Class Highlights: Instrumental Studies on violin

Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu
12 April 2022

What are violin intervals?

A violinist can look at a piece of music and immediately tell whether someone that plays the violin wrote it by looking at the intervals (especially double stops). A piece can be written to be challenging and virtuosic, yet it fits right in the hand when played. The complete opposite can also be true; a piece can appear simple but actually be extremely awkward to play and impossible to make music with. The performance of a piece will never work well when the challenge prevents the performer from thinking artistically.

In our first instrumental studies class, we talked about some keys to writing for the violin. A lot of them apply directly to viola and cello as well.

The vertical intervals, aka double stops, have an order from best to worst.

6ths, 7ths augmented 4th and diminished 5th > 3rds > 2nds > octaves > perfect 5th

In class, we showed on the violin what happens in the left-hand technique that makes these intervals better or worse. I said on behalf of all string players in the world: don’t write perfect 5th. It is painful, unstable, and unpredictable. It is a stigma that comes with the burden of a lifetime of failing. Yes, this is from all of us.

So … Perfect 5th should be very rare, please.

Perfect 5th only if you know what you’re doing.

We don’t like perfect 5th.

No perfect 5th, thank you.

If you absolutely have to write a perfect 5th, it should be in the lowest positions. You have maybe around 4 offsets of them. And no consecutive perfect 5ths, not in the middle of a melodic line, and it’s best to give us a longer note value or rest right before to prepare for it. Shifting immediately to a perfect 5th should be considered “not doable”.

We are simply terrible at perfect 5ths.

Keys to Horizontal and Melodic Intervals

Big jumps have to be written with knowledge of and consideration for shifting. Jumps that are 2-3 positions away are the most common. 4-5 positions away are doable but less preferred. Anything larger than 6 positions away should be very rare (and expect to take a risk in the outcome of the intonation).

In a series of notes, especially fast climbing note series, make sure each position has an average of 3 notes.

Think of these keys in a pyramid of proportions in your piece. Less playable situations can happen but when you populate a piece with predominantly less intuitive techniques, that is the relationship the instrumentalist has with your piece. (And probably will be reflected in how often they want to play your piece).

P.S. Don’t write perfect 5th.

Now, can you tell me what the problems with these examples are where marked in red?