Aspiring violinist looking for overview of the instrument

January 1, 2014 at 06:00 PM · I've been playing guitar and piano for years as a songwriter and have a solid grasp of music theory, at least insomuch as it applies to pop music (I don't play classical and I don't sight read, nor do I plan to).

The challenge and subtly of the violin, however, appeals to me after so many years of rigid frets and keys. I'm thinking about getting a Stentor Student II and taking some basic introductory lessons. Before I do, however, I'm curious about the violin overall.

I'd like to get an overview of the general technique behind playing the violin as it compares to the instruments I already know. For example, when playing guitar or piano, a beginner should expect to spend a long time focusing on chords, inversions, scales, arpeggios and other fundamentals. Whether one knows the theory behind these shapes or not, it's not feasible to play music at speed without memorization and conditioning of the shapes themselves. That's just part of learning to play, in my experience.

What might a similar list or curriculum look like for the violin? I'm still mostly ignorant to how this instrument is played, but in my limited experience it seems like:

- Chords are rare, with double-stops/dyads being more common.

- Violins are often used to play single note melodies, and harmony is often achieved with multiple players.

- As a fretless instrument, scales, arpeggios and melodies are presumably played and learned more by ear than the "patterns" one would find in a piano or guitar textbook.

In other words, it sounds like learning violin entails far less rote memorization than piano or guitar, but the actual act of playing it is far more subtle and challenging. So the trade-off is that a guitar, for instance, is much easier to play, but requires far more "information" to be retained (chord shapes, scale patterns, etc.). The violin requires less of this memorization, but even basic playing is much more delicate.

Anyway, I'm just trying to understand what to expect if I were to try learning this instrument. And again, I'm more interested in violin as it could be applied to pop music, so learning a classical repertoire isn't on my list of goals and sight reading (which I've never applied to any instrument I play) isn't a requirement either. I mostly want to have a basic ability to play the violin by ear within my own compositions.


Replies (29)

January 1, 2014 at 06:38 PM · You are right that at least at the beginner level, violin does not involve as much chords as guitar. Chords are difficult on violin. Just playing single notes in tune is a challenge, but without frets, playing chords in tune is much, much more difficult. At the beginner level, you can expect to play simple double stops (2 notes at a time), but it will take a while to master triple and quadruple stops.

One of the big differences with a bowed instrument is the bow. It allows something that is physically impossible on guitar or piano -- the ability to control the volume, and do crescendos. That one fact allows one to express oneself with more variety of colors and feeling. It also requires a great deal of technique to master -- just figuring out how much pressure to apply and how fast to draw the bow and where to place it in relation to the bridge. And if you get into classical music, there are dozens of right hand techniques that will take years to master.

I have limited experience with piano and guitar, only played at beginning level. What I found is that you can quickly make pleasant sounds on either, but with violin, it can take years.

I have never heard of a violin teacher that teaches without music. I'm sure they exist, but they will be hard to find. I know you are not interested in classical, but without reading music, it will be difficult to practice etudes and develop a solid technique. Violin requires a great deal of technique both in the right and left hands and without a good grasp of note reading, it will be that much harder to master the required techniques.

At the beginner level, perhaps more emphasis is required on the left hand because just playing in tune is a challenge. If not in tune, then nothing else matters; it is not going to sound good. Also, vibrato can make a big improvement in your sound. That can also be learned in the first couple of years. As you advance, more and more effort is required in right hand technique.

January 1, 2014 at 07:16 PM · Perhaps take a look at Suzuki book 1? With Suzuki part of the process is learning different skills simply by the progression of dongs presented.

January 1, 2014 at 09:06 PM · "- As a fretless instrument, scales, arpeggios and melodies are presumably played and learned more by ear than the "patterns" one would find in a piano or guitar textbook."

Just as frets guide your fingers between the different intervals on the guitar fingerboard, on the violin you still learn the finger patterns but without the benefit of the physical fret so to speak. You have a finger pattern for every scale, and for each position (if you start in the equivalent of eg the 2nd or 3rd 'fret' for example, which you will use depending on the ease of playing, string crossing, sound desired etc). And this is done by lots of practise and memorisation if you are willing to commit to it. Because it is worth it.

Without the finger patterns you'd be spending most of your time fluffing about being a one finger typist.

