The well tempered violin.

December 26, 2014 at 05:08 AM · Is it expected by qualified people that a violin should sound the same in any key?

For instance, the sharp keys on my violin sound brighter and much brighter when I reach "A" sharp. Then, on the other side, I sound subdued and minor with flats.

Possible or my imagination?

I can't imagine that a violin is made and simply "works" without a lot of special skill and knowledge. It seems that a violin might have preferences regarding key signature. Good trick!

Replies (27)

December 26, 2014 at 06:21 AM · I wish I could help, but I'm actually wondering the same thing! My violin sounds shrill to me when I play F natural and B flat on both my A and E strings. I first noticed it on my E string, and thought it was an indication that I needed a new string, so I replaced all my strings (it was time anyway), but it is still there! Also, since it's shrill for the same note on both strings, it seems like it must be a bigger problem. I've re-haired my bow and switched to a higher quality rosin. All of these things have made my violin sound wonderful with the exception of these two's very annoying! I have no idea if others hear the same thing. I suppose it takes a trained ear. I'm considering having the luthier at my local violin shop take a listen to it. I've had the thought that it could be something as simple as my bridge needing adjustment.

December 26, 2014 at 11:47 AM · A violin may sound quite different in different keys. There are timbre and volume differences between notes (part of the charm of violin sound), and each key puts the emphasis on a particular set of these notes.

When testing violins, I'll often try them in several different keys, because the outcome of playing in just one key can be misleading. When comparing two violins, it sometimes happens that violin #1 will be the best of the two when playing in A major, and violin #2 will sound the best when playing in B flat.

December 26, 2014 at 01:34 PM · Here's my take on this. The violin has its own natural resonance and then it has the natural resonance of each string. This is obvious when you play an open string or fingered note that is the same as an open string (A on the E string for example). Each note evokes harmonics more or less with each of these natural resonances so an Aflat (or for me C# or Db on the G string) has less resonance. Thus, although violins differ with respect to the notes they favor, as mentioned by David, the quality of these notes is rather similar.

Where this becomes very interesting is that if a piece was composed for the violin in a particular key - you really have to play it in that key to realize teh composer's intent. This is why a piece transposed into another key for convenience of the player never really sounds 'right'. Try it - play something in 4 flats in 4 sharps (the test only really works if both are in major keys).

December 26, 2014 at 01:44 PM · I can imagine that a luthier will accumulate the skills and knowledge to make a beautiful sounding violin.

I have almost no idea how that beautiful violin could maintain a certain "personality" over the full range of the instrument OR that one violin would be very similar to another ?

I only wish that my violin favored the easier keys :)

elise Yes, I have done many trials with key signatures but I am still in awe at the results. Also, I have to keep this in mind for my next violin.

December 26, 2014 at 02:44 PM · It's typical in general, and on the violin in particular to sound brighter in sharp keys and darker and more covered, though richer in flat keys. It even seems so on the piano - but what do you do about the enharmonic equality of Gb/F#? On the piano the 2 notes and keys are exactly the same. Is there a psychological factor to this?

Anyway, getting back to the violin, yes, one reason that a violin may sound different from day to day, besides changing factors like temperature, humidity, air pressure and how our ears are screwed on that day, is what keys we might be focusing on in our scale practice and rep. choice. Every violin has some notes that are more brilliant, more rich, stronger, weaker, more sweet, somewhat pinched etc. And then there is the outright wolf tone. And depending on the key, more of some notes than others will be hit upon more or less frequently. A violin that is almost completely uniform is more likely to be uniformly mediocre than uniformly wonderful. Notice that most violin concertos are written in keys of the open strings, or relative minors of same. That's no accident. More brilliance, resonance and openness result.

As to different keys and composers' intentions, think about Bach. He was the first great arranger. It didn't seem to bother him for example, to arrange Vivaldi's concerto for 4 violins from B minor to a concerto for 4 harpsichords into A minor, or transposing "our" E major prelude into D, when he arranged it for organ and orchestra. And speaking of Vivaldi, in Venice they liked high pitches, apparently higher than our 440; in other places lower. The standardization of 415 did not exist! Mozart's father, Leopold, who wrote a treatise on the violin the same year Wolfgang was born, noted the problem of going to different churches and having to adjust to different pitches, etc.

