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Topic: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

  1. #1

    Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    My small pit orchestra string section now stands at 3 violins and 2 celli. There are a few places in the score where dividing the violins (having only two of them play, in thirds and sixths) just sounds too thin, even though few other instruments are playing. I'm thinking about having all three violins on these parts now, each of them playing double stops. That should give me, roughly, as much weight as six violins in a 2-part divisi.

    I know that six violins is still a very small string section. But, it does sound significantly better when I listen to the arrangement with my sample libraries.

    I know that great violinists can play almost anything. But I need a few good "rules of thumb" about how much a decent violinist can play double stops (arco as well as tremelo) before the technical demands start to affect his performance. These are all slow, or moderately slow tempos, with fairly ordinary harmonies (as I said, thirds and sixths, mostly).

    One of my orchestration books says double stops are playable on any two adjacent strings. That sounds overly broad to me. Doesn't the position of his hand on the neck of the instrument limit that range a bit? And it doesn't say anything about how fast a player can switch from one two-note "chord" to the next, if I am double stopping a whole line. Or how long a line a violinist can play double stopped, before he tires of it or it just becomes too difficult.

    I don't think I'm asking for anything too demanding. But I'm not a violinist and I don't really know. I'm trying to make educated guesses. (I'm not afraid to guess, but I'd like to be better educated about what's possible and what's the norm for violinists in small pit orchestras for musical theater.)


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  2. #2

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    The biggest problem you'll have will be intonation. Double stops are just hard for a section to play in tune, which is why in most orchestras, players will divide the double stop whether the score says "divisi" or not. If you really want double stops to be played, it would be a good idea to indicate "non div." in the part (but be prepared for them to play divisi anyway!). As far as the tempo is concerned, the slower the better.

    Most of the better orchestration books (I know Adler does) will include a table of possible double stops, so it wouldn't hurt to consult one. In general, violins can play double stops from a minor second to an octave, if both notes are fingered. If one of the pitches can be played as an open string, wider intervals are possible. (Some virtuoso pieces will include double stops in tenths, but I don't recommend doing that for ensemble music). Because of the finger position required, tritones are especially difficult to play in tune. Perfect fifths can also be awkward because a finger has to be placed across two strings simultaneously. If at all possible, avoid these intervals.

    For cellos, the available intervals if both strings are fingered will be about a major third to a minor seventh, since the strings are longer. Same advice as on violins regarding open strings, tritones, perfect fifths.
    Dan Powers

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  3. #3

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    Rule of thumb: Stick to sixth's if possible.
    Second tier: Octave, seventh.

    Fifth = bad tuning
    Fourth = bad tuning and bad sound

    Thirds = OK if it is not for too long because it brings some tension into the hand.
    Seconds = Even more tension.

    Over all double stops are a perfect way to make one good violinist sound like two bad violinists (OK, that is a little exaggerating).
    All your strings belong to me!

  4. #4

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    I am not sure if I am understanding what you want exactly, but my suspicion is that what you want will not give quite the effect you want.

    Double stops for a soloist can be extensive (an entire passage in octaves, for example).
    Double stops for a section TEND to be punctual (a chord/interval here and there).

    You will not get a nice smooth legato playback from a section doing a series of double stops.
    And as has already been said, intonation will be less than perfect. Even with the very finest players, extensive double stops will be difficult to play perfectly in tune. You will end up with that "fiddle" quality to the sound.

    Remember that while violinists are performing double stops, they become limited in their fingerings. They may end up needing to slide from one finger position to another, which will not give the same effect as a properly fingered passage in single notes. This is all expected and acceptable in a solo passage. It won't have the desired effect in a sectional. particularly one with only three violins.

    All that said, double stops are NOT a means of making up for missing instruments.
    A passage that would normally require both 1st and 2nd violins cannot be successfully translated into a passage for only 1st section, non-divisi, in double stops.

    Use double stops as a means of accentuating passages that require it. Give extra weight to chords. Augment an orchestrated accent.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jun 2000
    Chandler, Arizona

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    Find a couple violin solo recorindgs with double stops to get an idea what they sound like played by a pro musician. Listen to the intonation, tuning and vibrato. Then think what it may sound like with less experienced musicians! You may decide to really limit the use.


  6. #6
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Pacific Northwest

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    As Hannes has already said definitely avoid 5ths on violin. In general any time a string instrument player has to play a double-stop where the two notes are directly accross from each other will be nearly impossible to play in tune: perfect 5ths on violin, viola, and cello, and for rare double-bass double-stops: perfect 4ths.

    While double-stops are common in solo literature (even somewhat so for double-bass) they are generally not a good idea other than for punctuation in a section setting. Double-stops are difficult to play in tune to begin with, consecutive double-stops even moreso (a drone where a lower note remains the same would be an exception), let alone consecutive legato double-stops. One has a little more flexibility where one of the notes is an open string.

    A couple ideas (may not be realistic or possible): is there a way you can rework parts to reflect the instrumentation you have? Is there a way you could use sampled sounds for some of the parts?

  7. #7

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    I had a roommate in my sophomore and junior years in college who was a violinist. The two rules of thumb he recommends are 1) keep the intervals small and 2) use double-stops ONLY on longer notes or at very slow tempos. The truth about double-stops, according to him and many other string players, is that string players hate double-stops, unless they're playing a solo piece that calls for it. As for orchestral works, they'd rather split the section (divisi) or spread the interval over two sections (Violin I, Violin II).

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  8. #8
    Senior Member caher's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jan 2006

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    I have had a violinist roommate (wife ) for 30 years who concurs with Hannes et al on this. I've listened to her double-stop warm up darned near every day for that entire time.


  9. #9

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    Thanks for all the feedback. You convinced me not to use double stops.

    I don't want to assign the harmonies to another instrument because each section has a clear theme and suddenly having one instrument of one section doing something different, acting like a string section at those points where I now have double stops would just seem too jarring and out of place. I don't want to rely on sampled sounds, if I can avoid it, because it's wrong for the period of the show and I've managed to do the rest of the score without them. What I'll try to do is thin out the whole arrangement in those numbers so that it will sound more acceptible to divide the violins (one solo instrument on each part) -- or, better yet, if it works, do three part harmony, with each violin of the thee violins playing a different voice. I've done this in a couple of other places in the score all ready.

    But, getting back to the use of double stops, just for future reference, is it any better or worse if the notes are played tremelo? I'm wondering whether that would mask some of the variation in intonation, or whether it would just make it worse.


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  10. #10
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Jul 2006
    Pacific Northwest

    Re: Rules of Thumb for Violin Double Stops

    Initial thought: playing double-stops tremolo could be even more of a problem. Bow movement has to be very rapid for a tremolo to be effective, and dealing with the resistance of two strings rather than one would make in all the more difficult. My experience is with low strings though, not violin.

    When bowing, it takes a (very brief) moment before a string speaks (less brief on the lower instruments) and that would be all the worse trying to play double-stops tremolo, given the extra quick bow strokes. If you listen closely to a string tremolo, the sound will emphasize more of the initial attack rather than the "pure" tone of the instrument.

    Another issue might be (speculating here) intonation issues caused by the bowing itself. If a string gets pulled to the side in the process of being played, the pitch of the string at that point will change (a real issue with fretted string instruments). The total length of the string will be slightly longer when pulled to the side thereby causing the location of the "correct" note to be changed.

    As one tends to have to "dig in" with the bow into the string more when playing tremolo (in order to get the note to speak), it seems to me that especially with double-stops there would be a greater risk of one of the strings being pulled ever so slightly to the side and that would cause additional intonation problems.

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