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Tuning a violin:

First thing to look at when picking up any violin is the bridge.

Is it standing up straight, centered between the notches of the sound-holes? Bridges can move around; they are not glued on, but held in place by the tension in the strings. Often the bridge gets a tilt toward the fingerboard, and if it stands that way too long without being pulled back, it may warp. A slightly warped bridge can sometimes be straightened, but prevention is best. If you aren't sure how to push your bridge around, get someone to show you how it's done. With reasonable care, it will not be difficult.

G peg is closest to left thumb. Clockwise from the front, the pegs go G D A E.

A violin is tuned in fifths, G D A E, with the E being the thinnest, highest-voiced string. A fifth being a "perfect" interval, neighboring strings bowed together will make a clean-sounding chord, easy to hear as being in tune. A fifth shows up in the beginning of "Twinkle," or "My Favorite Things," or the "behaving" part of "Ain't Misbehaving." A descending fifth shows up in the "drunken" part of "What will we do with a drunken sailor?"

Most times all you need to do is touch up the tuning a bit, using the fine tuning screws on the tailpiece. Check the A with a tuning fork or electronic tuner, check the E with the A, check the D with the A, and check the G with the D. It really can be that easy.

You can use an electronic tuner on all four strings, or you can tune the A string to a fork or piano, and then tune the remaining strings to the A and to each other. (A tuning fork is reliable, cheap, compact, and never needs batteries.) It doesn't take long for your ears to learn to hear the "grind" of a pair of strings slightly out of tune with each other.

Fine tuners screwed all the way down can ram their levers into the top of the violin, leaving a mark, so it's a good idea to back them out occasionally, and bring the strings up to pitch using the pegs. It is easy to twist a peg so enthusiastically that the string breaks. This dramatic event has been known to make otherwise courageous people unwilling to touch a peg ever again. When it happens to you, I hope you will sigh, reach for a new string, and carry on. It's really not that big of a deal.

The secret to successful peg-turning is to listen to the string as it comes up to pitch.

You can tune with the instrument in your lap, plucking the string, then turning the peg as you brace the bottom of the pegbox with your other hand. If your pegs fit well, you can tune one-handed with the violin on your shoulder, while bowing the string. Either way, it makes sense first to relax the string a bit, lowering its pitch, then carefully tighten it up to true pitch. By loosening it first, you get the peg moving, and so get a sense of how tightly it fits in the pegbox. Because pegs are tapered, to get them to hold without slipping you may need to push in slightly as you turn, especially if they have popped loose.

Firmly and gently put the bridge where it belongs.

It only takes a nudge of the peg to make a difference in the pitch of the string, more so with steel strings than nylon. (These days all E strings are steel. You will probably notice how touchy the E is compared to the others.) By listening as you twist, you soon get a feel for how much peg movement will do the job. Remember to check the bridge and pull it back straight if need be.

Because wood swells and shrinks with changes in the weather, sometimes pegs get tight, and sometimes they pop loose. For this reason, it's a good idea to work the pegs every so often, even if the violin stays in tune so well that all it usually needs is a tweak of the fine tuners.

If you end up changing a string, only do one at a time, so things stay more or less in place while you do. While you have the opportunity, it doesn't hurt to use a touch of soft pencil lead in the groove of the nut and the notch of the bridge, to let the string slide easily as you tune, and as you "burp" the bridge into place, straight and centered.

The upright line falls 2/3 of the way to the back of the foot.


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Keys and Modes in Traditional Music

The first thing to do, when looking at a sheet of music, is look at the key signature. It is surprising how easy it is to get booby-trapped by skipping this simple but important step. Beyond simply avoiding wrong notes, it helps to know where the tune is rooted, to know what note it wants to come home to. Different tunes can use the same left-hand finger patterns to come home on different notes.

GNU free-licensed image thanks to Wikipedia

The regular rules for Major keys will be familiar to you all:

Major, minor, or whatever, the order of sharps and flats in a key signature is always the same. (Some Klezmer, Hungarian, and other scales break this rule, but do we need to know that right now?)

To remember the order of sharps, think "Fanny Can Go Down And Eat Biscuits." To remember the order of flats, think "Bad Elephants Are Darn Good Camp Flatteners." Or, you can just get familiar with the circle of fifths up there.

Not all our tunes are in the Major mode.

Many people with a musical background know about Major and minor modes. For example, no sharps or flats can mean the tune is in C Major, but it could also be in A minor. One flat can be F Major or D minor, one sharp can be G Major or E minor, and so on. But it doesn't end here...

  Two flats can be:Bb MajorF Mixolydian C DorianG Minor
  One flat can be:F MajorC MixolydianG DorianD Minor
  No sharps or flats can be:C MajorG MixolydianD DorianA Minor
  One sharp can be:G MajorD MixolydianA DorianE Minor
  Two sharps can be:D MajorA MixolydianE DorianB Minor
  Three sharps can be:A MajorE MixolydianB DorianF# Minor

A lot of our tunes are in the Mixolydian mode, which sounds a lot like Major mode, but has a flat seventh, giving it a blues-like flavor. Other tunes are in the Dorian mode, which sounds minorish, with what I think of as a more earthy feel. It may not be as confusing as it looks. Things seem to change by fifths here; there's that circle thing starting up again... Anyway, you only play one tune at a time, not a whole table full.

(I usually think of Mixolydian as like Major, but with one less sharp or one extra flat. Dorian is the scale that starts on the second note of a Major scale with the same key signature. Another way to think of Dorian is like a minor scale starting on that minor scale's same first note, but with one more sharp or one less flat in the key signature.)