The loveliest difference of course is that the violin sound is sustained by the bow, the guitar is percussive so you can only get a certain length of note. Sadly it is only the best who get the best sound, because that freakin bow is a wicked devil and won't be tamed except by most hacks, including me. :( But it keeps you wanting to try. Your most basic detache stroke (up down up down) will keep you going for a life time if you want to perfect it, i reckon.

January 1, 2014 at 10:57 PM · Or there is really just one easy pattern for all (major/natural minor) scales, depending how you choose to think about it. Of course you only play part of it in any particular instance.

I started studying violin by thinking along the lines you describe for the piano; specifically learning hand shapes/string crossing patterns based on all possible scales and chords. The patterns apply equally to all keys on violin and in that sense are actually easier than piano. You also develop a sense of intonation. I still think it a great and obvious approach, despite what anyone might say.

January 1, 2014 at 11:47 PM · I think the skills required for playing the violin in a pop context in a worthwhile manner are not that different from those required to play classical music effectively (Note that the theme tune for Fiddler On The Roof was played by Isaac Stern, and whilst he has been belittled by some in this forum, he was still a consummate classical violinist). If you won't work at the latter, it's not the violin you want to play, you just want to add a violin sound to your pop music and this you can achieve with much less work, using a touch, etc. sensitive keyboard with sampled sound, etc.

OK, if you really want to play the violin, but don't fancy classical, listen to Grapelli, see videos of him, etc. (but even he started with SOME classical training) or watch Nigel Kennedy, who mastered this idiom.

Or maybe you want to be a folk fiddler. Well, it IS a different style and I can't say I was too convincing in my excursion into it (In my earlier teens I was roped into playing "Turkey in the Straw" for an amateur production of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under The Elms" {the amateur director was one Peter Coxhead, who went on to found and run one of the leading drama schools in the UK}. You can tell how young I was from the fact that the fiddler's line, "I'm exharsted" had to be given to the caller; an unbroken boy's voice would not have done) - I played the notes classical style, but the various folk scales are different from the classical scale, folk fiddlers don't just play out of tune. I don't know how the folk scale would fit into your brand of pop.

January 2, 2014 at 12:57 AM · Yes, that tooEric :)

I would be thinking OP should look into Mark O'Oconnor instructors since his approach encourages improvising from the start but he is classically trained himself and thus recognises the importance of foundation skills. The American folk / blues tunes that are used might also be an easier step into pop.

January 2, 2014 at 01:07 AM · I think this is a really interesting approach with a lot of potential. You and Eric can have some fun discussions, he has some really neat ideas on pattern construction; though to my mind they somehwat oversimplify the actual musical constructions, they are super-efficient in regards to finger pattern learning.

If I were teaching a player from this direction, melodically I would start with understanding whole scale patterns and how they relate to the instrument finger patterns-major, minor, modal which are all related, as well as jazz/blues patterns. Then do learn corresponding arpeggios--they are a really important framework for improvisation. Make sure you understand how to transpose the patterns not only to different tonics but also to different positions and take the time to learn some of the basic techniques for getting from here to there--that will come in very handy in the long run. Violin is more straightforward and symmetrical in its tuning than guitar,but the fretlessness makes it reallt important to teach your hands the distances, which change as you go up the fingerboard. You might find it interesting to learn some of the physics that makes it work the way it does.

Equally important, thoug less theoretical, is going to be understanding the dynamics of the bow in relation to not only tone and timbre but also rhythm. KKnowing what you have to work with in any given part of the bow, having a repertoire of bowing patterns and understanding how to balance weight/speed/contact point with your tonal goals AND rhythmic framework is crucial to successful improvisation.

You might be interested in checking out some of Christian Howes' writings, on this site and his website. He is a jazz violinist and has some incredible stuff to offer, from a more improvisatory and less traditional/classical perspective.

FFor what it's worth--I would consider it a dereliction of duty not to at least teach notation to a child student, but for an older student who has a clear idea of what they want to use it for, as you seem to, I think it could certainly work. I assume you do know note names/chord names/can follow a lead sheet, which of course is invaluable for being able to communicate with other musicians. In a digital age where recording is so easy, you can probably go a long ways without notation, but you might find that even in pop, the melodic specificity of violin does utilize notation a lot more often;it may be worth your while to at least familiarize yourself with the principles and patterns so you have a starting point in case you ever need iti, even if your goals don't require notation fluency. Given what you've already got under your belt, I doubt you'd find it hard.

