Playing in difficult keys

October 29, 2012 at 09:23 PM · By a stroke of fate, I've found myself in a local orchestra. One of the pieces we're working on is Saint-Saens' Romance for Flute, which starts off in D-flat major (5 flats), then modulates to E major (4 sharps), and so on. (Why do composers do this? Are they sadists?)

Does anyone have any tricks for dealing with excessive sharps or flats? I've heard mention of things like imagining they aren't there and shifting your hand half a position - is this practical?

I'm sure this has caused headaches for many violinists. But for me it's even worse, since the same stroke of fate that put me in this orchestra also has me playing viola there - so I'm trying to master alto clef in addition to everything else. Does anyone have suggestions that would help my poor tired brain figure out how to play this stuff?

Replies (45)

October 29, 2012 at 09:39 PM · Sing it first, and then play what you hear? Just a thought.

October 29, 2012 at 09:42 PM · Daily scale work in all keys.

October 29, 2012 at 09:45 PM · ...or just review the relevant scales that you have difficulty with before you practice/rehearse. Once it's in your ear, and your fingers know where to go, the rest gets easier...

October 29, 2012 at 10:11 PM · There is some sense to the "pretend they're not there and move your hand" approach. Honestly, there is nothing technically more difficult about those keys, except that they don't allow you to play open strings as often. If you can play in D major without using your open strings, then Db major is really no different as far as the finger patterns you use.

I think the problem is a combination of being spooked by the key signature and the fact that keys with less open strings make it harder to hear the intonation, ie. the instrument rings like crazy in D major, but sounds muted in Db Major.

Now, improvising in those keys is a whole different can of worms.

October 30, 2012 at 02:50 PM · Different keys should not make playing any more difficult on a violin. Since many people begin with D Major, the feeling of those fingers in those spots feels "normal" and everything else is odd, or scary. Think of patterns. There are common repeating patters throughout the entire instrument.

October 30, 2012 at 04:34 PM · Hi,

I second what Raphael posted. That said, most music is formed by the same patterns of tones and semi-tones. Robert Gerle mentions this in one of his works. Most violin music is made up of four basic hand patterns that cover a lot of things in all keys:

1- semi-tone between 3rd and 4th finger

2- semi-tone between 2nd and 3rd finger

3- semi-tone between 1st and 2nd finger

4- all tones

You see, these stay across all the fingerboard in all keys. Know where you semi-tone is and it's all the same no matter how many sharps or flats you have.

Hope this helps!


October 30, 2012 at 04:58 PM · Like most things on the violin, "difficult" means "hasn't been practiced much". Jazz violinists have to play in all keys for several reasons, like the chord progressions used, the use of tritone substitutions, etc. An advanced exercise for many professional jazz performers is to play the song they are learning in all 12 keys - from memory, of course.

It takes practice, but things like shifting can make a big difference in ease of playing. To take Randy Mollner's example of D flat - a shift to second position (D flat on the G string with the second finger) creates a 2-4, 2-4 fingering pattern on G and D (root, third, fifth, seventh), followed by a 1-3, 1-3 pattern on A and E strings. These are common fingering patterns in all keys, so D flat, with a little practice becomes easy to memorize and easy to play because 2-4s and 1-3s are just like the key of C. This is the reason I wrote my book, "Arpeggios, Rhythms and Scales", which lays out choices of repeatable, common fingering patterns for all 12 keys, major and minor, in arpeggios and scales. After that, its just a matter of practice.

October 30, 2012 at 05:54 PM · I would argue that there are a couple of things that make these keys inherently more difficult. One is, as someone above pointed out, you lose the natural resonances of the instrument. The other is that, in an orchestral setting, most wind players can't play in tune in these keys to save their lives. Also, accidentals soon get into double sharps or flats, which are just plain annoying.

Why do they do it? Because they can. As piano tuning moved towards equal temperament, composers felt freer to use all keys and not just the ones they could stand to listen to on a keyboard, where most music is composed. I think some composers think it is a mark of erudition, where most musicians just consider it a pain in the patootie and aren't impressed, while no one in the audience knows the difference anyway.

October 30, 2012 at 05:56 PM · How about practicing all 24 scales?

