One of the very convenient things you can do to learn playing violin, or any instrument for that matter, is to use practice drills. There are just so many things to consider while learning to play a musical piece – the key, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, the musicality, the expression and so on. Although you can learn everything there is about playing violin just by practicing several pieces, musical pieces by themselves don’t make very good learning exercises. There is just too much to think about when learning them, and it can be distracting if you are not clear about your objectives.
That’s where practicing scales come in. In a technical sense you can consider them musical pieces too. I personally love the C♯ harmonic minor scale. Scales are much simpler than your average musical piece and yet offer an abundance of learning opportunity. You can focus on a different characteristic of the sounds as you play scales – different techniques of your instrument, different aspects of your hearing. And you can do each of it in an isolated environment.
What to Practice?
Take the D major scale for example. In a few minutes, you can learn what notes construe the scale. After that, you can use the scale to practice intonation. You can use the scale to learn perfect fingering. You can use the scale to practice rhythm. You can use it to practice slurs, staccatos and legatos. Almost, if not everything you can learn about your instrument. If you’re so inclined, you can simply purchase one of the numerous scale practice books and work at it the first few minutes of your daily practice. But, I’d rather invent my own scale practice routines. It’s fun. Some examples follow –
Practice legato. Legato means to play the notes without any noticeable break between them. It’s not like a slur – you have to change bow direction between notes. But you have to make it smooth and unnoticeable as reasonably possible.
Practice slurs. Play the scale with different slurs. Two note slurs, then three note slurs, then four note slurs. Even a full octave slur.
Practice rhythm patterns. You can either make up your own rhythm patterns or you can pick a small number of notes from one of your favorite musical pieces and play your scale notes in that pattern.
Practice instrument techniques. There are techniques unique to your instrument and you can use scales to practice them. Playing the scale with pizzicato for example.
What about Arpeggios?
Arpeggios aren’t very far from scales and they might even seem redundant. But there still is merit in practicing them because these little broken chords are common patterns found in a lot of classical (as well as modern) music pieces. Practicing patterns like these build more foundations into your muscle memory. The more foundational techniques you commit to your muscle memory, the more your mental bandwidth is freed up for expressions and other techniques. You might not specifically analyze your sheet music and single out these subsets from them, but your mind knows. As you practice all these patterns in different techniques (staccato, pizzicato, legato etc.), your mind will start working with sets of notes, rather than individual notes. Helping you play more easily and comfortably as you progress.
There are also other neat gains from practicing sheet music. It reinforces learning key signatures and automate you playing the right sharps and flats in your music pieces. As a beginner, you can even use it to reinforce your note recognition and sight reading skills. It is noted that several acclaimed musicians still practice scales (even after becoming very skilled playing their instrument) to hone and maintain their talent.
Once you have learnt to play open strings with a clear and smooth intonation, you are ready to start playing notes with your finger.
Most beginner level pieces play in what is called the ‘first position’.
What are positions?
You play notes on a violin string by cutting off the vibrating length of the string using your fingers. Practically, you can play about 13 notes on each violin string – technically it’s infinite but realistically you can play about 13 notes. Any violin fingering chart will show you the notes you can play on each string. But you only have 5 fingers. And the thumb is on the other side, supporting, so only 4 fingers.
Although you can just use one single finger to play each and every note on the violin, for convenience and speed, we use what are called positions. A ‘position’ is simply the placement of your left hand holding the violin neck. When you hold the violin neck such that your index finger and thumb are at almost the end of the finger board, you are holding the ‘first position’. If you slide up your left hand till your index finger and thumb are at around the middle of the finger board (Index finger at 5th note on the string, to be exact), you reach the ‘third position’. In case you’re wondering, 2nd position is when you slide up to the 3rd note. Let’s not get deeper into positions and shifting, for the purpose of this article is to teach the first position.