This brings me to a personal and very recent story. I just did a Christmas midnight mass. It was easy in terms of the actual music but very challenging at the same time. For one thing, while I was given a loose-leaf folder "in order", it wasn't inherently completely in order, and in the rehearsal, the organist/director called out this or that piece out of order so quickly that there wasn't time for me to find anything. Fortunately I'm a good winger and in fact I ended playing by heart about 95% of the program, even improvising some extra things beyond the simple arrangements here and there. (My 2 colleagues who recommended me - one on flute, the other on trumpet - not only got the music in advance, which I did not, but one of them tried to find whatever he could on YouTube, as they were by no means all standard carols.) But that was easy compared to this: both in the rehearsal and the service we alternated between being up in the choir loft for some of the program and down in front of this very big church in other parts - and alternated with 3 organs! (Don't ask me why!) Two were pretty much at 440, but one which was mainly used was about a quarter tone flat, and it was an unusually warm, humid and rainy night in New York - more like Florida. I didn't want to re-tune back and forth in those conditions. I had to adjust by my ear and finger placement! Somehow I succeeded very well most of the time.

To cap off I was asked to come down again from the loft at the end of communion to play - a capella - "Silent Night" - again by heart. I decided to play it in G. So here I am, the low pitch organ is playing with the choir at that point. I'm going over in my mind at my own pitch how I'm about to go down and play as an unexpected soloist by heart before 1,000 people, at one of the pulpits in the dark (for effect with candles held by the congregants, and a small spot light on me), thinking in terms of my 440 pitch, when at the last minute the director gives me to understand that no, it won't be completely a cappela, that I must play it in their more covered key of Bb and back to the low organ pitch! (I said OK but was thinking "aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!!")

Somehow I pulled it off with but a slight minor hitch or two. After that, they continued and concluded with "Hark the Angels" I figured I was there anyway, and played this, too and really played out - this time in G, sort of. I winged so much on this gig that I felt like a whole flock of geese!

Right now I'm still in recovery - and so is my former perfect pitch!

December 26, 2014 at 04:11 PM · Raphael

Your post touches on many questions I have been struggling with but just did not know how to find the handle. Maybe it was me!

But your report explains a lot.

I often play with some backup tunes just for recreation and at different times I tinkered with standard pitch to get the sound I want. Of course that may not be useful in the rush of a performance but it is good to know.

I appreciate knowing that my difficulties are not that unusual. Thanks for the details.

December 26, 2014 at 06:49 PM · The critical sentence in Raphael's post was,

"I had to adjust by my ear and finger placement"

That includes the skill you need to play in tune on a violin where a string has slipped out of tune, a skill that was expected of every violinist in the days of gut strings. For instance I heard a story about Heifetz refusing to let a pupil re-tune during a lesson - a story I can well believe!

It was a skill my cello teacher touched on when I was a boy, back in the days when plain gut strings were still very much around, and I think the skill was unobtrusively instilled into me during my lessons as I was taught to listen to my intonation. Much more recently as an orchestral violinist still playing on gut I've been using the skill without being aware of it, for instance not noticing that the D or G, the usual culprits, had gone flat until I played the open string.

Last week, I was playing in a Christmas carol concert when at the last minute the conductor decided that we must transpose one choral piece from B major to B-flat major, the excuse being that B was too high for the choir. That transposition, nowhere in the league of those Raphael had to deal with, was of course a walk in the park - just mentally replace the 5-sharp key signature with two flats, and remember to adjust the occasional accidental accordingly.

December 26, 2014 at 07:40 PM · First problem:

- Resonance. The open strings , and their octaves, resonate and secure the intonation of tonic dominant and subdominant of A major, but only leading-note, major third and major sixth od B flat major.

Which leads us to the second problem:

- Semitones. If we tune our 1st finger B flat to be harmonious with the open D, the semitones A-Bb and D-Eb will be too large for most purposes, and the major thirds Bb-D and F-A will be too narrow. Except for double stops.

We have to "learn" (and "copy") the narrower semitones from the sharp keys.

Third problem: Many of you don't do enough good choral singing...

December 26, 2014 at 08:37 PM · Adrian, your advice about not enough of us doing choral singing inexplicably reminds me of the first and only full rehearsal for that carol concert I mentioned in my previous post. The conductor's idea, doubtless excellent in principle, of performing “Silent Night” was to have a four-bar intro by the orchestra, the choir singing the first verse a cappella, and then orchestra and choir coming together for the second verse.

The intro and the first verse went fine. However, the first note of the second verse was an outrageous cacophony that sent the orchestra into a fit of the giggles and left the choir looking puzzled - during the first verse they had all drifted a semitone flat without themselves (or the conductor!) noticing, but still in tune with each other. I think what happened was that one of the stronger singers went south and the rest followed him without realizing it.

I've since been told that this sort of thing isn't unknown with choirs. In this particular case the conductor didn't dare risk such an a cappella disaster with only a few days to go before the concert, so the entire carol was performed on the day with orchestral accompaniment.

December 26, 2014 at 09:15 PM · Darlene,

apart from the instrument, there is a subjective quality in listening experience.

Your own hearing might be quite unique, not only by the overall threshold, but also the ability to hear overtones which contribute to sound signature of your instrument.

One of the reasons I love to play scales is the walk trough the cycle from light into darkness and back.

