Whether you’re a budding violinist or a virtuoso with several concertos under your belt, you might be wondering if it’s possible to add chords to your violin repertoire.
We traditionally associate Violins with playing single notes at any one time given the curved bridge, and the bowing technique. But you may be surprised to hear that there are many pieces of Violin music that incorporate chordal melodies.
This article discusses everything you need to know about violin chords, including how to play them on the violin.
Although violins aren’t chordal instruments, it’s entirely possible to play accompanying chordal patterns on the violin.
When violinists play three or four strings simultaneously, they’re called chords. If they play just two strings, they’re called double stops. Both of these instances appear in Bach’s ever-famous composition, “Chaconne in D Minor.”
What chords can a violinist play?
By definition, a chord is a combination of three or more notes played simultaneously. If a violinist plays each note separately rather than simultaneously, it’s called an arpeggio. In either case, you’ll still achieve a chord-based rhythmic accompaniment.
Theoretically, there are over 500 possible combinations of three to four-note chords.
On the violin, there are about 11 different chord types, with the most common being major and minor chords.
Since there are 12 minor chords and 12 major chords used in classical music, there are a total of 24 major and minor chords that can be played on the violin.
Some of the most basic major violin chords include the following:
- A major: A – C♯ – E
- B♭ major: B♭ – D – F
- C major: C – E – G
- D major: D – F♯- A
- E major: E – G♯ – B
- F major: F – A – C
- G major: G – B – D
On the other hand, the most basic minor violin chords include:
- A minor: A – C – E
- B♭ minor: B♭ – D♭ – F
- C minor: C – E♭ – G
- D minor: D – F – A
- E minor: E – G – B
- G minor: G – B♭ – D
Chords of three or more strings, while possible, are immensely challenging to play.
Because of the violin’s curved bridge, plucking or bowing more than two strings at the same time requires precise finger placement and movement. For this reason, playing chords on the violin is something that only highly skilled violinists can pull off.
Skilled violists create chords by arpeggiating across three or four strings as they play the required notes. Some three-note chords also take just the right amount of pressure to play, which can be tricky to do without prior background knowledge.
How many strings do a violin chord use?
In general, a violin chord consists of three or more strings. However, the instrument is usually only limited to two strings (double stop) because the curve of a violin bridge makes it tricky to play all four notes at the same time.
Virtuosos usually play three chords at once by playing two with the bow, and the third with a left-hand pizzicato. This way of playing isn’t considered the “standard,” though.
You might have to change the structure of the instrument to successfully play three or more chords simultaneously, or at least change the way you play the instrument, making it even more difficult to play.
How can a violin play chords?
Playing a chord progression on a violin requires a trained hand, a deep understanding of the instrument’s curvature, and a high-quality bow with shock-absorbing qualities.
Chords are usually played starting from the bottom note to the top note. Doing so produces a richer, more natural sound. It also allows the player to highlight the highest note.
Therefore, it’s recommended to first place a finger on the lowest string before adding the next-higher notes in sequence. If one of your fingers is already playing a previous note, add your remaining fingers from the lowest string first.
Playing Three-Note Chords
Skilled violinists play three-note chords by playing the lower two strings together before switching to the upper two strings with the same bow stroke. They do this without pausing in between.
Here’s a short guide on how to bow four different three-note chords.
- Place finger 1 on the A string and leave it there before moving the bow.
- On finger 1, play open G, open D, and note B on the A string.
- Do a down-bow on the D and G strings simultaneously.
- Before you’re halfway at the point of the bow, switch the bow to play the A and D strings together.
- Continue the down-bow direction to play the two top notes at the same time.
Playing Four-Note Chords
Four-note violin chords take a lot of finesse to perfect, particularly because you can’t really bow all four strings together without making an awful amount of scratchy bow noise.
To create a clear sound, you’ll have to bow the chords like you’d bow a seesaw: steadily roll the bow across each pair of strings without breaking the pace or lifting the bow.
To properly play a four-note chord, you’ll have to divide the chord placement into two sections.