The First Position
First position is simply holding your left hand at the very end of the finger board. You can play the first 8 notes of each string in this position – including the one open string note where you don’t use any fingers. For example, in first position, on the A string, ‘A’ is the open string note. The index finger plays the first two notes on that string – namely A# and B. The middle finger plays the next two notes – C and C#. The ring finger plays the next two notes – D and D#. Finally the little finger plays one note – E. Note that these are only suggestions – for example you can choose to play D# using your little finger if you prefer.
The first position is the only one you might need as a beginner and you can play quite a large number of pieces in this position.
Practicing First Position Playing
If you’re just getting started with playing the violin, a good starting point to learn first finger position is to practice playing the D major scale. You play on the middle two strings – the D string and the A string, to begin with, and then you can expand to play all four strings.
D Major Scale
Audio (90 BPM)
First Position, Using only D string and A string
Refer the fingering chart below, make note of the finger positions roughly and play in first position. Listen to the audio each time after playing to reinforce precise fingering and ear training. Another (optional) thing you can do is keep your electronic tuner in front of you and make sure you hit the correct notes.
Finger Positions for playing D-Major Scale
Start by playing D on the open string, use your first finger to play E, second finger to play F♯, and place the third finger close next to F# to play G.
Do not remove your fingers after you play a note. When you play F# after E, keep the fore finger on E and ‘add’ your middle finger in position to play F#. Again, without removing those two fingers, ‘add’ your third (ring-finger) finger in position to play G.
After playing the 4 notes on D string, lift up all fingers and then continue the same way on A string to finish the first part.
At this point, three fingers will be in position on the A string. Remove one by on in the reverse order to play the second line. That is, lift up only the ring finger to play C♯, then lift up the middle finger to play B, then lift up the fore finger to play A on open string.
Place all 3 fingers back on the D string, in correct positions to play G. And lift up fingers one by one till you finish playing D on open string.
A note can be simply described as one single unit of sound that is played on your violin. For example drawing your bow across an open string means you have played one note. A music piece is nothing but a stream of various notes played for different lengths of times, in different levels of loudness, and with different bits of pauses in between them.
There are numerous ways in which people across the world represent music on paper. For example in carnatic music, notes are written as syllables ‘Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni’. In western music, notes are written as letters ‘C D E F G A B’. And then there are guitar tabs, sheet music and so on. No one way is better than the other, but some have become way more popular than the others and evolved to be universally recognized. One such way is the sheet music. Which is more commonly used than other representations (including on this website). For the purpose of explaining music notes in this article, we will discuss the notation where notes are represented using the English alphabets ‘C D E F G A B’.
What is a Note?
Basically, sound is vibration of air that hits your ear drum. For example when a drum is hit, it makes the surrounding air vibrate and the vibration gets carried around in all directions as a sphere around the drum. Like when you throw a stone in a pond, it creates waves that travel around it in circles. The number of waves generated per second is called the frequency of the wave. When the vibrations hitting our ears are between 20 Hz and 20 KHz, our brain interprets it as sound. Means the number of vibrations are between 20 times per second (20 Hz) to 20,000 times per second (20 KHz).
Any sound we hear, is a wave with a frequency. Musical notes are specific frequencies, for which we have assigned a name. For example, 262 Hz frequency is called C (the middle C key on a piano), 440 Hz frequency is called A (the open A string on a violin). This ‘A’ is called ‘A4‘ (because it’s the 5th A key on a piano and the numbering starts at zero). No matter in which instrument you’re playing or even if you’re singing, the frequency is always 440 Hz for the A4 note.
Musical notes are specific frequencies, which are of particular interest to us and for which we have assigned a name.
There are 12 notes in an octave represented using 7 letters, and the symbols for sharp ( ♯ ) and flat (♭). The following are the notes names in western notation –
C ♯ (or) D♭
D ♯ (or) E♭
F ♯ (or) G♭
G ♯ (or) A♭
A ♯ (or) B♭
12 notes of the western notation
What Comes After B?
