How do you play fifths with the fourth finger?

March 12, 2021, 12:06 PM · I am a self-taught (or perhaps self-teaching would be more accurate) amateur violinist. I recently started teaching myself to play fifths and I've figured out that the trick is to place my finger in this sweet spot between the strings where I press down both strings at once.

The problem is that doing this with my fourth finger is impossible. My pinky is slimmer than the other fingers and the space between the strings is too wide when you go further away from the scroll.

So how exactly do you play fifths with the fourth finger?

Replies (42)

March 12, 2021, 12:20 PM · Maybe turn your pinkie to be perpendicular to the fingerboard and use the entire first joint section as contact to the strings. If you need support on your pinkie, possibly push on it with the ring finger too.
March 12, 2021, 12:27 PM · What Fabian said. You are unlikely to find a lot of examples of repertoire where there is no better alternative to playing a 5th with the 4th finger, so I wouldn't waste too much time prepping for such a doomsday scenario.
March 12, 2021, 1:02 PM · Just say no.
Edited: March 12, 2021, 1:26 PM · Purchase the patented Pinky-Pad® ($74.00). It comes in 7 sizes, according to your digit width and slips onto your pinky to provide you with 2-4 string 5th coverage. Also useful as a violin capo destra to nail those Bach S&P chords when, you know, there are just not enough fingers to pull it off.
March 12, 2021, 1:56 PM · I am just starting the Rodney Friend book, which calls on this occasionally. Success is impossible, I suspect, but the act of trying leads to better posture, strength, etc. So I treat it like the hypothetical toe-touches that loosen me even when I fail.
March 12, 2021, 2:04 PM · I agree with "don't, unless you can't possibly avoid it." I'm working on the first Bach fugue right now (which has a lot of fifths), and I've noticed that even playing fifths perfectly with the third finger, especially on the middle 2 strings, can be dicey. I can imagine four note chords where you really need, say, 1-2-3-3, but suspect you can usually get by without using a 4 (especially on the middle 2 strings where it often seems harderst).

Galamian's very clever fingerings for this fugue often move up into second position where there is no obvious call in terms of reaching notes, for what appears to be the sole purpose of playing those fifths with the second instead of third finger. To my surprise, it works much better. I'd never noticed before, but it appears that the second finger on my left hand is actually a bit wider than the first, as well as reaching the fingerboard at a somewhat different angle.

You may also find string tension is a variable here. My teacher suggested I change from steel to synthetics when I reported that one of my violins was hard to play third finger fifths on, and when I switched (from Helicore to Kaplan Amo) it did indeed help - though his other suggestion of using the Galamian fingerings seemed to help even more.

March 12, 2021, 2:38 PM · You don't.

The only times I've ever encountered fifths that made sense to play with fourth finger, they were natural harmonics.

March 12, 2021, 4:52 PM · Greetings,
sometimes people with this problem put the little finger more over the lower string and pull it in toward the upper string while depressing both. You just have to experiment.
If in doubt, forget Elise’s useless PinkyPad and buy the Buri thumb extension device. A foolproof retractable rod based on a certain character from the X-men. (Thereby simultaneously disproving the fallacy that classically trained violinists are not also ensconced in popular culture.)
Always glad to help,
March 12, 2021, 6:55 PM · See a plastic surgeon for collagen implants?

I agree with Bruce -- find another way.
March 12, 2021, 7:10 PM · I think it's probably easier than playing fourths with the fifth finger.
March 12, 2021, 7:15 PM · Consume a fifth, and you'll never know that.
March 12, 2021, 8:12 PM · hence the well known Scottish folk song ‘Crossing the Firth of Fourth while playing a fifth makes me sixth.’
March 12, 2021, 9:33 PM · There is a local teacher who marks "5" in his students parts for notes that are played with a fourth finger extension, such as C on the E string when reached from first position.

To the notion of playing fifths with my fourth finger, I raise my third in salute. But only for a second.