It is a fascinating experience to witness one's violin sound getting foggy toward G-flat major, and then getting shiny again coming back toward E, A, D and finally G major and their respective minor keys.

December 26, 2014 at 09:43 PM · BTW, for all my extra effort, the director promised me 2 candy canes in addition to my fee - and gave me none! I feel I compensated for this though, after the service, by vigorously attacking a platter of delicious pastries that one of the choir members brought!

December 27, 2014 at 12:21 AM · My performances are usually awarded 2 or 3 cookies courtesy of the Ladies auxiliary.

Rocky, I have to check out the tale of the scales. Interesting.

December 27, 2014 at 01:52 PM · Some years ago STRAD magazine published an article by Joseph Curtain that explained the effects of vibrato and the differences between violins in terms of the resonace spectrum of the violins - see the amplitude vs. frequency curve in .

What the curve shows is that different violins have differences in their high-frequency resonances and this accounts for the differences in the way they sound on different notes and also the way you have to vibrato to bring out some of YOUR SOUND on different violins. When you vibrato a note it brings out the higher frequency (overtones) of that note (the right side of the figure linked above). An experienced player will vary the vibrato speed and width to get a specific sound from any instrument being played in order to engage the necessary peaks from the neighboring harmonic resonances. If you are not doing this the instrument will exhibit different kinds of sound from different notes because of the relative amplitudes of the harmonics (overtones) of the fundamental tones being played.

Another factor that might account for different sounds is the psycho-physiology of the way a particular violinist plays sharps and flats. If you tend to play from a "fixed position" and therefor reach up for sharps and down for flats, you will be playing sharps and flats with a different region of your fingertip. This will account for different sound quality and a different angle for approaching vibrato when you play.


December 27, 2014 at 02:09 PM · If stringed instruments did not sound different in other keys, why would Mendelssohn choose E Flat for the famous Octet? Only listen. That wonderful subdued, hushed sound, with scales tapering off delicately near the end of the fingerboard -- this would have been much harder to achieve in D or E. Compare the Handel Sonatas -- The slow movement of the F major vs. that of the D Major. The first is rich and sonorous, the second as bright as a clear blue sky. Notice that both Handel and Mendelssohn saved the thirds of the scale (A and G, respectively) as "ring tones" in their flat keys. They understood the violin.

December 27, 2014 at 03:01 PM · Paul I definitely have a new respect for key signatures! However I am not happy with composers of popular church music who simply must change key 2 or 3 times for dramatic effect.

Andy Yeah, I've noticed that vibrato has some special behavior but was not sure why.

Incidentally ..... I find that my intonation is definitely better if I keep my fingers close to right angle from the fingerboard.

In any case, I am amazed that the violin, the product of basic individual musical talents, remains so challenging in the modern space age.

December 27, 2014 at 03:43 PM · Andy I read the Strad paper too fast.

Exactly what is the test object and how is it being excited? For instance, why don't I "see" a bridge profile in the Abaqus pictures? How about effects of string tension?

I am obviously missing something.

December 27, 2014 at 06:37 PM · Darlene, the test object in the photo at the bottom of that page doesn't exist. It is a computer simulation of the way a violin moves at one particular frequency (with the motion exaggerated). However, actual measurements of violins at that particular frequency show motion which is very similar.

The graphs higher on the page are representative of the sound map you would get by playing a continuous glissando across the range of the violin (although that probably was not the method used, it was most likely done by tapping the bridge with a tiny hammer). The frequency scale is on the bottom, and the loudness scale is on the side. As you can see, different notes vary greatly in volume. Less evident from the way this graph is made, is that each note also varies in tone color. That's one reason why vibrato on a violin can sound so magical. Vibrato on a violin doesn't just vary the pitch, but it can also vary the loudness and tone color, as the wobbling pitch hits and misses various peaks.

A link to Anders Buen's website again with these depictions:

December 27, 2014 at 06:41 PM · Darlene, the link I gave was not the STRAD paper, which I have been unable to find.

The points to consider are:

1. The violin body (with soundpost installed) may be considered to be a speaker that amplifies the input from the strings through the bridge. The spectrum shown in the first figure in the link I gave is the sound output from a violin vibrated either with uniform white noise or with sweeping (changing) narrow frequency input.

2. And note you play on your violin will input through the bridge to the violin body not only the fundamental tone but also the natural harmonics (overtones) of that string length plus any resonances activated in the other strings.

3. The violin will respond according to its natural resonance spectrum as show in the figure. Therefore different notes you play will have different sound qualities according to the peaks and valleys of the violin's resonance spectrum that are activated.

4. If you use vibrato you will spread the input frequency and thus also the overtones and with a decent instrument engage additional high-frequency peaks and valleys of the instruments resonance spectrum.


December 27, 2014 at 07:41 PM · It is probably a good thing that I do not own diagnostic equipment or I might spend all my time in the "lab".