October 30, 2012 at 06:44 PM ·

October 30, 2012 at 07:06 PM · Developing fluency in all keys is an essential part of musical literacy and also of the related skill set of violinistic literacy, or in your case, violistic literacy. Stick with it. The ideas put forth here, scale practice in all keys, etc etc, are good ones. Take the time to arrive at security in the selections in far out keys, knowing that every minute you spend working on this is making you grow as a musician and as an instrumentalist.

November 1, 2012 at 02:57 PM · I like Raphael's comment but I can't do all 24 in a single day. I like to identify a couple of keys that seem important in a particular piece and practice those. Then I look for exercises and studies (e.g. Dont, Kreutzer, etc.) that are in that key because then there will be some additional stuff like shifting, string crossings, double stops, etc. This helps you get those keys in your ear.

One reason why I think composers do this is because it changes the sound of the violin. In the key of D major there are a lot of bright resonances that give a sunny, fresh-air sound. A piece written in A flat will not have those kinds of sounds in it nearly as much.

November 1, 2012 at 04:49 PM · Paul (just) wrote: "One reason why I think composers do this is because it changes the sound of the violin. In the key of D major there are a lot of bright resonances that give a sunny, fresh-air sound. A piece written in A flat will not have those kinds of sounds in it nearly as much."

Which is why it is so unsatisfying to play a piece written in one key in a different key. For the violin there are other reasons too - an interesting one (see Salut d-Amour) is to permit harmonics - the original is in E and has delicious harmoics in teh middle whereas the much easier (and more common) version, in D but necessarily lacks these.

A third reason may be that the piece was originally focused on a (wind) instrument in B or Eflat and the violin simply has to abide by the equivalent key.

But, as Paul pointed out, I think the quality of the sound is crucial. 3-5 flats is sad and melancholy, even when in the major whereas 1-4 sharps is bright. Why is rather an interesting question since I feel its not just about violin resonance...

November 1, 2012 at 04:57 PM · Elise! Stop! Put up your hands and back away slowly. You are just about to enter the Slough of Temperament, where Well, Equal, Just, and others collide. Do you really want to go there?

November 1, 2012 at 05:37 PM · Lisa, but it is written that the violgrim cannot reach the city of musical enlightenment without leaving the barrens of musical convention; traversing the slough of temperament; ascending the hill of difficulty; baring oneself in the vally of humiliation - and resisting the temptations of playing pop in the lucre mines.

It is a way I have to go - the good thing is that you don't stay there!

November 1, 2012 at 05:42 PM · I don't know about that. Many have failed to escape the rabid fangs of the lethal Shoulder Rest Dogma after all.

November 1, 2012 at 05:46 PM · Ha! Been there, done that (played without for a bit, now play with a nice hooked Bonmusica! Also survived the sticky-Rosin pits, the tiger cat-gut forest (loved them, but my teacher didn't); and am progressing through the Kreutzer rapids...

Have I missed anything?

November 1, 2012 at 05:55 PM · The Sino-Italian war rages on. The marauding HIPpos still try to keep all else out of the Garden of Bach, and the cult of slavish devotion to Lord Heifetz continues . . .

November 1, 2012 at 06:11 PM · I am but one, quoth violgrim, I can but cope lands of my own womanifest destiny. I see major musical wars but will remain in them as a minor player. It is indeed wise to fear the sucking whirlpools of the HIPopotamus waters....

Oh help...

November 1, 2012 at 08:18 PM · This violgrim cast aside his shoulder rest while caught in the swirling maelstrom of Altoclef, only to be sucked up, on his return to violinland, into the vortex of Trott, from which the few who return can only speak in two tongues simultaneously.

November 1, 2012 at 08:31 PM · To think that all this derived from discussing key signatures!! lol!! WOW!

On the fiddle side of the street, I had opportunity to speak with Garth Brooks' fiddler, Jimmy Mattingly, a few years ago. I said, So you can play in just about any key?

"No" he said, "that's what I used to think,but I do a lot of tuning."

November 1, 2012 at 08:44 PM · so how come there isn't a violin capo (used on the guitar to clamp at a fret and shift the open string key)?

