The Notes of the Violin

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What exactly are the notes of the violin? What sounds are produced by this primordial string quartet instrument? These questions may seem blatantly misleading, but they are in reality essential to understanding this instrument. Whether you are a beginner violinist or simply curious to learn more on the topic, this article gives a more in-depth look into the notes of the violin.

The violin's notes
What are the notes of the violin and what purpose to they serve?

Notes of the violin

How to distinguish the four strings and four notes of the violin

The open strings

The violin has four strings, each of which can be identified by their diameter and sometimes by the material they’re made of (however, this is not always the case). The friction of the bow against the strings produces vibrations that travel through the taut string and are then transmitted from the bridge to the body of the instrument. The instrument body becomes the resonance chamber, with the sound escaping from the F-holes. Yet how do we explain the difference in sounds produced by the different strings?

The difference in pitch and tone quality has to do with the length, diameter and tension of each string. When you look at a violin that is in playing position–balanced against the clavicle and the jawline–you will be able to notice that the strings gradually becoming thinner from left to right. The strings are organized in the following order:

On the far left is the open G string, which is the lowest note. Next, we have the open D string, then the open A, and finally the open E (also called the chanterelle because it is the thinnest and most high-pitched of the four strings). These notes are achieved by tightening or loosening the strings. And it is in manipulating the pegs and adjusters at the tailpiece that you can change the notes of the violin’s open strings, otherwise referred to as tuning.


Each note has a specific frequency. And the higher the frequency, the higher the note will be. With this in mind, here below are the notes of the violin’s open strings (from lowest to highest) with their frequencies:

G = 196Hz

D = 294Hz

A = 440Hz

E = 660Hz

Is the tuning of a violin always the same?

As we have discovered, the most classical way to tune the violin is in fifths. This will be the necessary tuning for most repertoire. However, it is also possible to tune a violin differently in order to simplify certain fingerings. The modification of the classical tuning of the open violin strings is called scordatura and is normally included at the beginning of music scores. You can of course experiment with open-string tuning by coming up with your own chord arrangements, especially for contemporary music.

However, avoid over-tuning your violin, as you will risk snapping the strings. Violin strings are designed to remain at a specific tension and may not take well to constant changes. It is also important to realize that the instrument itself is affected by these various adjustments, which can fundamentally impact the overall tone quality.


G, D, A, E…but what about the other notes?

It is from these “open” strings that we can produce all the other notes of the musical scale. Pressing your finger against the string automatically reduces its length. It is by pressing on the strings that we are able to play higher notes. For example: from the G string we can play a D (which is also the next open string) by pressing the fourth finger in the first position (see chart below).



A note that is played on a string other than the open will sound slightly different, which allows the violinist to play with the different fingerings depending on the piece, the desired effects and the scales and fingering combinations the piece entails. The numerous fingering possibilities adds to the richness of violin studies (and of bowed string instruments in general). 


The violin’s notes and intervals: the perfect fifth

Each note has an interval relationship to the notes that are played before and after it. Here, we are referring to the difference between each note’s pitch. In Western music, these intervals are defined according to tones and semitones. Two notes that appear on the scale next to each other (C and D, for example) are separated by two semitones, otherwise referred to as a major second. E and F as well as B and C are only separated by a semitone, or a half step.

The violin is tuned in fifths, which means that each note is separated from the next by three and a half tones (or seven half steps). This is referred to as a perfect fifth (without alteration).


Do re mi fa sol la si do: the origin of French musical notation

Musical notes attributed to Latin chants 

In the eleventh century, a monk named Guido of Arezzo came up with a notation system drawing upon the first syllables of an ancient Latin chant. This was done to give each neume (succession of notes sung on one syllable) its own name. This system is considered hexacordal as it is a set of six joint scale degrees with a semi-tone in the middle.

The beginning of each of the six opening lines of the song in question, which is called the Hymn of Saint John the Baptist, allow us to retrace a whole scale range. Arezzo, using a system called solmization, named each of the notes (in ascending order): ut (C), re (D), mi (E), fa (F), sol (G), la (A).
At the end of the 16th century, it is probably Anselm from Flanders who creates the B from the following verse.

Below are the first six lines of the Hymn of Saint John the Baptist:

Utqueant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
Labii reatum
Sancte Iohannes

Towards the appearance of the tonal system

From the 16th century onwards, Guido d’Arezzo’s theory of hexacords became unsuited to the musical complexity of the Renaissance and the need for a new system of notation is being felt. This system is slowly giving way to the tonal system.

Among others, L. Bourgeois asks in 1550 in his Droict Chemin de Musique to start the scale on ut(C). Then it is with Giovanni Maria Bononcini, in 1640, that we replace the term Ut by that of Do, easier to sing. According to other sources, however, Do (C) comes from the Latin name “Dominus”, the Lord, and appears in much older texts.


The final naming of the notes

This is followed by a a long journey paved with rectifications and novelties for the construction of a octave-based system (so do(C), re(D), mi(E), fa(F), sol(G), la(A), si(B), do(C)): names all more varied than the others follow one another, the syllables change regularly and struggle to be fixed, testifying to the difficulty at the time to fully grasp the concept of tonality.

It was finally at the end of the 18th century, under Bonaparte, when the Conservatoire de musique replaced the religious masterclasses for the teaching of music, that the members of the latter adopted a final transposition method whose notes are called as we know them today.


English notation: another way to name the notes of the violin

It is likely that you have already seen, instead of Do or Ré… that we know well, letters. It is in fact of a simple difference in notation, inspired by Antiquity, and which is used in English-speaking countries. Originally, it was the fifth century thinker Boethius who, in his De institutione musicaname from A to P the sounds on two octaves. In the Middle Ages, it was preferred to keep only an octave from A to G.

Here is the equivalence of the two notations:

A = La
B = Si
C = Do
D = Ré
E = Mi
F = Fa
G = Sol

Little memo tip: F for Fa, it’s easy to remember! From there, it is easy to deduce the remaining notes in order, forward or backward. But it is also very easy to remember that La and A are very similar, the notes then follow each other very simply.

Note that in German-speaking countries, the B is replaced by an H to designate the Si.


What about the notes of the viola and cello?

The viola and cello are always tuned in fifths, but with other notes: C, G, D, and A. The difference between the two instruments lies not only in their range but also in the way they are played. But generally speaking the notes of the cello are located an octave below those of the viola. Here are their frequencies:

Viola – C = 131Hz G = 196Hz D = 294Hz A = 440Hz

Cello – C = 65Hz G = 98Hz D = 147Hz A = 220Hz

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