy with scales - if the scale was a musical phrase you'd want to lead into what is coming next - playing on the subsequent string - rather than "suggesting" that the music might go back down. my 2 cents.

April 17, 2011 at 10:22 PM ·

Following on what Elise Stanley, Trevor Jennings, Nicole Stacy and John Cadd have said, I take the point about open strings, particularly the E, being suitable in fast passages in certain types of music irrespective of whether the next note is up or down.  Elise,Trevor and John all mention baroque music.  I'm currently relearning a Telemann violin concerto first learnt in 1969 and I find that open strings can be very useful for brightness on passing notes.  In principle, I still respect the 'open string on the way up (but not on long notes!), stopped note on the string below on the way down' principle, but I have learnt more about exceptions to the rule both from previous contributors to this thread and from the concerto.

October 26, 2016 at 08:56 PM · I'm working on a project to see if there is any difference in pitch between fourth finger and open strings. Does anybody have advice for me?

October 26, 2016 at 09:13 PM · As an example which came to my attention in orchestra recently, if the music has an F-flat (e.g. the A-flat Minor section in the slow movement of Richard Strauss's 1st horn concerto) you must not use the open E. The open E and F-flat are two distinct pitches, so the F-flat (being slightly flatter than the E) has to be played with the 4th finger on the A-string.

October 26, 2016 at 10:20 PM · An interesting issue. I think most of us were taught the open-on-the-way-up-4th-finger-on-the-way-down rule. However, I think that like all good rules, it has exceptions. For me, the main question is: what will work best in a particular situation? So, I tend to think of this issue situationally as I encounter it. G-d bless the viola; you don't have to worry about avoiding open strings.

October 27, 2016 at 09:29 AM · hi Tom, why is that? because the difference in quality of sound between open string and stopped note is not so large on viola?

October 27, 2016 at 01:34 PM · @Hannah: You shouldn't need a project. :)

The 4th is tuned a few Hertz flatter than the open string, but almost nobody can actually hear the pitch difference (to the tune of less than 1 cent).

@Jean: On viola, the open strings are less obvious in tone because the roundness and slight nasality masks most of it, as a result of the less-than-ideal size.

Also, unless you play with Primrose fingerings, you tend to not go very high on the fingerboard. :)

October 28, 2016 at 01:34 AM · AO, why is a 4th finger E (on A string) tuned flat relative to the E string?

October 28, 2016 at 08:59 PM · Because the intervals shift a tiny bit flat once you tube them to the E string itself, similar to how a first finger B sul A must be flattened a few cents to ring sweetly when played as a double stop with open E. :)

However, the difference is about 0.5 cents on the flat side, and I notice only because I grew up listening to microtonal music with comma distinctions.

As a result, I hear tiny pitch discrepancies where others do not, including all of my former teachers. :)

October 30, 2016 at 01:06 AM · A.O. is quite right. The same sort of thing happens when you play the B on the E-string with the 4th finger. If you're playing in the key of A then that B will be a perfect 5th above the open string, and that's fine; however, if you're in the key of G then you must play that B a little flatter so that it can resonate well with an important harmonic of the G string, otherwise it will sound out of place.

October 30, 2016 at 11:31 AM · Surely the difference in tuning between the 4th finger and the open string depends on how you tune your open strings and whether or not you're playing with an equal-tempered instrument?

October 30, 2016 at 02:35 PM · Yes, but we are assuming perfect fifths and playing solo. :)

PS: Your last name brings to mind Ständchen by Schubert. :D

October 30, 2016 at 03:20 PM · Why are scales taught with open on the way up and 4th on the way down? Aren't you going to be more accurate intonation wise to flip it to 4th on the way up and open on the way down?

October 30, 2016 at 04:12 PM · A.O. - when you say 'perfect' 5ths do you mean 'just' 5ths? I wonder if most people even know what just fifths sound like nowadays. I'm always confused as to why violinists playing with a piano tend so often to tune the A string to the piano and then promptly tune the other strings without referencing the piano. If what they then proceed to play sounds alright when using open strings then presumably they've tuned to equal temperament (ET), because if they'd tuned in just 5ths it would sound dreadful. So presumably these guys, unless they've pondered the question, will always tune to ET even when playing solo, in which case I suppose they might consider a just 5th out of tune.

Am I going off topic here?

Funnily enough I never thought of the Ständchen thing; maybe I should change my name...

October 30, 2016 at 04:17 PM · No, it is a fact that the violin sounds more correct when tuned slightly off, with the G and D being slightly flat and the E slightly sharp, but since most people just tune to just fifths, you have to follow suit.

PS: I actually would to my instrument slightly off, bur my teacher will not slow it, saying it is "out of tune". :)

October 30, 2016 at 04:19 PM · @Bailey: No, because it is harder to land a fourth finger exactly when going down, and going down with open strings causes unwanted timbral change when you play the next note on a lower string.

October 30, 2016 at 04:34 PM · But surely the very fact that your teacher thinks your tuning is "out of tune" shows that we all have different perceptions of what is "in tune", and therefore the statement "it is a fact that the violin sounds more correct when tuned slightly off" is debatable because it's entirely subjective. What I would say IS a fact, is that the vast majority of people have had their ears formatted to consider that ET is "in tune" and everything else sounds wrong to their ears - something I think we should be trying to change.