OK, so I looked it up and there IS. So here is the simplest solution to the OP's question - get a viola capo.

You could even, in effect, turn your viola back into a violin, though the strings would be rather short... :)

November 2, 2012 at 12:27 AM · For John Cadd:

You said: "For David Hall .I was surprised to read your "Bach blew that idea out of the water" about key flavours. If you get a chance to listen to piano music in different Temperaments going back to the time of Bach you will quickly realise how those key differences enhance the music."


One of us doesn't understand what the other is saying. This should be simple to resolve. I did get a minor in piano with my undergrad degree, but did not specifically study Bach in any depth -- I just privately love his music and sometimes chose it for performance class, etc..

I was trying to say that Bach "blew out of the water" any simple compositional convention that "Happy" is sharps, and "Sad" is flats. I just re-read what I wrote, and I think that I conveyed that thought correctly.

What is funny is that I just picked up the violin sheet music that was out on my music stand today: The "happy": Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach's Partita No. 3 is written in E (happy = sharps), and the "sad" Chaconne From Bach's Partita No. 2 is written in F (sad = flats). Haha, if two random points = proof of concept, then you are correct!

Are you telling me that Bach wrote happy songs in sharp keys, and sad songs in flatted keys?

I can't believe this is true: Bach's music has infinitely too much complexity for such a simplistic compositional constraint.

Did you misunderstand what I said?

November 2, 2012 at 03:19 AM · Play the Rode Caprices, There are 24 in all the major and minor keys.

November 2, 2012 at 09:52 AM · COrwin - the OP just started the viola! I think if you can play any Rode you are probably already key proof!


November 2, 2012 at 05:16 PM · Don't think of it as such a scary thing! I think that often we make things harder than we need to make them just by how we think about something. It's like when I'm playing in a recital or concert and I know I'm getting to a hard part of the piece and I keep telling myself that it's hard, 9/10 I will screw it up because I've psyched myself out about it where as if I just take it in stride like the rest of the piece, it usually goes fine. Same goes for executing a really hard section or run well and then getting caught up with thinking, yay that went really well and then messing up something very simple. I think much of the same can be said for playing in 'difficult' keys. Singing it in your head, practicing scales, feeling the key/position.... these things all help with playing in those dreaded keys!

I don't know about the rest of you but I think that each key has a distinct kind of sound to it. E major is very bright and hopeful, D flat major is a little more earthy and warm (for some reason the Scottish Fantasy always comes to mind whenever I think of D flat major), d minor is sorrowful and sad...... I don't know if that helps but it helps me!

November 3, 2012 at 01:29 AM · Yes, as Raphael said, to get comfortable in the different keys you have to play them. Scales can be adapted endlessly so you'll never run out of material! I'm not sure that Raphael meant all 24 keys each day (although I did try that for a month in school) but rather choosing several each day and then several others the next day, etc.

November 3, 2012 at 02:18 AM · John Cadd -- Thank you for your succinct elucidation!

Your example of the Affective B major is delightful. It is difficult to choose another example - they are all quite...erm...well, I'd like another absinthe please, and make it a double! However, I do feel drawn to F# minor, given that I often feel like a "dog biting a dress" (doesn't everyone?):

"F# minor: A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress."

November 3, 2012 at 04:56 AM · Elise its not like anyone is being terribly practical for a relative beginner. Besides these threads turn into general advise for various levels of payers.

November 3, 2012 at 11:33 AM · John: the variation of tones for effect is a major issue in Fischer's Scales and the point is made that actually the violinist has some, but not certainly not an unlimited capacity to 'bend' the note for effect. The reason is resonance with open strings, over which there is no control (though I guess string resonance could be 'stopped' by gentle contact). Indeed, the sensation that a note is out of tune may very well be limited to those notes that are out of harmony with the open string.

This point is particularly interesting for the present discussion because the more the open strings are not a part of the scale, the more flexibility there is in playing.

To remove all the open strings from the key you need to play in 6 sharps or 5 flats - which would minimize (but obviously not eliminate) resonance as a factor, at least for major keys. Is it possible this explains why some composers - for some reason Tchaikovsky springs to mind - favoured such keys for violin solos.

