Flat keys better than sharps

July 3, 2014 at 05:30 AM · It seems to me that my viola is more resonate when being played in any of the flat keys. I never noticed this on my violin which seems to sound better in sharp keys.

Does anyone else experience anything like this?

Am I delusional?

Replies (31)

July 3, 2014 at 07:03 AM · Do you mean slightly flat?

I have found that my viola gets more significant sympathetic resonance (like from the open C when playing third finger on G, etc). My theory is that due to pitch bending of the longer strings of a viola compared to a violin, it means that the natural, unbowed tone of the C is perhaps just slightly flat. So to get that open string to resonate, you have to play the corresponding fingered note slightly flat as well.

July 3, 2014 at 07:49 AM · Each and every instrument has its own "sweet" notes.

Those of a viola are usually from one to four semitones lower than on a violin.

And for a given fingering, the viola has one less sharp , or one more flat, than the violin. But I imagine you know that!

July 3, 2014 at 08:10 AM · So you don't tune up a semitone for the Sinfonia Concertante so as to play it in D (I never did - the absolute pitch I had at the time would have caused problems, and I never had the requisite month to develop two absolute pitches, like Gerald Finzi's granddaughter did - rather like playing on flat pianos; maddening).

July 3, 2014 at 01:17 PM · Sound perception is a very subjective phenomenon.

On the other hand, it is well known that composers choose a certain key (especially during Baroque era) for a certain emotional context. I also noticed, through my weekly stroll over 24 scales that my violin "mood" changes with addition of more flats. Once I pass G-flat major and reach B and E major, the Sun rises again.

You are not alone.

July 3, 2014 at 01:53 PM · F flat major??

July 3, 2014 at 03:00 PM · G-flat major ... keyboard slip

July 3, 2014 at 04:28 PM · Do you have the same issue with any viola or just your own?

July 4, 2014 at 01:00 AM · Ah, so if I play in F# this will have a different emotional quality than Gb......?

July 4, 2014 at 01:40 AM · I have played four or five different violas. However, I have been playing this one for at least four years. I don't really remember noticing the same effect with the others. This one sounds its very best in the keys of G minor or D flat major! Of course, I am noticing subtle differences that might not be apparent to anyone else.

My violin had a rather dead C natural played in first position on the A string. My luthier adjusted it and improved it somewhat. I now use a brighter A string (Infeld Blue) with Darker D and G (Infeld Red) and it balances out pretty well. Still that C natural is the weakest note on my violin.

July 4, 2014 at 01:44 AM · definitely. But not by themselves, as soon as you put them in their respective scales or introduce them as accidentals according to context.

Of course how will depend on you.

July 4, 2014 at 04:01 AM · My first violin teacher always said that F# has a different 'colour' to Gb on string instruments.

July 4, 2014 at 10:09 AM · The tone of a violin changes slightly with minute changes in pitch.

For a while, I played tangos with a bandoneonist at 445Hz, and classical music at 440Hz. Although without absolute pitch, at the time I could tune to one or the other by timbre alone. About 1/6 semitone difference!

A simple reason for the colour of keys with many flats (or sharps) is that there are fewer notes that make the non-playing strings ring, and even these notes are not tonic ,dominant or subdominant in the key in question.

To answer the OP, I still opt for the "sweet note" explanation. Very few fiddles have an even response across the spectrum: either the very best, or the dull but "pleasant" ones.

F# vs Gb ? (single notes, not keys):

To over-simplify, when the melody is more important, F# is higher than Gb; when harmony rules, it is lower.

July 4, 2014 at 11:27 AM · Flat keys can also be sharp keys. E flat can be D sharp - A flat can be G sharp. I never play D flat major scale, instead C sharp major. On the piano it's different - but on strings it can be either, and can be adjusted to be either key.

So if someone asks for D flat major in 3 octaves I give 'em C sharp major in 3 octaves and they know no difference.

Mind you the viola is a funny old thing - is it ever in tune with a good sound? (wink) (I bet Adrian will give me some stick over that statement!)

July 4, 2014 at 01:35 PM · Speak for yourself, Peter!

July 4, 2014 at 02:23 PM ·

I can't - I've lost my voice! (OH GOOD, I HEAR PEOPLE SAY!)

The viola is a damned hard instrument to play. That's why I do the fiddle as an easier option. And it doesn't take so much physical work to whack out a big sound.