For the first four-note chord, place finger 1 on the A string and finger 2 on the E string. For the second, place finger 1 on the G and D strings together, finger 2 on the A string, and finger 3 on the E string.
Once you’ve positioned your fingers, follow these steps:
- Balance the bow at its frog on the G and D strings, and draw a down-bow before halting atop the strings.
- Silently roll the bow over the A and D strings, draw the next bow, then lightly stop on the strings.
- Silently roll the bow over the A and E strings, then bow out the final bow.
Check out this piece of Violin work. The very talented Violinist plays these double stops so quickly it sounds like four notes are being played simultaneously:
What is the difference between a double stop and a chord on the violin?
In music, a double-stop occurs when a violinist plays two notes simultaneously, usually by stopping two strings with one hand and bowing them with the other.
Conversely, a chord is when a violinist plays three or four chords at once.
Is playing chords difficult on the violin?
Yes, playing chords on the violin is extremely difficult.
It isn’t a conventional way of playing the violin, since the violin is usually played with one or two notes only.
Even if you were able to play three notes, it’s only possible for a brief instant since it can’t be sustained.
For four-note chord progressions, you’ll have to divide the notes into two or more sections, as shown in the previous section above. Usually, a violinist would hit the two lowest strings first, then continue to slur the two highest strings after.
Playing chords on the violin is one of the more difficult techniques to master.
Is playing chords on the violin an advanced technique?
Yes, playing chords on the violin is, indeed, an advanced technique. It’s usually only played by seasoned violinists in concertos and solo performances.
Beginners typically find it hard to balance a bow on one string without hitting the other strings. Advanced performers, however, know how to intentionally play more than one string at a time without it sounding odd and disjointed.
In theory, playing chords on the violin, especially the basic ones, isn’t that hard. However, it requires quite a lot of practice and technique for it to actually sound nice. If you play a chord on the violin without prior experience or practice, it’ll produce a squeaky, airy, and/or scratchy sound, all of which are undesirable.
What sort of violin music uses chords?
Chords are mostly used in advanced solo compositions and violin concerts.
There are a number of famous violin pieces that incorporate chords, like Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaconne, Partita No. 2 BWV 1004.”
Chaconne in D Minor is one of the most challenging violin compositions. Some violinists say that it’s “difficult to even play badly.” Only a master violinist can play it in a way it’s written, which is why it’s usually performed by great violinists with years of experience.
Another brilliant piece with multiple chord progressions is the cadenza of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.1.
In the opening of the third movement, the violinist must play a rapid downward scale of A-G-F♯-E-D, both bowed and pizzicato.
Although this is possible on an open D-string, it’s extremely difficult in the key of E-flat because this downward scale can only be played with two strings.
For this reason, the violin is often tuned to a semitone high so the soloist can achieve a natural-sounding E-flat. Even so, it’s entirely possible to change the tune of the violin through chord progressions.
Are guitar chords the same as a Violin?
Musically speaking, yes, violin chords and guitar chords are the same. However, they don’t share the same pattern or playing technique.
For one, playing chords on the violin requires much more precision than the guitar, primarily because the violin has no frets.
On a guitar, frets act as a tension point to alter the guitar’s sound. They also help you keep track of where your fingers are positioned. You don’t have the same luxury on a violin.
Moreover, the violin has four strings whereas the guitar has six. The two additional strings allow the guitar to play deeper and mellower tones. Violins can only play high chord notes.
Violin chords don’t sound as “smooth” as guitar or piano chords, which is why violins aren’t considered chordal instruments. So, even if you know how to play the chord on the guitar doesn’t mean you’ll know how to play the same chord on the violin.
Although difficult, it’s entirely possible to play chords (i.e., three or four notes simultaneously) on the violin. However, due to the skill required to bow three or four strings at the same time, this method of playing is considered an advanced technique that isn’t easily perfected.
With that said, playing chords on the violin isn’t impossible. If you’ve already learned everything there is to learn in beginner’s violin, try your hand at chords. With enough practice, you’ll be able to fully utilize your skills and master the technique of playing chords.