March 12, 2021, 9:49 PM · Paul, just be sure not to raise your second by mistake.
March 13, 2021, 2:28 AM · I watched a couple of Rodney Friend videos on fifths. He's intense. But I think he can be summarised by this: "stick your elbow out to the left, otherwise the higher string will be flat." Or have I misconstrued?
March 13, 2021, 3:24 AM · greetings,
not exactly. what he is actually saying is the left elbow should remain in the neutral hanging position as much as possible. Traditional teaching always talks about swinging the elbow from left to right depending on which string you are on but Mr friend argues that this is a waste of effort and that it destabilises the shape of the hand . his point is that the best players in history have basically moved the fore arm from the elbow backwards and forwards in the same way that one throws a ball without this excessive ,as he believes, left to right movement. Of course what he says is fundamentally sound but I also think it is somewhat connected to body type. it is perhaps, much easier for someone with the same kind of slightly stocky designed for violin playing body that he possesses than four other types of physiques. Nevertheless, his ideas are extremely valuable and if you approachAll aspects of left-hand technique from the perspective of stabilising the fingers with fifths both internation and technical security improve dramatically. I think he has made a very important contribution towards violin pedagogy.
Edited: March 13, 2021, 3:28 AM · in fact, I would also like to suggest the original poster uses one of the ideas from his superb book. That is practice for the finger double harmonics in order to learn the position of the fingertip efficiently and without stress. This correct position will dictate the position of the hand for the most efficient playing. Following this kind of work, try depressing the string with the with the fourth finger well retaining the same feeling of a double stopped fifth. I also think one of the problems is simply that the posters little finger is not quite strong enough. One way to develop left little finger strength very rapidly is to play basic skills using the fingering 343434343434343434 et cetera up and down. Following the ideas advocated by Rodney friend one can also do this remarkably good exercise in fifths. That too may be very helpful to the original poster.
March 13, 2021, 3:58 AM · Here is the clip that exemplifies it perfectly. Also some of the best violin playing I have ever seen.
March 13, 2021, 2:54 PM · "If in doubt, forget Elise’s useless PinkyPad"
Elise's Pinky-Pad is actually pretty useful, Buri.

It only has the slight disadvantage of being non-existent.

March 14, 2021, 12:33 AM · Use a flatter finger. Might be easier if you finger a fifth across the same two strings with the first finger (b natural and e natural on the A and D strings while playing a d natural and e natural for instance). Left elbow shifts very slightly to the right (a little more if using D and G strings).

Edited: March 14, 2021, 10:45 AM · Buri wrote, "Traditional teaching always talks about swinging the elbow from left to right depending on which string you are on but Mr Friend argues that this is a waste of effort and that it destabilises the shape of the hand."

Nathan Cole also claims that he is not an elbow-swinger, that he just "reaches the notes with his hand and fingers" or words to that effect. I also infer that one of Nathan's core teaching principles is a very stable hand frame, almost above everything in terms of left hand technique.

The fact is that some violin music is actually fast, and one's elbow is a large object to be moved around. Really, you can't move it back and forth faster than about quarter notes at 100 -- at least I cannot do that without totally losing my hand frame. And then what?

But there is a time for everything, and if swinging your elbow out makes sense (e.g., for an extended passage high on the G string) then you do it. If it's slowing you down and keeping you from getting your (passage) work done, then you don't.