January 2, 2014 at 04:55 AM · Hi Kathryn,

You say,

"though to my mind they somehwat oversimplify the actual musical constructions, they are super-efficient in regards to finger pattern learning."

I was wondering what you meant specifically by the first part (so I know whether I agree or not!) and the second part was always my prime motivation; let's say finger pattern discovery and assimilation with reference to interval patterns (in a 12 note octave). In that sense simplification and efficiency go together.

January 2, 2014 at 05:30 PM · Eric,

what I mean is, while the 4-note patterns do reduce the finger patterning down to its most basic and efficient learning, musically I feel it makes more sense to think in terms of the tonal unit which usually is the 8-note scale. The 4-note units are incredibly valuable-Drew Lecher for one includes them as one of his most basic studies and you have taken them to almost an ultimate level. I just don't think they are sufficient in and of themselves, apart from a growing understanding of how they fit within the larger musical contexts. Like phonics maybe--understanding the building blocks is incredibly important but yet not so helpful without an understanding of the grammar and syntax. an excellent tool, especially kinesthetically, but you can't settle there, especially musically. Does that answer? Do you agree?

I also think that some learners will be helped by them more than others. People who thrive on a very organized process will probably be helped a lot by the way you've thought through and organized the 4-note construct for yourself. Others may benefit more from going to the tonal picture sooner. For most, some combo is probably optimal.

January 3, 2014 at 12:55 AM · Kathryn,

If I have understood you, I agree 100%!

That is precisely why I did not consider single string 4 note patterns à la Bornoff (of whom I did not even know when I started) but rather took each interval pattern (only 351 of these in a 12 note octave)...from one to 12 notes long...and followed it over enough octaves to see all the fingerings within the handspan of dim5. Amongst other things.

Bit hard to explain, but the upshot was to learn each sub-pattern over 4 strings (~2 octaves) in any position (effectively replacing the usual idea of position with something more general) while still understanding the whole and learning to hear the sound, with the patterns around 5 to 7 notes (excluding the upper tonic) indeed being most important.

The obvious example is the maj/min scale pattern which I see as a single simple pattern over 10 strings, containing 7 sub patterns over 4 strings, these being all the modes and that is also how I learned all the scale/mode patterns.

I guess in a nutshell, I was trying to combine intonation/tonality with finger patterns and string crossings and avoid the usual concept of positions, which to me seems to be just an example of this but based specifically on C major with emphasis on note names.

January 3, 2014 at 04:56 AM · Gotcha, Eric :) well, actually, I didn't quite follow but I did way back when you posted your original, more complete description and this clarifies that :). I think it is way more exhaustive than most people would have the patience for, but a helpful concept and very cool :). We would probably have fun talking about applied theory/physics/acoustics (I like to drop a science lesson on my students from time to time, but I'm little more than a surface-scratcher)

Edit: just reread your post and think I really got it now. Lots of good stuff here, in some ways similar to the really good/comprehensive scale systems but maybe organized from a different standpoint and not limited to scales? Tonally you could have a lot of modal things going on depending how you choose to hear it?

January 3, 2014 at 10:42 AM · I have played violin for years and have no idea what you guys are jabbering about. Alex, don't be put off by the tech talk. You don't need to know any of it to play violin.

January 3, 2014 at 10:51 AM · oh, you too.

That's a relief.

January 3, 2014 at 10:51 AM · Yes, Kathryn that's a reasonable way of putting it. My organisation is by interval pattern and documents the pattern itself and its fingerings rather than every way of writing it in music.

Smiley, I hope Alex, as a pianist, actually understands the connection between what he wrote and my answer.

Et tu, Brivati?

Går det bättre på svenska då?

January 3, 2014 at 12:02 PM · Point taken Eric. I just re-read OP's post and I find it rather perplexing. OP wrote:

"I've been playing guitar and piano for years as a songwriter and have a solid grasp of music theory, at least insomuch as it applies to pop music (I don't play classical and I don't sight read, nor do I plan to)."

How can one be a songwriter and not read music? Maybe I would have to understand Eric and Kathryn's jabbering to understand the answer to this question :-)

January 3, 2014 at 02:14 PM · I also have no idea what any of you are talking about- Smiley and Buri exempted, of course.

