Why start off in the key of A Major?

August 30, 2012 at 01:55 PM · Hello Violinist Community!

I'm not a violinist, but I do play many instruments with the guitar as my main instrument. I'm working on a very cool sight reading application that's sole purpose is to help you improve your sight reading.

While most instruments begin reading in the key of C, it seems violinists begin reading in the key of A. This makes sense from a playing perspective - you can play the top 2 strings with the same fingerings and play the A major scale and all the twinkle you can handle in that key. However this presents 2 challenges for me:

1) This makes the violin a special case and inconsistent from the rest of the instruments.

2) This introduces accidentals too early on for my tastes. It's an added layer of complexity where I'm purposefully introducing key signatures, time signatures, rhythms and other elements at a very slow and controlled pace.

I guess my real question to anyone out there is, has anyone considered presenting the notes in the key of C before the key of A for a beginning violin student? Is there a scenario where this makes sense? At what point is the key of C addressed? Remember, my only goal is to help improve sight reading and things like technique play a very small part in what I'm trying to accomplish. I'd love to get any feedback on this idea.

Thank you!

Replies (26)

August 30, 2012 at 02:30 PM · Well, for one, not every teacher teaches A major first. Most kids who start in public school start up with D major first since that's what is possible to do with violin/viola/cello/bass simultaneously.

C major is more difficult to play pattern/finger-wise in first position on the violin as you don't get to start on an open string and build up the tetrachords from there. The position of the half step at fingers 1-2 on the D/A strings as well as the 0-1 half step on the E are the challenges. To actually start the scale, you either have to play only a single note on the G string, or start in third position (which is also a valid approach in which case C major is just fine). Uniformity is not always a good thing!

One doesn't need to know anything about accidentals to play (wwhwwwh) which is the beauty of fingering patterns on a stringed instrument.

As for sight-reading, the problem I see mainly in K-12 students is not that they can't read the notes or understand the key signature, but that their ability to quickly interpret rhythms is non-existent.

August 30, 2012 at 04:42 PM · Nice response! Third position is much easier to navigate for intonation than first position. I can see why you mention that Gene. :-) Agreed on all points.

C major in first position requires the student to manage an F natural on the E string, which has your finger all the way back at the nut. Hand shaping is very important for violinists, even at an early stage. We want our students to learn to play in tune, so while they're learning relationships on the fingerboard, it's logical to have them manage the key signature with the easiest hand position. This also allows us to work on fundamental technique (like where to place the left thumb), without confusing things with a more difficult hand position.

As far as improving sight-reading, I think you're right! Violin IS a special case, and if this is for a beginning student, they'll be playing in the key of A, D, or G major first (for the aforementioned reason)--unless you want to start a new approach and teach third position first (but that requires 4th finger from the beginning).

Just my two cents. :-)

August 30, 2012 at 04:51 PM · One of the reasons Kreutzer No. 2 turns out to be surprisingly difficult for younger students is because it is in C major.

August 30, 2012 at 05:23 PM · I was started on the key of D as well.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people are begun in each key (and why that is).

August 30, 2012 at 05:41 PM · I've had several teachers and professors of mine tell me that when they were kids (in the 50s and 60s) they started learning in the key of C. I am told that was mainly because the school programs had band and orchestra students combined. By the time I started learning (in the 90s) band and orchestra were separate and the orchestra started learning in D major and the band learned in B-flat major. The only instrument that I started learning in the key of C was the piano.

August 30, 2012 at 05:47 PM · I thought most of my beginner violin books started off with the key of G. That makes sense too ; start off on an open string and play across all four strings in two octaves without shifting position.

August 30, 2012 at 06:22 PM · Thank you all for your insights. It's pretty clear that beginning technique and fingerings predicate the notes that are learned and not the other way around. This is true for all instruments really, but many instruments happen to be easier (or easy enough) in the written key of C. Kind of makes you wonder why the violin is not a transposing instrument...

While this topic is still alive, is there a consensus of which should come first: Key of A, D or G? Already there is evidence of all 3 being shown first. D makes sense as you can share the same material with all strings. But for the violin you're bowing the middle strings first... is that strange or cumbersome?

Since everyone has hindsight now, what are your thoughts on the first key that should be learned?

August 30, 2012 at 06:43 PM · It doesn't matter. The reading of written music can operate entirely independently of the technical concerns of an instrument.

The violin is not a transposing instrument because it doesn't need to be. You can tune one of the main strings to A=440 and be done with it.

That's not the case for clarinets (Bb and A), and saxophones (Eb and Bb). However, there is a huge advantage in those families of instruments in that as long as you know the fingering relationships for one, you can read and play any of the other instruments of its type without having to transpose or re-learn note/finger associations.

There is no one answer to your question. Kids who start at age 3-4 with Suzuki violin start in A Major because they are small, the basic hand shape for this key is very natural, and the A/E strings are easier to reach. Kids in late elementary school doing group classes around age 10 or so start in D Major so all of the strings (violin, viola, cello, bass) can reasonably move together as a single cohort through the material.

August 30, 2012 at 06:46 PM · Most school methods start with key of D (since the exercises and short tunes can be played in unison by mixed classes of violin, viola & cello students.) Suzuki I is in A for violin, D for viola and cello, the premise hinging on using the upper strings first. If you set your relaxed hand on your computer desk, you should notice that the natural spacing of your fingers mimics A major on the A string. I think this has a lot to do with key choice :) Sue

August 30, 2012 at 09:29 PM · The finger position for A major, beginning on open A, is very comfortable, with the 2nd and 3rd fingers together for the C# and D. It's more difficult to learn that "low" 2. Same position on the E string.... Let's not scare the beginners with the exotic hand positions right off the bat now!

