How To Play Double Stops on the Violin: A Step-By-Step Guide
Double stops on the violin are a pivotal skill that can take you from playing simple melodies to more complex, layered pieces. However, getting both strings to resonate clearly and in tune can be challenging — especially for those new to the violin or returning after a hiatus.
Below, we’ll discuss how to play different types of double stops and offer a few tips for improvement.
What are double stops?
Double stops are a fundamental technique in which two notes are played simultaneously on a stringed instrument. In the context of the violin, this entails using the bow to sound two adjacent strings at the same time.
The primary effect is a richer, more complex sound that adds depth to your overall musical presentation. This technique isn’t exclusive to the violin; it's also commonly employed in other stringed instruments such as the viola, cello, and double bass.
What is the difference between chords and double stops on a violin?
If you've dabbled in sheet music or etudes geared toward improving violin technique, you might wonder, "Aren't chords and double stops the same thing?"
Though they share similarities, the two are distinct.
Chords generally consist of three or more notes played together, often involving the striking of three or even all four strings at once. The violin's bowed design and the curve of the bridge can make it challenging to sustain all these notes evenly.
Double stops are a technique that involves playing two notes concurrently, usually on two adjacent strings. The general finger placement is less complicated and you gain better bow control, making double stops easier to sustain and generally more forgiving than chords.
But let's not stop at double stops — there are also triple and quadruple stops to consider!
In triple stops, you'll play three notes simultaneously, often requiring a quick roll of the bow to articulate each string clearly. Quadruple stops, though rarely sustained, involve all four strings and are usually executed as a fast action that skims across the strings. While these techniques amplify the richness of your music, they are a bit more complicated and can be harder to learn.
How to play different types of double stops
There's more than one way to play a double stop, and each method brings its own unique flavor to your music. Below, we’ll break down each method.
Starting with the basics, open-string double stops are an excellent introduction to this technique.
Here, you play two adjacent open strings simultaneously. On the violin, there are only three such combinations: G and D, D and A, and A and E. Open-string double stops are ideal for beginners, but the trick lies in bowing both strings evenly to ensure a balanced sound.
One open string
This type of double stop involves playing one open string alongside a fingered note on an adjacent string. Because one note is open, you don't have to worry about its pitch; you can focus on getting the fingered note right.
Fingered notes on two strings
One of the more common types of double stops involves playing fingered notes on two adjacent strings. This technique requires precise finger placement, making intonation quite a delicate balance.
When playing seconds on the violin, you'll encounter a sound often described as “dissonant” or “tense.” This type of double stop adds emotional complexity to your music, and your goal is to produce a complex yet balanced dissonance.
In this type of double stop, your fingers will be more spread out than in seconds, usually with one finger on a lower string and another on the adjacent higher string. Here, it’s essential to listen carefully to ensure that the interval rings true and harmonious — not jarring.
In a fourth, the resulting sound walks a fine line between dissonance and consonance, offering a sense of stability combined with a touch of openness. Tuning is particularly important here, as the sound of fourths can easily seem off if not played accurately.
Fifths offer a resonant and strong sound, often referred to as "perfect" in musical terms. This type of double stop can give your playing a sense of authority and completeness.
For fifths, you'll often place a single finger across two adjacent strings, effectively barring them. A firm but controlled bow stroke will bring out the richness and fullness of this interval. Fine-tuning is crucial when playing fifths, as any tuning discrepancies will be very noticeable.
The sixth interval is often considered romantic and expressive, creating a lush, full-bodied sound. When playing sixths, the spacing between your fingers will be quite distinct, each one resting on different adjacent strings.
Sevenths bring a sense of tension and anticipation to your music, making them ideal for moments that call for drama. To achieve this, your fingers will be spaced apart on adjacent strings, much like with sixths, but the spacing may differ depending on whether it's a major or minor seventh.
Playing octaves delivers a rich, powerful sound, almost mimicking two violins playing in unison. The complexity here lies in the need for precise intonation, as both notes are the same but an octave apart. Finger placement requires one finger on a lower string and another on an upper adjacent string, but spaced far enough apart to create an octave. Octaves are often played with the first and fourth fingers.
Tenths are advanced double stops that create a sweeping, majestic sound. They require considerable finger stretch across the strings, one on a lower string and another on a higher, adjacent string but significantly apart to create a tenth interval.
Advanced double stops
Feeling confident with basic intervals? Fantastic! Now, let’s elevate your playing with advanced double-stop techniques to make your violin sing.