November 3, 2012 at 04:42 PM · John,

You could defeat Fischer's observed limitations on violin intonation caused by the resonance of the open strings by playing an electric violin through a programmed synthesizer.

It wouldn't be that difficult to design a computer chip for a violin tailpiece that automatically, and physically, corrects the dissonant resonance of the offending open string whenever required, by slightly altering the open-string length for an instant. Such a chip could be tiny, with the largest part of the system being a watch battery, both concealed under what might look similar to a Wittner adustable tailpiece. This way, you could employ your original intonation schemes acoustically. A "locking" nut, and graphite bridge inserts would probably be required. Additionally, the smallest, and most acoustically inert, rods would probably be needed to extend from the tailpiece to the bridge, to keep the bridge from rocking.

This would permit you to explore your favorite topic, bridge design!

November 4, 2012 at 02:46 PM · The most sharps I've had to deal with was on an orchestra pops concert where we did a song from Phantom of the Opera with a singer - it was in C# Major. I already disliked Phantom, and this didn't help!

I don't know why he didn't write it in Dflat instead of C#. It would have been easier to read.

In places where we were playing the tune, I basically played by ear. Other parts, I had to do old-fashioned woodshedding to try to get it into my brain.

November 4, 2012 at 09:56 PM · John, pianists encounter Bachs' Well Tempered Clavier quite early on, and so encounter discussions of "quarter-comma Meantone" and other temperaments at that time- the ones Schubart was elucidating for us, and the ones I slept through in class.

Bach blew the :happy-key/sad-key" quarter-comma meantone Temperament "out of the water" with "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Parts 1 and 2", thereby eliminating the Schubart emotional colors.

While, as you noted, Bach could not achieve perfect Equal Temperament, he almost certainly had that in mind as a goal in his composing. In practice he came substantially close to it, although there are numerous opinions as to how he tuned his Clavier to achieve his reasonably-close approximation of Equal Temperament.

I was, and am, quite intrigued by your idea of playing a violin in meantone temperament, so much so that in a previous post I thought of two ways you could do it and overcome the Fischer limitations: one heretical electric option, and one acoustic option with a heretical electric tailpiece. Ok, to retreat from The Inquisition, I retract my two heretical suggestions and will not repeat the error.

You are so close to trying it, why not go ahead and try doing it? I can discern quarter-tones, as I believe most people here can. I think I would want to play around with the temperaments on an electronic keyboard first though, to "get it in my ear".

If, as you say, a violin, or violin set up, could be found that did not produce the Fischer open string harmonics, then that would be the simplest solution and perhaps you can try it right now. Why not, you already did the research?

It would be ideal if you could play a loud, slow, two or three octave D major quarter-comma meantone scale, record it, and post if for us. If that is too much of a hassle, you could just try it and tell us how it worked, and also how it sounded in terms of expressions/color, and if it worked better on some violins than others.

I only want to encourage your thinking - it is a highly worthwhile effort as you originally noted. We could resort to email, or start a new topic of "Playing in Different Temperaments" to avoid further taking the topic sideways if this sideways topic is disturbing anyone.

Elise pointed out that Fischer observed: "To remove all the open strings from the key you need to play in 6 sharps or 5 flats ". Perhaps you could record quarter-comma meantone scales in these keys first, and either post recordings or tell us how it went.

For practice purposes, you could play along with an electronic keyboard of the type you mentioned that is set for meantone intonation. If you could match playing a simple piece on violin with the electronic keyboard, you could record each on separate channels, then leave out the keyboard track which would give you a "checked" or "verifiable" meantone violin result. You would practice this until you were confident that you could play violin in quarter comma meantone without the keyboard.

This kind of begs the question: what would quarter-comma meantone violin scales sound like on a baroque violin, with a baroque bow? If you are chasing emotional/color in the quarter-comma meantone world, that could potentially be more rewarding than doing it on a modern violin - or not?

Baroque violins playing with any 18th century clavier, harpsichord, piano, or pipe organ mush have played in quarter comma meantone all the time, right? There must be modern players who have recorded in meantone temperament using Baroque instruments.