July 4, 2014 at 04:48 PM · It would be interesting to ask some brilliant violinist to record a three octave G flat major scale and then ask people whether they thought it was G flat or F sharp.

July 4, 2014 at 06:55 PM · "My first violin teacher always said that F# has a different 'colour' to Gb on string instruments."

The major third is a natural harmonic on each string, so it would make sense that F# would resonate a little more than Gb.

July 4, 2014 at 07:00 PM · Scott

SO what? It is in the ear not the key. Is that not so basic that further comment is unecessary?

I'm afraid you are showing your petticoats.

Better make sure you are wearing knickers.

July 4, 2014 at 07:10 PM · "It is in the ear not the key" - What do you mean by that, Peter? Are you drinking and posting (again?)? or, perhaps ... (with reference to "petticoats")

July 4, 2014 at 08:31 PM · I would have thought that was obvious.

July 5, 2014 at 02:05 AM ·

July 5, 2014 at 02:06 AM · This would be an interesting experiment....

Have the pianist play in F# major and the fiddler plays Gb major......and perhaps the cello in E##....OMG, it would sound terrible, so many conflicting emotions...... HeHe.

July 5, 2014 at 06:48 AM · Is someone brave enough to play the two and upload on utube so that we can guess which is which?

I'd like to see if it really was different to the listener. My guess is that the player would give a sadder sound with the flat than the sharp....

July 5, 2014 at 07:07 AM · I have a feeling you misunderstand Elise. On the fiddle say, C sharp and D flat major can be played using the same fingering i.e. start on 2nd finger on D flat/C sharp (If you want a position its 3rd + semitone, or in D flat 4th pos minus a semitone). If you treat the whole fingerboard as one position al la Ricci then you can forget about positions, it's not the Karma Sutra ...

So who knows which one you are playing? They would be the same on U toob (and I'm afraid I don't upload to it) but maybe (no promises) I might make a link sometime if my dog Bonnie lets me off the hook for half an hour ... or I could get her to play it instead. (It would definitely sound better if she did it).

July 5, 2014 at 08:48 PM · This confirms what I have been thinking lately. In some keys my violin rings warmly and in others it is quite cool.

We don't normally think of it, but when you play one note, the bridge is moved by the bowed string. The moving bridge moves all of the other strings at the same frequency thus exciting harmonics in the other strings.

After the many years it has dawned on me why my teachers tried make me keep my fingertips vertical to the fingerboard. I was never told, “By allowing your fingers to touch an unplayed upon string, that string is prevented from forming harmonics that contribute to the overall sound of the violin.”

Now that I understand, I'm having a hard time breaking the habit.


July 7, 2014 at 01:47 PM · Elise - I've sent you a PM!!

July 7, 2014 at 01:55 PM · I'm sure Elise is charmed! (To us, who have moved in medical circles, PM means Post Mortem)

July 7, 2014 at 02:08 PM · I am post mortemed - I died years ago ... this is the second coming - no rude comments Adrian!

July 7, 2014 at 02:36 PM · I moved in medical circles once, when the doctor chased me around the room after some blood.

July 7, 2014 at 03:40 PM · OK, before anyone starts applying leeches, allow me to make what may very well be an incidental, irrelevant, and quite possibly ridiculous observation.

I don't know about flat keys, but if you are playing flat notes that require pulling the finger back instead of forward, it seems to me that there is a slightly different impact on the hand.

Check this out. In first position, play a D-flat with the 3rd finger on the A string. Now play a D-sharp with the same finger.

First of all, with the flat note the finger goes down more on the tip, whereas in the sharp position the finger goes down more on the pad. Then, what's the impact on the entire hand?

Oh, well, I warned you this is probably a frivolous observation.



July 7, 2014 at 04:00 PM · Not at all silly, Sandy!

What you desribe depends where you are coming from, key-wise.

My young violists come to me with much better awareness of all the "half" positions than my violinists; at least, those who had a lady teacher with small hands.

So I establish one position per semitone: Half,First, Low 2nd, High 2nd, 3rd, High 3rd = Low 4th, low 5th, high 5th. etc, etc. But these "positions" depend only on the base of the index, not on the musical spelling.

In fact, this is closer to Peter's "positionless" approach, but better defined. (No comment!)

I often see my colleague's violinists flounder when the technical practice corresponds to the piece in question on paper, but not physically.

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