All very interesting!

Maybe in this crowd I can talk about my strange tuning method. I tune G,D,and A with a small tuner but not E. When I tune up to E I can hear the violin body respond and this becomes louder and more pleasant as I approach the genuine E. This "background" is not just an odd encore of the E, it is a subtle chorus by itself.

(Perhaps I need a new violin or new ears?)

December 28, 2014 at 01:02 AM · From Rocky:

"One of the reasons I love to play scales is the walk trough the cycle from light into darkness and back.

It is a fascinating experience to witness one's violin sound getting foggy toward G-flat major, and then getting shiny again coming back toward E, A, D and finally G major and their respective minor keys."

That is an absolutely valid approach, which is more mainstream than mine. You work your way through the cycle of 5ths and sharps or the cycle of 4ths and flats. As a student I did one or the other for many years. Then, on my own, as I developed my own scale system, taking from here and there and adding my own touches, one change I made was this: In my 3 and 4 octave daily scale practice, I focus on one key every day and take it through innumerable variations and permutations. BUT - I proceed chromatically and I go to the parallel rather than relative minor. Today, for example, my key was E because yesterday my 'key du jour' was Eb. Tomorrow it will be F. This way the sharps and flats don't bunch up and for me, the change is more refreshing. If this sounds rather odd, recall that this is just how Bach proceeded in his 'Well-Tempered Clavier".

But far and away, the most important thing is to practice those scales in whichever progression you like. That, along with sets of carefully chosen exercises is what serves as the bedrock of my technique, and also helps with my 'winging'.

December 28, 2014 at 01:18 PM · What do you hear when you play B major followed by C-flat major?

Or G-flat major followed by F# major?

December 28, 2014 at 01:37 PM · Two distinctly different scales. Provided the violin is played, not the piano.

December 28, 2014 at 02:31 PM · Yes. But two the versions are virtually indistinguishable to the average person. Will the sharp version sounds brighter than the flat version?

December 28, 2014 at 10:19 PM · Any differnces will come from the way we derive our F"/Gb etc, and how we treat the open strings.

If we are playing them outside 1st position, we will be playing by ear, so it all will depend on context and personal stoerd memory.

I have (non-transposed) music where the harp part is in flats, and the violin part in sharps, just for ease of reading. The violin must fit with the harp, which of course may not be tuned in equal temperament.

December 29, 2014 at 04:43 AM · The difference between g flat and f sharp is purely academic for 99.9% of violinists. As I am not in the 0.1%, so to speak, and never will be, I think my physical effort and mental energy are spent better on other things. If there is a note in a piece that needs to be a little higher or lower, I will try to make it so.

December 29, 2014 at 07:39 AM · Whether one is comparing F# to G-flat or B to C-flat, there are still going to be pitches that will want to fall into a certain resonance, and will sound out of tune if they don't. For example, in the key of F#, the 4th degree is B, which will have a certain open resonance of its own. So should one temper C-flat, the 4th degree of G-flat, lower than B natural? And how will it sound? Methinks if one tries to temper the note on the flat side it will just sound...flat.

As Paul notes, don't overthink it.

There's another reason, though:

Quite often in the repertoire, especially in that of the Romantic, one finds enharmonic modulation. In that case, the pitches from a flat to a sharp key really should match.

Just a minor case in point: on the first page of the Mendlessohn Scherzo (from Midsummer Night's Dream), there's a spot where one pitch functions in two different keys. Sorry I don't have the music in front of me but those familiar with the excerpt will know exactly what I mean: it's an F# that becomes a G-flat (or vice-versa) and sounds like a donkey. But the point is, in that work you shouldn't (in my opinion) attempt to temper the F # higher or the G-flat lower. Otherwise it will just sound like you played one of them out of tune.

There are many situations like this. If you have to play F double-sharp on the E string, should you or should you not just nail the G? What about C double sharp or E double flat? Tempered or just a good D? Of course if that C## is quickly followed by D, then you really have little choice.

December 29, 2014 at 03:32 PM · Erik Satie wrote a short keyboard piece called "Vexations" (it's on IMSLP) in which, in his usual inimitable fashion, he played around with extended enharmonics.

"Vexations" could be played by a string trio (2 Vln, Vla/Vlc) as an interesting (aka "maddening") exercise in sight reading and intonation. Or any one part could be played solo; or possibly two parts could be played as a virtuoso exercise in double stopping.

In a note to "Vexations" Satie recommended: "Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités serieuses." My translation being, "In order to play this piece 840 times in succession, it would be well to prepare oneself in utter silence and serious immobility."

On one occasion when the piece was performed in public as per the composer's spec (about 12 hours of it!) rumor has it that the pianist was attended to afterwards by kind people in white coats. Presumably he then spent some time immobilized in a quiet room.

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