Harmonic double stops
Harmonic double stops produce a sound that's almost otherworldly — light, ethereal, and bell-like. The challenge here is that you essentially play two harmonics simultaneously on different strings.
To make both notes ring true, you'll need precise finger placement and controlled bowing. You're not fully pressing down on the string; rather, you’re lightly touching specific nodal points. Harmonic double stops are about getting the pitch right and maintaining the fragile harmonic sound, which can easily be lost without proper technique.
Glissando double stops
A glissando double stop brings a theatrical flair to your playing. In this technique, you're sliding your fingers along the strings to create a sweeping, continuous sound from one note to another on both strings. It's like a musical sigh or a slide, and it takes both finesse and control.
The challenge lies in coordinating the slide on both strings to reach their target notes at the same time, all while maintaining pitch accuracy and consistent bow pressure.
Chromatic double stops
Chromatic double stops are a chromatic scale played as double stops, allowing for a seamless and continuous flow of sound. The complexity arises from moving both fingers in sync, up or down the fingerboard, while maintaining excellent bow control and intonation. They often appear in more technically demanding pieces and are a true test of a violinist's skill and dexterity.
Beginner’s tips for practicing and improving double stops
Before you rush off to conquer fifths or tackle tenths, let's start with some foundational tips to make your double-stop journey smoother and more rewarding.
1. Ensure proper tuning
First and foremost, tuning your violin is crucial when practicing double stops. The essence of double stops lies in playing two notes simultaneously, and if your violin isn't tuned correctly, the discordance will be painfully evident.
Using an electronic tuner like the one in Trala’s free app will set a strong foundation for your double-stop practice.
2. Keep your left hand's tension in check
It's easy to grip the neck of the violin a little too tightly when navigating double stops. However, excessive tension in your left hand can be counterproductive, leading to poor intonation, reduced dexterity, and even strain or injury over time.
Instead, keep your left hand relaxed and maintain a natural curve in your fingers. This facilitates easier finger movement and better note accuracy.
Taking regular breaks is crucial for avoiding muscle fatigue and tension buildup. If you find yourself clenching or tensing up, pause, shake out your hand, and perhaps do some gentle stretches.
3. Start with simple double stops
Beginning your journey with simpler double stops is like learning to walk before you run. Open string double stops or double stops involving just one-fingered note are great places to start.
These will help you get the feel of bowing across two strings evenly without the added complexity of finger placement on both strings. Once you're comfortable, gradually work up to more complex intervals.
4. Focus on one thing at a time
To refine your technique, focus on individual elements before putting it all together. Start by isolating one note at a time to ensure accurate pitch and solid tone. Then, move to one line or measure at a time, concentrating on bow distribution and finger positioning. Finally, integrate these components to play the full double stop passage. This step-by-step approach allows you to perfect each piece of the puzzle before assembling the full picture.
5. Practice with a metronome
Keeping steady rhythm is paramount in music, more so with double stops where synchronization between two notes is crucial.
A metronome can help you maintain a consistent tempo and internalize the rhythmic pulse. Start at a slower speed to allow for precise note placement and bowing, and then gradually increase the tempo as you become more comfortable.
6. Work on bow control
The bow is your magic wand, and with great power comes great responsibility. Uneven bowing can make even well-tuned double stops sound off.
To improve bow control, practice bowing on two open strings simultaneously, focusing on even pressure and speed. Exercises like the martelé can be particularly helpful in refining your bow technique. It’s important to remember the fundamentals here, and maintain a relaxed right shoulder and elbow, utilizing the arm’s natural weight.
7. Seek guidance from a teacher
There's no substitute for one-on-one guidance when navigating the intricate world of double stops.
That's where Trala comes into play. With Trala, violinists of all ages and skill levels can match with an experienced violin teacher who meets their learning needs and preferences. Whether you're a beginner or returning to the instrument after a hiatus, you'll find the specialized instruction you need to excel.
Mastering double stops is a journey of finesse, focus, and continual learning. While solo practice is essential, a skilled mentor can offer invaluable insights. With patience and the right guidance, double stops will become second nature, adding a captivating layer to your violin repertoire.
Connect with a violin teacher from anywhere with Trala
Whether you're diving into the basics or you're ready to conquer the challenges of harmonic or chromatic double stops, personal instruction can significantly accelerate your learning curve — and Trala can help get you there.
Offering violin lessons customized to your level and interests, Trala provides the focused, expert instruction you need to master double stops and guide your musical journey.