Music Theory for Fiddlers

Start learning music theory by fiddling a scale. The scale is the basis for music theory. Play the D scale. Begin from the open D string and go note by note until you play the last note of the scale on the A string with the third finger.You just played an ascending scale. When you start with that last note and go down, note by note until you reach the open D, that’s called a descending scale.

We number the notes of the scale. The first note, open D, is one. The second note of the scale, played by the first finger on the D, is two. And so on, each next note requiring the next finger.

After the third finger on the D,you will go on to the open A string, which is five. Now your first finger on the A is playing the sixth note, and your second finger the seventh note. Finally, your third finger plays the eighth note or octave.

Whole Steps and Half Steps

In moving from one note to the next you notice how there is space between the fingers in most cases. That indicates a whole step. Between the second and third fingers, on both strings there is no space. That shows a half step.

When you play the scale, counting the number of each note, you observe the half steps between three and four, and<I> seven and eight. These half steps are the smallest degree of pitch difference in western music.

The scale, then, is a series of steps, seven in all, because the eighth note is a repetition of the first note an octave higher. The seven notes of the diatonic scale are each different from the other notes.

We will get into how the notes are named by alphabet letters in the next issue.

Finding the Intervals

The numbering system, one through eight sets the stage for identifying intervals. An interval is the sonic distance between two tones. If the gap is bigger, the interval is a higher number. If the gap is smaller, the number is smaller. These intervals can be measured with exact precision.

Start with the open D string. If you play a matching pitch with the fourth finger on the G string, you will have two notes that are the same, with no interval between them. That&#146;s called a unison. Singing in unison means no harmony singing. Every one sings the same pitch.<BR>

Now play the open D followed by the first finger playing the next note. That interval is a second. You could play the fourth finger on the G and the first on the D and hear these two pitches together. It is a dissonant, or clashing, sound.

When you play the open D string and follow that with the second finger playing the third note of the scale, you get the interval of a third. This can also be played by the fourth finger on the G and the second on the D. This produces a harmonious or consonant sound.

(Any movement from one pitch to another that is like a scale is called moving by step. When you go further in pitch it is called  leap.

Now play the open D and follow with the third finger on the same string. That interval is a fourth, derived from the fourth degree of the scale.<BR>

By now you are intuiting the system, no doubt.

Play the open D, then the open A. That gives you the fifth. Violins are tuned in fifths.

Each string has that relationship of the fifth to the adjacent string, whether up or down.

Play the open D and the first finger on the A. That&#146;s a sixth. Then the open D and the second finger on the A yields a seventh.

Finally, the open D and the third finger gives you the octave.<BR>


Reframing the Starting Point

To determine the interval relationship between any two notes in the scale when you are not beginning from the open D, you must reframe the starting point. That means you designate the note you begin from as one. And count, scale like, to the target note for the interval.

For example, you play the third note of the D scale on the D string with your second finger. Then you move to the A string and use your second finger to play the next note. What is the interval between them?<BR>

Start your count from the second finger. That&#146;s one. The third finger plays two. The open A is three. The first finger is four. The second finger is five. The interval is a fifth.

Knowing how to reframe and begin the scale and interval count at any degree of the scale is a useful skill, and essential for mastering music theory on the violin. It&#146;s especially needed for understanding chords.

The Triad Makes the Chord

<P>An interval is made of two notes.  Chords are formed from three. The fundamental chord is called a triad. It&#146;s put together from the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale.

In fiddling we do not usually play more than two notes at one time. This means that we will choose two notes of a chord when we play chords on the violin. The big exception to this rule is when we play shuffles that cross three strings. In that case we must think in terms of three notes.

When we play the chord notes one by one, that&#146;s called an arpeggio. The Italian word relates to harp-like, suggesting the sound of chords being played on a harp, note by note.


Reframing the Triad

Just as we calculate intervals by counting from the starting note, so we reframe the counting of a triad when it starts on a scale note other than one.

Suppose you begin on the second note of the scale, skip a note nd play the next, then skip another note and play the next. That triad is built on the second degree of the scale and is called the two chord.

This reframing of numbers may seem confusing at first. But, it&#146;s really as simple as music theory is going to get. Any one who knows music theory will tell you there&#146;s far more to the story than has been revealed here.


Here&#146;s a quick summary of the music theory pathway for fiddlers:

Know the numbers of the notes of the scale.

  1. Know which are whole steps and which are half steps.
  2. Know the intervals built from the root note of the scale. the first note.
  3. be able to calculate an interval starting from a note other than the root of the scale.<BR>
  4. Be able to determine if the interval is major, minor or perfect. (I didn&#146;t even touch this.)
  5. Build a triad from the root note of any scale
  6. Build a triad from a note other than the root.
  7. Identify the triad as major, minor, or diminished.
  8. I didn&#146;t touch this either.

Next month I&#146;ll continue this discussion.

Of the tunes this month, Salamanca is an Irish reel, and the other tab chart is a page of illustrations of the elements of theory as mentioned in the newsletter.


2 thoughts on “Music Theory for Fiddlers”

  1. Elan,
    There is a lot of talk about your teaching system, but there seems to be no way to obtain it. The Contact Us link on the website doesn’t work.
    Can you help?
    Thanks very much.

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