Alex, I think you're falling into a weird trap that most non violinists fall into. People who don't play the violin are always (ALWAYS!) amazed by the lack of frets. In fact, that's what they always, always say- how do you know where to put your fingers? I think most violinists will tell you that's the least of your problems. Frankly, the most difficult part is just holding the thing ;)

Learning the violin is challenging enough without creating problems before you even start. Get a teacher, and tackle problems as they arise! Good luck.

As a side note, reading music is very easy to learn and can make violinning easier.

January 3, 2014 at 10:51 PM · I must admit to being silently (OK, maybe not always so silently) bemused that its all so confusing :-)!

The OP writes (my emphasis):

"For example, when playing guitar or piano, a beginner should expect to spend a long time focusing on chords, inversions, scales, arpeggios and other fundamentals. Whether one knows the theory behind these shapes or not, it's not feasible to play music at speed without memorization and conditioning of the shapes themselves. That's just part of learning to play, in my experience."

This is exactly the same on the violin, despite the denials :-). All I've really tried to do (for myself, primarily) is document and organise the shapes of all those elements for violin (and piano) in a systematic, efficient way. There happens to be one simple fingering pattern encompassing all Maj/nat. min scales and inversions (modes) on the violin, instead of 12*7*umpteen ways of writing them out musically. That is the physical/kinaesthetic/aural reality of playing it after all and you can learn to play and understand any and all such scales/modes all over the fingerboard within a very short time by thinking this way. This is not complex, is it? But that's just the start, there are other patterns to learn.

Having said that you still have to learn to read music and I've never thought or said otherwise, but isn't that much easier when you can actually already finger the notes with confidence and ease?

Now I'm tired of apparently "jabbering" but at least one person finally seems to get the gist of it. That's something.

January 3, 2014 at 11:37 PM · I understood Alex to be saying that he could read music, but couldn't play at sight. Is it Smiley or myself that understood him correctly?

January 6, 2014 at 03:44 PM · It sounds to me that Alex might want to explore the Mark O'Connor violin method.

However, the really good improvisational violinists I know got there after many years of classical technique and are all accomplished classical players as well; see my grandson's ensemble!video/c10tw , the "fiddler" has a BA in music with a specialty in violin performance and over 15 years of classical violin lessons. (My grandson is the guitarist not the violinist)


January 6, 2014 at 05:39 PM · I see lots of good advice sprinkled around above. Here's my advice.

Your instinct to get a teacher and take lessons is "right on". Playing the violin is subtle and sophisticated, and fraught with pitfalls. A good teacher is essential if you expect to perform.

Your thoughts about chords, scales and patterns are sort of half right. Since I have not played piano or guitar, I can't tell whether your comments on "more versus less" are correct. But I can say that learning the violin requires lots of muscle memory because neither the finger board or the bow has frets or keys. It is muscle memory that enables intonation, speed, and the ability to improvise. For example, like the guitar, the interval between notes changes as you play higher on the finger board. It takes a well established and precise kind of muscle memory to stay in tune as you play in different positions. Likewise, your teacher will work with you on bow control. That is another area of muscle memory.

Your interest in pop music suggests you will want to improvise - at some level. As said by others, Mark O'Connor's books start you off in that direction. At basic levels, classical technique and improv technique are the same, e.g., intonation, tone production. At intermediate and advanced levels, improv technique is a separate branch. For example, it requires real time ability to know, select and execute notes from the current bar's chord (or consciously decide to go to extended notes) and lead into the next bar's chord - at speed. Improvising rhythm is not taught at all in classical performance - and on and on. If you go this route, you will get a lot of benefit from my book, Arpeggios Rhythms and Scales . Its focus is solely on improv technique for violin performance.

You did not mention one thing that I think is important to know for an adult beginner. It is right/left hand co-ordination. Your piano ability will help, but you will have further challenges on a violin because the right and left hands do very different actions. We have a structure in our brains called the corpus collosum, which prepares one hand to do the same thing as the other. In human evolution, this is valuable because if you hit with one hand to defend yourself, you need to hit with the other hand soon. That works for hitting piano keys, but it does not work for the violin. It takes years of practice to re-program the corpus collosum to take the different actions in each set of fingers that are required for violin performance.

Best of luck in your new adventure. You will learn a lot no matter how it turns out.

January 6, 2014 at 08:20 PM · Mike, your explanation of developing improvisation skill on violin might be sound.

But your understanding of the corpus callosum is seriously funky and should be taken with a grain of salt and a glass of whisky.