October 30, 2016 at 05:33 PM · "No, it is a fact that the violin sounds more correct when tuned slightly off, with the G and D being slightly flat and the E slightly sharp, but since most people just tune to just fifths, you have to follow suit."

not sure I follow you here - if you tune just fifths (ie according to harmonic ratio), the G and D will be slightly flatter and the E slightly sharper than ET fifths - what's your "more correct" tuning?

October 30, 2016 at 06:05 PM · Maybe A.O. means 'off' ET? If so, I happen to agree with him, but my point is that there's no 'correct' tuning and no 'fact' involved, merely what one prefers, which depends a) on the context and b) on what you're used to. All of this, however, remains entirely theoretical unless we can develop a technique adequate to put it into practice; my problem at the moment, and the reason I was looking at this forum in the first place, is because I'm having problems learning scales in 3rds (something I managed to skim over when I was younger and now, at the age of 47, realise I ought to have worked on harder!). It seems to me that it's easier to use open strings (going both up and down) when doing scales in 3rds simply to keep yourself from drifting off pitch. Maybe that's a cop-out but for practice purposes it works for me. Or at least it sounds slightly less out of tune than otherwise!

October 30, 2016 at 06:09 PM · Sacha, et al, that's not off topic at all. It's a big topic--a long chapter in an acoustics science book. Pythagorian and "just" perfect fifths are the same; a frequency ratio of 3/2. The equal-tempered fifth is only 2 cents (2% of a half-step) shorter. Our pitch margin of error for musicians is about 5 cents, so we don't notice the difference with the piano until we tune the C-string. The tuning problem is noticed mostly with 3rds. My practical approach: each note is a cluster of 3 choices; a neutral equal-tempered pitch, and a notes slightly (~10%) higher or lower. Let your ear (your mind) be your guide. --jq

October 30, 2016 at 06:25 PM · I couldn't agree more about letting your ear be your guide; just that being able to HEAR if it's in tune is unfortunately easier than being able to PLAY in tune.

The whole subject of temperament in music is something that surprisingly few musicians seem to know (or care) about. This is a shame, as the violin is a classic example of an instrument capable of adjusting to any temperament.

I've just finished reading 'How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care' by Ross Duffin. I don't agree with the premise that ET did ruin harmony, but I certainly think ALL musicians ought to be aware of this subject.

October 30, 2016 at 07:11 PM · Yes, Sacha and Irene, I mean slightly off ET fifths, which is what everybody nowadays tunes to.

My bad... :)

October 30, 2016 at 07:58 PM · Call me crazy, but I always found that open vs 4th finger fifths had different texture in sound.

Only when the strings are very well balanced, they sound very similar, but there always have been small but distinctive difference. The 4th fingered note sounds "muffled", but more complex in tune, but open string sounds simpler and louder. I've always used open for accented(whistle warning), and fingered for softer parts.

Getting into 4th position taught me that which flavour of the 5th note to choose at any given chance.

October 30, 2016 at 10:46 PM · Intonation depends a lot on what you are trying to achieve. If playing a scale, pitches are related to the previous and sequential pitch, and all related to the root note of the scale. When playing double-stops, one is playing against another pitch and the "difference tone" resultant from the combination of the two pitches, i.e., the mathematical difference between the cycles per second of the two pitches, forms a new bass pitch which results in three-part harmony which is in tune if Pythagorean tuning is used for the two notated pitches. For example a Perfect fifth of A (440) and E (*660) will result in a difference tone of A (220) which will be perfectly in tune at the octave of the two A pitches. Because one can play "in tune" in only one key on a piano tuned to the Pythagorean scale (other keys would be more and more out of tune the further you get, using the circle of 5ths, from the original key), for the centuries musicians and scientists have struggled to come to grips with a universal tuning that would work in all situations. They're still working on it, and will likely never come to a suitable conclusion, which is why our pianos have each key deliberately mistuned to a specific pitch, so that every note is slightly out of tune with its neighbor, but they are all SO SLIGHTLY out of tune that we get used to the sound, and our brain tells us it is IN tune!). *NOTE (from above): E (659.26) is the E generally used, rather than the Pythagorean 660 for this very reason. Because A is generally 659.26, this is the reason why 5ths are tuned slightly less than perfect if tuning the violin using harmonics: A5 harmonic on the A string (1/2 string length) compared with A5 harmonic on the D string (1/3 string length). If you started doing this process from the E string and played perfectly in tune 5ths (3:2 ratio), by the time you reach the G string it will be flat, but if each 5th is slightly smaller (the bottom note raised ever so slightly in pitch), the G string will be in tune for general music playing in any key signature.

October 30, 2016 at 10:58 PM · Going back to the original topic, I was taught open strings ascending, 4th fingers when descending in scales. For general music playing, an open string can sometimes be too strident for the phrase being played, or a 4th finger too muffled. Each phrase needs to be examined for what is needed.

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