Never mind-- Leave this old Stuff for later, if you want. Juft play the Tunes, and let your Eares get ufed to them.


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Chords for Fiddlers

Tune Structure

Listening to fiddle tunes, you might notice some similarities in the way they are put together. A lot of our tunes are in 32-bar AABB form, with two eight-bar turns or strains, an A turn and a B turn, each repeated once in a single "time through" the tune.

Rhythm and tempo have a lot to do with the way a tune goes about "saying what it has to say," and another thing that makes a big difference in the flavor of any given tune is its chord progression. Those are the accompaniment chords a guitarist will play, one after another...

Chord Progressions

Fiddlers can make use of a tune's chord progression as well. In a group, if another player is taking the spotlight with a lead or a break, you can play "chunked" double-stops to add to the overall sound. Chords also come in handy playing along with an unfamiliar tune, or staying in the mix while giving yourself a rest from playing a fast "notey" tune.

Usually the chord progression of a tune will start on the chord of the tune's key, what we call the "one" (I) chord. From there, it may go somewhere else, such as the "four" (IV) chord, come back to I at the end of a phrase or turn (or strain), and so on. Ending a phrase on IV gives a "what next?" feel to the moment. Often a major-key tune will finish up by going to the "five" (V) chord for a few beats and coming back home to I. There are a whole lot of tunes that use a I, IV, I, V, I progression or something like it, so many that they have a name, being called "three-chord tunes."

Of course, not all tunes fit that pattern. Still, the number of chords a fiddler needs to know is manageable; just a few of them, amounting to a small handful, are usually enough for any particular tune. Major-key tunes might use some or all of the following chords: I, IV, V, with the dominant seventh chord, V7 often being represented, as well as the occasional minor chords, ii and vi.

Here are the particular chord names for some commonly played major fiddle keys:

KEYI IV V V7 ii vi
G MajorGCDD7AmEm
D MajorDGAA7EmBm
A MajorADEE7BmF#m

Other keys follow the same pattern. Try working out what the I, IV, I, V, I progression is in the key of C Major, and you'll start to get a better sense of how it works.

Power Chords

Because a violin is tuned in fifths, playing power chords on it is simple. A power chord is made of the root note of the chord, which is the same note as the chord name, and its fifth, which is the same fingering one string higher. For example, a D power chord can be played on the open D and A strings. (It can also be played with the third finger on A and E strings.) Power chords are neither major nor minor; being "spelled" without the third note, the one that makes that difference. Chord spelling is explained below.

For some "two-chord" tunes, such as Cherry Tree Reel, or Campbell's Farewell to Red Gap, all you need is the G and A power chords: Make the A chord with A and E, barred with the first finger on the G and D strings; the G chord can be those same two strings played open.

Chord Spelling

The basic chord is spelled with three or four notes: the root, the third, the fifth, and sometimes the octave above the root. The three-note chord: root, third and fifth, may also be called a triad. The difference between a major and minor chord comes from the third. With a major third, the notes A, C# and E make an A major triad. With a minor third, the notes A, C, and E make a minor triad. Other chords starting on different roots still use those exact same interval spacings: a minor third is a whole step plus a half step, and a major third is two whole steps.

Another type of chord, called the dominant seventh, has four or five notes: root, third, fifth, seventh (and octave.) Now comes the heaviest-duty piece of theory on this whole page: our main use of the dominant seventh chord being V7, the "seventh" note is not what you might expect. For example, a D7 chord often goes with tunes in the key of G, so it takes its "seventh" note from the G scale, not the D scale. This means the D7 chord may be spelled D F# A C D, and not spelled D F# A C# D.

Notice that there are some "grinds" in the dominant seventh chord. The seventh and the octave sound oddly dissonant when played together, and so do the third and seventh. They're supposed to sound that way. In fact, the third and seventh make a tritone, an interval part way between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth. People used to think that tritones sounded so bad that they called them "the Devil's interval." Nowadays we use them sparingly to add interest to a tune. Tritones are like a strong spice, a little bit is all you need.

You don't need to use every note to spell every chord. For instance, a B (on the A string) and the open D next to it may suggest a G chord, which is spelled using some grouping of G, B, and D notes. Those same two notes, B and D, may also suggest a B minor chord, which uses B D and F#.

Double Stops

Guitarists can play up to six notes at once. Piano players can do ten at a time. Getting more than two notes at a time on a violin is not easy, so most of our chord work is done with double stops or neighboring open drone strings.

work in progress 2008 July 2... please visit again.


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abc Tune Format

Here's a tune one of Myra's admirers composed and dedicated to her.
If you copy the following text, and paste it into the window in
and click   Submit   there, you will get something like the image below it.

T:Coffee on the Windowsill (for Miss Myra)
C:Bill MacLeod
A | "D" FABA FADF | "F#m" EFBF "E" E2 F^G | "Bm" BcdB fdB^g | "E" ab^gf e2 cB |
"A" ABcd "D" eafd | "A" cdec "Em" B2 =GE | "D" DFBF "A7" ABGF | "Em" EGBA "D" F2 D :|
|: d | "A" cfec "Bm" BcBA | "E" ^GABF E3 d | "A" cfec AdcB | "A" AF^GA "Bm" B2 de |
"Bm" fdBf "A7" ecA=g | "G" fd (3Bcd "Em" e2 "D"f2 | "Em" ge"D"fd "A"(3edc "G"dB | "A"AB (3ABc "D" d2 D :|

The written notes to the tune are just a start. Music is sound, not spots on paper.

That text=music format up there is called "abc" and you can find a lot of abc tunes at http://trillian.mit.edu/~jc/cgi/abc/tunefind well as at http://www.thesession.org/. Happy hunting!


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