August 30, 2012 at 10:41 PM · Teaching the scale of C major for a violin student's first scale would be like teaching the F major chord for a guitar student's first chord on guitar. It's a difficult way to start. A two octave G scale, or a one octave D scale are a better choice. Playing on the E or G strings takes a while for some to get. I sometimes save these strings for later on, mostly with the younger students.

August 30, 2012 at 10:58 PM · I began learning the fiddle in the key of C because the old tutor books and the etudes I had were written in that key. This presents a skill one must acquire immediately so to find that tonic C by hearing the interval of the fourth and retaining the pitch of C. But for children learning, definately the open string patterns are much easier for finger placements. I prefer to teach the key of D, being the middle strings in the vocal range. The bow is at it's most horizontal, the elbow is not needed to be high for G major or low for A major. Playing the middle two strings requires skill to avoid the touching the outer strings G and E.

It is a 'key signature' , The sharps and flats in a key signature are not 'accidentals'. The notes are still F and C, but these notes are sharp to form the scale of D Major.

August 31, 2012 at 12:16 AM · It doesnt matter where you start as long as you progress towards a goal. The nice part of the easy songs is that they can be played on most any string combination. I havent found teaching accidentals too early to be a problem because beginning violin is about finger posistions first and theory second down the round. So this is the fundamental difference between strings without frets and every other instrument out there. Fingering, intonation, toons, then theory. for the most part, in my opinion,

August 31, 2012 at 02:39 AM · Thanks for all the great insight. For my predicament I think I found a user friendly solution where I can change the default key based which file is loaded. The student/teacher can then choose to change the key only if they want to. This will allow any material to be available in any key but retain it's own default key when you load it.

Phew... ok again thanks for shedding light on this matter for me.

August 31, 2012 at 11:55 AM · Interestingly (IMO!) Suzuki introduces F natural in the key of D minor, not C major. (In fact there is no piece in C major in the entire method!) The first finger then learns to lean back away from the third, without destabalising the hand. The open-string resonance is vital in developing a sense of intonation, before transposing scales and pieces in other keys.

I once tuned all the violins down one tone for a Christmas concert, so they could read from the clarinet and trumpet parts!in D major..

August 31, 2012 at 03:59 PM · Violin students don't learn first in any one given key. What they learn are the keys of the open strings. Hold your left hand in front of you--for most people, it is easier to position the middle and ring fingers together at first. It's also easier for beginners to hear the intonation of open string keys at first, especially as the 3rd finger will play the octave of the string below.

August 31, 2012 at 06:01 PM · If I remember right Leopold Mozart started learners in C. He figured F on the E string would habitually be out of tune if learning starts in sharp keys. Though he literally began with A, B, C.

September 1, 2012 at 04:57 AM · Brian Kelly says:

I thought most of my beginner violin books started off with the key of G. That makes sense too ; start off on an open string and play across all four strings in two octaves without shifting position


Hmm... at first blush that does seem to make an awful lot of sense (though I was a D-starter).

September 1, 2012 at 11:43 AM · G major doesn't appear until late in Suzuki book 1, and then the difficulty with it is apparent -- the C natural on the second string is harder than the C sharp in D and A.

September 1, 2012 at 01:38 PM ·

September 1, 2012 at 08:48 PM · I've not known anyone teach in A... D I usually see/do because its usually easier for the 2nd fingers to go in the places of F and C sharps... and other reasons!

September 3, 2012 at 07:44 PM · There are advantages either way. With the A major system a child can play Twinkle and develop that way. The C major system requires (as I do in my studio) that a child takes piano lessons for at least one year before violin lessons. I then don't have to teach what a sharp or flat is, what a quarter note is, eight note, etc. Is all there. A child then develops a relationship between the white keys of the piano (C major scale) and the violin board. It eliminates the complexity, questions in a child's mind ... why is this note sharp and this one flat, etc. In fact it develops 'flexible' technique. The child knows from day one what a high 2 and low 2 are, same with the first finger. To balance that out, the child knows that the 3rd and 4th finger always fall in the same spot, consistent. These upper fingers provide stability to what goes on in the lower part of the hand, in fact there is where the 2 harmonics lie on the board providing precise intonation and furthering the child's technique, flexible. This explains why the majority of the older systems, Kayser, Kreutzer, Rode, Wolhfart, etc, always begun their methods with a study in C major.

September 5, 2012 at 01:04 AM · I think Einstein was probably quite close to something when he explained his theory of relativity. My last addition to my studio, a child of 8, in 5 lessons is already playing first position, fourth position and eighth position. She has mastered the first and last movements of the B minor concerto by Rieding, all memorized, all the notes and rhythms. She has been taking piano since age 6, that helped.

Yes, not all children respond the same way as it is relative.

September 12, 2012 at 05:36 PM · Thank you all for your valuable insights. I've made significant progress on this and John, if you or any commenters of this thread have an iPad (iPad only right now) and would like to try this sight reading app, please send me a private message. It's not quite ready for prime time, but it's definitely close and I'm sure this app will be of interest to many music teachers out there.

September 23, 2012 at 09:53 PM · It's easier to play on two strings (and selected notes from other strings) using the 0-1-23 finger pattern.

When I go into C major, I stick with that exclusively for a while until totally secure - every new finger pattern gets a lot of emphasis and parts of old ones phased back in.

I got sick of taking over from teachers who hadn't bothered to reinforce key signatures, so now I spend a LOT of time on it, with very satisfactory results

September 24, 2012 at 07:00 AM · Ditto.

I have a Circle of Fifths and corresponding Major/minor key signatures permanently attached to music stands where I teach.

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