After B, it is again C, C#, D and so on. The 12 notes keep repeating. Each set of 12 notes is called an octave. The octave repeats itself again and again as the frequency keeps increasing. When a situation requires that we differentiate between the same note from different octaves, the notes are be written as C1, C2 (or C1, C2) etc.
Why Do They Repeat?
Because every time the frequency increases to exactly it’s double, the sound has a striking similarity. C1 and C2 both sounds have harmony. To understand, you can simply play C1 and C2, and then listen to C1 and A1 (or any other note except C). Repeating the note names for every octave is natural because our brain interprets (or reacts to) 880 Hz and 440 Hz mostly the same way. As frequency increases from C, and goes step by step through D, E and so on, the ‘feel’ of the sound keeps changing and then when the frequency reaches double of the starting point, the ‘feel’ of the original sound returns. That’s why we call this doubled frequency too as C. The same with A1 and A2, B1 and B2, B2 and B3, B3 and B4 and so on.
Why 12 notes? Why only 7 letters?
This is just convention. Different systems across the world and over history divided sounds into different number of notes. Indian music for example, has 22 notes (called ‘shruthi’). In western notation, it was decided to divide into 12 notes. The divisions itself were not arbitrary, it is just that different parts of the world came up with whatever systems they felt were apt, and the western notation became one of the most popular ones. There are different mathematical and psychological explanations given as to why certain frequencies were selected to be prominent and marked as specific notes, but the explanations vary and hence the various ways of splitting up an octave. Factors like convenience of communicating music, tuning instruments, and so on have played roles in the music notations that exist currently. But mostly, it is just convention and what became popular.
Using 7 letters to represent 12 notes, for example, is because of convention of using ‘diatonic’ scales – where a piece of music strictly uses only 7 notes from each octave. For example, a musical piece in the key of C Major, will use only C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Any occurrence of other notes (like C♯), would be considered an ‘accidental’. Similarly, a song in G Minor, will use G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭ and F – not the other notes. In such a piece, we will mark that all Bs and Es in the piece are flat (♭) in the beginning of the piece and then write the song itself with just the notes. Not mentioning with each B and E that they are flat. Since for a considerable time of history music was written using such diatonic scales, with only 7 notes, the system evolved to using only 7 letters to represent music.
Why does it start with C rather than A?
It is again historical and not technical. The A minor scale was considered significantly more common than other scales. So the first note of that scale was named ‘A’. So the most common scale at that time was A, B, C, D, E, F, G. 7 first letters from the alphabet as we would expect. But as time passed by, the C major scale became more widespread and central to western music. And it appears to us as if the notes begin with C. The truth is it doesn’t ‘start’ or ‘end’ – the notes are like a circle of 12 notes. When we talk about C Major, we start with C. When we are talking about A minor, we start with A. When we are talking about music in B♭minor, we start with B♭.
It’s just that most of the time beginners of music are introduced to pieces in C Major scale, even before they know what a scale is. So naturally we feel like the notes start with C.
What are Sharps ( ♯ ) and Flats (♭)?
Although, we have divided an octave into 12 notes, as you saw, we use only 7 letters to represent them. Even in the sheet music notation, we use dots on the lines, only to represent 7 notes for each octave. We need a way to represent the other 5 notes. We use symbols sharp ‘♯’ and flat ‘♭’ to add notes using the same set of 7 alphabets. so between C and D, we insert a C♯. Between D and E, we insert a D♯ and so on, in five places. So ultimately the 12 notes (as given in the table above) is formed. For the notes that have two names (eg., D ♯ (or) E♭), what we call that note depends again, on the scale that we are playing. When we play B-flat major scale, we call that note E♭. When we play B major scale, we call that same note D♯.
Sharp means higher frequency. So the following note with higher frequency than C is called C#. C-Sharp because it sounds ‘sharper’. Similarly preceding note with lower frequency, which sounds ‘flatter’, is called a flat of that note. Like E♭which sounds a bit ‘flatter’ than an E.
Why Can’t We Simply Use 12 Alphabets?