That doesn't matter though - the sideways issue at hand is doing it oneself right now, and also not being confined to Baroque musical expression.

November 4, 2012 at 11:36 PM · I recommend this link. (when it says login just hit cancel. It will let you in. )It deals with just intonation and sets up some of the problems we face in improving intonation. I don't understand it well but I have been coached by mentors who do. The full theory is daunting and especially so the later the period where there is extensive modulation and increasing chromaticism.

For those with smart phones I recommend the app Cleartune by Bitcount. You can set up the ratios for your own scales but make no mistake--you can play every note in tune to the scale as dictated by the application and you will not be in tune in any but the simplest harmonies.

November 9, 2012 at 09:27 PM · I would agree that it is very important to understand the difference between some tunning systems. Then one would 'experiment with what sounds good'. That would require one to develop thier skills in listening which is relevant to this topic.

November 10, 2012 at 12:12 AM · so why not just practice the scales in those keys and learn the finger posistions?

Might be a dumb question but I feel I can learn something new about this topic. Im good playing with up to 5 sharps and up to 2 flats so far. Im working my way round the circle of fifths.

November 10, 2012 at 01:29 AM · if I can chip in... tuning is really not about finger position - the difference between an equal temperament and a non- is smaller than you can learn. Its all about the sound. So what you have to 'learn' is the sound you seek then the fingers will do it by themselves.

And how do you learn the sound? I'm going to let someone else answer that because other than playing a lot I have no idea...

November 12, 2012 at 04:20 PM · Not sure what's the rules to shamelessly plugging sites, but here my backing tracks to a bunch of different keys.

You can practice general scale intonation in those keys much more easily with these tracks. Look for one octave scale tracks. Practice them all throughout the week. One of the more simple solutions to a very complex problem.

Here are the Scale Accompaniments.

Hope that helps!

November 12, 2012 at 08:52 PM · I like the idea of ' imagining they aren't there and shifting your hand half a position'. You can play all 24 major scales without reading a note of music, you just learn the finger patterns of which there are only '4' such patterns, one for each finger.

As for playing scales in tune...I think one must develop the inner ear by singing scales and modes. And anticipating notes, intervals, melodic lines, etc. Concentrating on listening will develop a strong sense of playing intune.

November 22, 2012 at 08:13 AM · AHWOOOOOO

November 22, 2012 at 11:26 AM · Did someone just call Wolf?

November 23, 2012 at 08:12 PM · Db major is my absolute favorite key. I'm not joking. E major is enharmonically related to it because c# is its relative minor. That's what makes it such a delicious effect: you have the contrast, but you're still playing in the same neighborhood. The way to play with ease in a key with many flats, in addition to diligent practice, is to fall in love with its special character. You can develop this by listening to beautiful music in the key of Db. Suggestions: Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto; second mvt of Grieg Piano Concerto; Mahler 2nd, 'Urlicht'; Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu; Dvorak 9th, Largo (these last two really take advantage of the enharmonic relationship I mentioned before). When you practice out of love and a hunger to acquire the necessary skills to play beautiful music, rather than in fear of being out of tune, the time and labor sacrifice are going to be much more worthwhile!

November 23, 2012 at 11:00 PM · "When you practice out of love and a hunger to acquire the necessary skills to play beautiful music, rather than in fear of being out of tune, the time and labor sacrifice are going to be much more worthwhile!"

What great advice - and applicable to all aspects of music making...

November 26, 2012 at 10:57 PM · "Db major is my absolute favorite key. I'm not joking. E major is enharmonically related to it because c# is its relative minor."

Interesting. Saint-Saens' Romance for Flute, the piece which prompted me to start this thread, is another example of this; it starts in D-flat, then modulates to E - then does other things, finally winding up back in D-flat.

November 30, 2012 at 12:50 PM · Well, think of it this way. D major has a 2 sharp signature. That means only 5 notes are natural. D flat major has a 5 flat signature, which means only 2 notes are natural. Either way, the 2 notes make the difference.

Get it?

Try to turn the thing on it's head and you won't be playing D flat major with a 5 flat signature, but with a 2 natural signature. It makes things so much easier. The reverse is true for signatures that exceed 5 sharps.

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