March 15, 2021, 2:50 AM · Greetings,
Menuhin was quite happy to move his elbow around. I think the most interesting thing about this is the question has been raised that although a lot of traditional teaching talks about moving the elbow to get the fingers in the most appropriate position, Mr friend might perhaps be onto something interesting by the implicit suggestion that the pads dictate the position of the elbow and if necessary the elbow can move in relation to the positioning of the pads. In other words, we are talking about the same phenomenon but the elbow is led by the fingertips rather than the fingertips being led by the elbow. That is quite an interesting shift in perspective
March 15, 2021, 8:20 PM ·
The 3rd finger could pull the lower string closer so that the distance between the strings is narrowed.
March 16, 2021, 3:41 PM · @Kennedy Becky - the short answer to your original question is that you don't. You figure out a workaround of some sort so that you are not trying to do something that is barely possible. Violinists are good at this sort of thing.
March 16, 2021, 4:35 PM · As a violist with a short pinky I could use 3rd finger on the lower string next to the pinky on the other.
I have used a similar but inverted trick for trills in 6ths..
Edited: March 16, 2021, 8:53 PM · I did not expect to be able to give any serious advice to the OP, but I've just been doing this lockdown thing of trying the 2nd Partita in G-minor on my viola. The first chord of the Sarabande (and several chords in the Chaconne) is only fingerable if you use the pinky for the bottom two notes, and even though I was playing viola, where the strings are farther apart, I was not finding this a difficulty; so I thought I'd better have a look at exactly what I was doing:
I'm not placing my fingertip between the strings. My finger is at a 10-20 degree angle to the fingerboard (in the vertical plane) and also at a bit of an angle with respect to the strings, with the G-string almost under the moon-shaped boundary of my nail (the C-string is, of course, nearer the fingertip).
Maybe if the OP tries to play this particular chord (DADF, the F being the highest note), she/he will find she/he has been forced to do it quite naturally - All that's needed then is to take away the 1st and 2nd finger. I've not explained this very well, I know
Edited: March 16, 2021, 10:36 PM · That's an interesting example. Is it easier to play on the viola because of the angle of approach? Sounds like it might be. I think I would have some issues getting that fifth in tune (and it sounds a bit muddy to my ears - not as bright as the D and F natural part of the chord so I would stick with open strings there).
Edited: March 16, 2021, 10:39 PM · John, I can't speak to the Chaconne, but isn't attempting the opening of the Sarabande with the 5th fingered instead of just on open strings a bit of gilding the lily? I've never seen anyone do otherwise than the open strings.
March 16, 2021, 11:07 PM · @-John R., I will agree with Christian about that chord. I might get shouted down for this, but we don't need to play the notes of a chord in the same bottom to top order that they are written. That chord can be played as an open string D-A double stop followed by D-F, or, perhaps better, D-D followed by A-F (!). In the Chaconne, first chord in ms. 2, it could be played as D-Bb, followed by G-E. In general, double stop 5ths are an intonation gamble on any finger. Substitute 3 for 4 whenever possible, especially in high positions where the 3rd finger reaches farther than the 4th. Vibrato helps. If you are lucky enough to get things like octaves, 4ths, and 5ths double-stops perfectly in tune in a performance you can impress violinists in the audience by turning off the vibrato.
March 16, 2021, 11:13 PM · Rodney Friend’s new book is a goldmine in terms of this aspect of technique.
March 17, 2021, 6:04 AM · How do you four geniuses manage to play a four note chord using only three strings? I think I HAVE to play the bottom note of that chord fingered on the bottom string (I was talking violin when I gave DADF as the chord for the OP to try, and I'm talking violin now - I was surprised to find that the Chaconne was not appreciably more unplayable at normal speed for me on the viola than currently on the violin). I suppose one could employ a technique similar to what pianists use when they have to play more notes in a chord than they have fingers and stretch for, but I've never observed that in bowed instrument performers, certainly have never been taught it by any teacher I have had - Mind you, there is chording later in the Sarabande that needs the top note interrupted. Maybe it was unnecessary for arrangers of the Arpeggione Sonata to reduce Schubert's five and six note chords to four or three note chords?)!
Of course I have to forget about vibrato on the bottom notes, but intonation is still achievable - not necessarily that I achieve it, my ear isn't as good as it was - because my finger is curved, the pinkie particularly so.
March 17, 2021, 8:33 AM · John, how about 3rd finger on the D-A fifth, and 2nd and 1st fingers for the D-F# third?