This is again, just because of tradition. There are various ‘types’ of scales, but the one that gained the most popularity is the ‘diatonic’ scale. Not going deeper into scales, a diatonic scale is where we use 7 notes to represent a scale. If we used the 12 alphabets ranging from A to L to represent music, diatonic scales would be confusing to represent. Each scale would have a different set of 7 letters between A and L. C Major would be C, E, G, H, J, L, B! Instead, if we use only 7 alphabets and symbols for sharps and flat, C Major is neatly – C, D, E, F, G, A, B. It’s easier to remember which notes are flat and sharp on each scale rather than different sets of alphabets for different scales. So that’s what we do. Because at some point in history (and even in present) we made a lot of music with diatonic scales, we adopted this particular system rather than a 12 alphabet system.
This is how many things in music, generally are. Music by itself doesn’t need to follow rules or have forms. But we do these things (like using scales, writing notes in specific ways etc.), just for convention and convenience. In future, we might expand our knowledge and create a new way of representing music. But right now, the western notation is one of the most popular ways and just easy enough to get started.
One of the basic building blocks of music is timing. It is important that we understand what these timing related elements of music are in order to better appreciate and understand what we are hearing as well as to become a better player of any instrument.
Clapping your hands (or any sort of tapping or clicking) is a commonly used tool to understand timing in a musical piece. For an example let’s consider the song ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – without singing or playing it, try to just clap this song. Most people will be able to naturally clap this song and most people will be able to recognize this song through claps. This is how I would clap the first line –
Clapping is useful because our minds will naturally realize where notes are switching and clap at those points. Confirming that we already have an understanding of music in our minds and we just need to expand it. We can see that we clapped 7 times for the first line of this song. If you look at the sheet music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you will notice that there are 7 notes exactly for the first line – the same number of claps.
You can also sing the song using only the syllable ‘ta’ to get the same understanding. So instead of clapping you will sing something like ‘ta ta | ta ta | ta ta | taaa’.
Tempo is easily described. It is how fast a piece is supposed to be played, or how fast you are playing it. In sheet music, tempo is represented as BPM (or beats per minute) or using a descriptive word (like allegro, moderato, largo etc.). Notice that from the previous section – clapping, you can clap as fast as you like or as slow as you like, and it will still be recognizable as the same song. You will play on a slow tempo when you are learning a musical piece and then once you’ve learned it, you will play at the tempo intended for the song. Remember, in music, faster is not better. Each piece has a tempo at which it will sound it’s best or a tempo at which the composer intended it to be played.
Rhythm of a musical piece is how long each note (or rest) is played, in comparison to one another. Rhythm is one of the elements that differentiate between two musical pieces. Going back to the clapping example, you can clap Twinkle Twinkle Little Star faster or slower, but the pattern of clapping does not change. This pattern is what is called rhythm. If we wish to describe it in words, it might be like so – 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 2 short notes, 1 long note. This is a pattern. The second line also follows this same pattern – or in other words, the second line has the same rhythm. So does the third line and the rest of the song.
But most songs we hear don’t have this kind of repeating rhythm. Yes, since Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is a song for kids, having a short rhythm that repeats for the entire song makes it easier to learn and repeat. Only a small number of musical pieces have this kind of simple composition. Even if not for the whole song, having repeating rhythms is part of music composing. The repetition just might not be as simple. For example, Row Row Row Your Boat is another simple song. The first line has the rhythm ‘taaa taaa taa ta taa’ but the second line doesn’t repeat this, second line goes – ‘taa ta taa ta taaa’. The third line goes different again. But notice the fourth line – it repeats the rhythm of the second line. If you understand how the second line and fourth line are similar from the other two lines, you have understood rhythm.
Constructing blocks of rhythm and repeating them creatively, is one of the factors that differentiate music from noise. Song writers almost write lyrics that have syllables matching the rhythm of the music, or vice-versa, use the syllable pattern in the lyrics as rhythm for the melody.