January 7, 2014 at 04:55 PM · Sharelle,

I tuned my explanation of the corpus collosum to his specific situation, so he would understand the source of physical issues he will face. Hence, I take your comment about "seriously funky" as a compliment. You should hear my version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. If you want a bit more biological explanation, here's what Wikipedia says.

"Musical training has shown to increase plasticity [changing response patterns] of the corpus callosum during a sensitive period of time in development. The implications are an increased coordination of hands, differences in white matter structure, and amplification of plasticity in motor and auditory scaffolding which would serve to aid in future musical training. The study found children who had begun musical training before the age of six (minimum 15 months of training) had an increased volume of their corpus callosum and adults who had begun musical training before the age of 11 also had increased bi-manual coordination."

"Increased bi-manual coordination" is medical-speak for doing different things with the fingers of each hand at the same time, and its the issue he will face. If you want more info, do a search and you can find research results supporting my comments.

But thanks for the invitation to enjoy a wee bit of whiskey. I'll take you up on that.

January 7, 2014 at 09:00 PM · I don't know anything about corpus collosums, but Mike is on the mark regarding right and left hand coordination and/or independence. For example, if you are playing loud (e.g. a lot of right hand pressure), it is very difficult NOT to press hard with the left hand; it's just natural; I don't know what part of the brain is causing it, but something up there is doing it. Developing that independence between right and left hand can take years. To put it in piano terms, it might be something like playing forte legato with the left hand, and pianissimo staccato with the right. It can be done, but it sure doesn't come naturally.

January 8, 2014 at 04:50 PM · Smiley Hsu,

You got it. The thing is we violinists do this all the time. For example, an up bow starting with high pressure at the tip, gradually changing to low pressure at the frog to keep constant volume, the right hand rotates, the right index finger pulses to accentuate some notes in the slur - and meanwhile the left hand is shifting, ensuring intervals are correct, and moving in time with the beat. That's just one bow stroke on simple music !! Add some complexity to the music, like your example, and the physical challenge goes way up. As you say, it takes a lot of practice hours to make this look easy and sound fluid. I know a few adult beginners who played other instruments. This is the toughest challenge they had.

January 8, 2014 at 09:08 PM · Hi Mike & Smiley. No doubt at all about the complexity of coordination tasks. But the preparation happens in the nervous system before the level of the CC, which is a fascinating organ transmitting info between the hemispheres but anything that needs to be organised and efficient in terms of speed, coordination, force, calibration, timing, direction- that's all going on in in other areas of the brain.

None of us wouldn't get through life if all the corpus callosum did was prepare the other hand to follow what the first hand did. We continually use a doer & a helper hand so in fact adults are very used to this concept. But just as most of us can walk up a hill but can't walk up mt Everest without O2, most of us can't play a violin like Milstein.

There are people who live successfully with incomplete or no CC, unknown how many as it's often an incidental finding when they show up for investigation of some other unrelated condition.

January 8, 2014 at 11:24 PM · Greetings,

when I was at RCM that grandiose institution had a yard sale of several hundred tones of scores and books it had accumulated through it's venerable history. I bought a moth eaten copy of a warm up manual by the great English virtuoso Albert Sammons. One of the exercises I adopted from that and have practiced to this day is to play a loud sustained open string while fingering a technical passage extremely lightly on another string. One version in the Sammons book is to start a three octave scale but while the left hand continues dup the instrument the bow arm stays solidly on the G string. It sounds kind of funny when the last four notes of the scale suddenly sound after an age of open string.

Simon Fischer iadvocates this exercise a great deal (see The Violin lesson) and you can see him teaching it in his new 'WarmingUp' DVD where he, much to my amusement mentions the Sammons book and states it was popular in the forties. There was me resurrecting it in the 80s.......

Don't have it anymore. Stupid........



January 10, 2014 at 04:43 AM · Sharelle, I'm still trying to improve my corpus colossum and I think my midbrain would appreciate that whiskey right now! There ... just poured an ouzo.

As for guitar being easier, from what I have seen classical guitar is pretty hard. One of the big challenges is that the guitar has less dynamic range than the violin and vibrato is quite subtle so conveying musical expression on the guitar is intrinsically more difficult. When you hear a guitarist who can do that you should be in awe.

January 11, 2014 at 07:39 PM · IMHO, Violin is by far harder than guitar. It can be summarized in one word: "intonation"

January 11, 2014 at 10:28 PM · Two words:

Intonation AND bowing


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