I had to seek such stretches to (try to) play your Dowland transcription!

Edited: March 17, 2021, 10:26 AM · That D minor sarabande is interesting.

Until I had practised enough to try it with my pinky, I'd cheat as follows: -
Assuming we're all happy with playing 4 notes as 2+2, I'd play the D and A strings open (with my index finger ready on the E string). Then I'd shift the bow to the A and E strings, at the same time bringing my third finger down on the A string. This has the advantage of leaving the open D string still sounding.

Sorry if someone already said that - I'm too lazy to read a whole thread. Yeah, Joel said it. Sorry, Joel.

I think that since it's the first chord of the piece, you should also weigh up your chances of fluffing it, leaving a bad first impression, if you use your pinky. Also I'd be inclined to say that the Gm that follows is more important, for its dramatic effect, so I'd go for a clean Dm and an electrifying Gm. (just so that I don't appear to have copied anyone). Mind, it's only a sarabande. Some kind of serene dance, isn't it? I'd have to look that one up.

Edited: March 17, 2021, 11:30 AM · It's not a cheat. It's just how you play it.

Hopefully this is clear, when Mutter does it:

But I just looked at Hahn, Chen, Perlman, Hadelich and Fischer, and they all do it the same way.

Break it 2(open d-string open a-string) + 2(3rd finger a-string first finger e-string)

I suppose someone with a baseball glove for a hand and something to prove might finger the whole thing, but I'm not sure what would be gained. Perhaps Roman Kim plays it that way.

March 17, 2021, 11:41 AM · Alright, small counterpoint here. The Szymanowski Nocturne and Tarantella starts with some parallel 5ths (Really beautiful effect), and Stephen Waarts DOES play one of them up high on the G and D strings with his 4th finger.

But Stephen Waarts appears to have inherited his fingers from the invading spaceships in The War of the Worlds, or some kind of Disneyland Mascot. For the rest of us mortals, you might be able to get away with this, but it might be something you can shift your way into and back out of.

Perhaps someone here that has played a lot of Ysaye or Szymanowski or some of that turn of the century modernism can report from the trenches on how to cope with the (the musicological horror) of all kinds of parallel 5ths and their fingering implications.

March 17, 2021, 9:41 PM · Adrian, it's not an F#, it's an F-natural, a larger stretch than the root position triads or same note double stops you get in Bach Partitas (assuming you use the 4th finger) and which I put in the Dowland (It wasn't getting the notes that was defeating me, it was playing the piece so that someone would really want to listen to it).
I did admit that skilled pianists do this sort of thing all the time (I didn't understand what Joel was getting at first time I read it. I must say I would prefer to hear his first alternative). In the third movement of the Märchenbilder, when the heavy-footed Rumpelstiltskin's dancing outside his house with light-footed fairies, pianists tend to play those chords taddimm, sounding like a virtuoso pianist, rather than the tiddumm that would better depict a flat-footed dwarf.
Back to the pinkie fifth: I have what could be the worst ever wrist for playing upper-strings, in that it doesn't twist round as far as most, so my knuckles are at quite an angle to the fingerboard. The combination of that plus the geometry of my pinkie tends to result in fifths played with my pinkie sounding in tune to me. Anyone could play them like I do - It's the reverse that's impossible.
March 18, 2021, 3:43 AM · How about a viola da spalla?
Then we could spread our fingers like a guitarist..
March 18, 2021, 4:44 AM · Try to do some finger-warping through devices like the one that Schumann used.
March 18, 2021, 5:27 AM · "It's not a cheat. It's just how you play it."
My final school report said I should be less diffident.
Edited: March 18, 2021, 7:30 AM · Mike, errm...
March 18, 2021, 9:22 AM · "Gordon is a nice young man who will go places"
-Gordon's final school report
March 18, 2021, 10:10 AM · "...and end up where he started off"

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