If you are just starting out playing the violin and you have decided to teach it to yourself rather than have a teacher, you have two options – one is to use a fingering sticker, another is to use a digital tuner (either an electronic device, or a mobile app).
My opinion is that, the digital tuner is a way better option than fingering stickers. Because it does what you are supposed to learn. You need to hear the sound coming from your violin and judge whether it’s the right note. But as a beginner there’s little chance that you can recognize notes by yourself. If you had a teacher, they would tell you whether you need to move your finger up or down based on hearing your sound. The digital tuner will do exactly this. Make sure you get a chromatic tuner which can recognize all notes. Turn on the chromatic tuner and put it on your music stand where you can see it prominently, without straining or having to turn your head. Now as you play, the tuner will try to identify the closest note and you can find out from it whether you are playing accurately.
Play on Open Strings
First, get the basic bow stroke right. Hold the violin in position, and let the violin neck rest between your thumb and forefinger (but not touching the web between those fingers). Place the bottom of the bow on the A string. By bottom I mean about an inch above where your index finger is touching the bow on the wood. Do not place anything other than the bow hairs on the strings. Not the frog, not the hard tip of the bow. The ‘range-of-play’ of the violin bow, is approximately an inch from where the bow hair starts on the tip, and an inch before where your index finger is (while holding the bow in playing position).
So, place the bottom of the bow on the A string and draw it downwards while making a smooth sound, till you reach the top (an inch from where the bow hair starts at the tip). This is called a ‘down-bow’ or bowing downwards. Without removing the bow from the string, draw it upwards again, making a smooth sound, till you reach back to the starting position. This is called an ‘up-bow’ or bowing upwards. The sound has to be smooth and clear.
Things to Take Note of
There are a lot of nuances and details to bowing but as a beginner, these are the first things you should watch out for –
1. Wrist Action
Note as you draw the bow, your bow holding hand rotates at the wrist. When your wrist moves away from the violin, it has to turn anti-clockwise. And when it moves closer to the violin, it has to turn clockwise. This rotation has to happen to keep the bow straight. You don’t have to consciously do this but it’s important that you keep your wrist relaxed so that this happens. If you keep your wrist tight, you will prevent this rotation and in-turn, the bow-to-string angle will change as you draw, creating bad sound. Keep the wrist loose and relaxed.
2. Maintain Draw Straightness
As you draw the bow across, it should be a clean straight draw, fairly parallel to the bridge. You have to minimize movement ‘along’ the string. Imagine a thick dot is there on the string, roughly in the middle between the bridge and where the fingerboard starts. Your bow should travel all along without slipping above or below this dot.
3. Bow Pressure
If you put too much pressure on the bow you will make a scratchy sound instead of the smooth violin tone you expect. Too little pressure will make incomplete, sliding sounds. The weight of the bow, and any small weight added by your forefinger is enough to make a nice sound. Don’t add more pressure consciously.
4. Bow Speed
Draw with a moderate, uniform speed. And maintain the same speed from start to end of your bow stroke. To begin with, make each stroke about 1 second long. Try to be accurate and uniform. Every up-bow and down-bow should take the same length of time. Once you are comfortable with this, you can speed up slightly or slow down slightly. Both slow bowing and fast bowing are important.
There are way too many bowing techniques and it would be simply overwhelming to read about as a beginner. But the above points are the most important for beginners.
Patiently practice till you get a smooth clear sound while bowing. Be mindful of how you are holding the violin, and your posture.
Repeat the bowing on all strings. Play a few strokes on the G string, some on the D string, then A and then E.
Practice switching strings. That is, do a down-bow on the E string, then without removing the bow off the string, switch to the A string, and proceed with the up-bow. Then again, without removing the bow off the string, switch to the D string and proceed with the down-bow. Then finally finish with and up-bow on the G string. Then come back to start from there – down-bow on the G string, up-bow on the D string, down-bow on the A string and finally up-bow on the E string. Repeat till you are comfortable doing this. Note that your right-arm has to move up as you go from E to G, and come down as you go from G to E.