What are violin bows made of? These are the best materials:

Why is horse hair the best for violin bow hair? What’s the difference between a pernambuco stick or a carbon fiber one?

In this article I will go into all regular materials violin bows are made of, which include horse hair, synthetic materials, types of wood, pearl and even turtle shell.

You’ll learn why certain materials are used and what difference they make.

Let’s take a look at the violin bow parts, which are made of different materials:

violin bow parts

Read more details in this full article on violin bow parts.

The violin bow hair that touches the strings of the violin while playing is usually horse hair, but we’ll discuss alternatives below. The stick is made out of wood or carbon in a variety of quality levels. At the tip, you’ll find the tip plate and at the frog where you hold the violin bow we have a beautiful pearl inlay on the bottom (slide) and the side (Paris eye).

What are the best materials for a violin bow and why? Let’s go in depth…

Violin bow hair

Bow hair is the part of the bow that prompts the most questions. Is it actually made from horses, or can it be just any hair? How does the bow grab the strings? The vast majority of violin bows do indeed use horsehair, and have from the beginning.

Best horse hair for violin bows

Luthiers prefer to use hair from horses who live in very cold climates because they produce thicker hair to keep warm. The best choices are Siberian, Mongolian, Manchurian, Polish, and Argentinian. Stallion hair is best because it is cleaner than hair from mares. The hairs might be varying lengths and thicknesses, so they are sorted several times to find the ideal ones for bowmaking. Luthiers are very mindful of the quality of hairs in their bows, so many will sort the hairs yet again on their own. Violin bow hair can also be different colors: you probably have only seen white-haired bows, but cellists and bassists sometimes use black because they say it is coarser.

Horse hair alternatives

Horsehair is the most traditional and effective material, but we now have the technology to make bow hair out of other things. A company called Coruss has created synthetic bows that do not use any animal products (the vegan violin bow). According to their website, they noticed a decline in horsehair quality, which the Mongolian horse breeders said was due to hotter summers and more snowfall in winter. These changes affected the horses’ natural food supply, and thus affected the strength and quality of their hair. Coruss developed synthetic hair made from fibers that would be more durable than regular horsehair. As it is not affected by humidity and temperature, it can be played for several years without needing a rehair.
For the stick, Coruss uses either carbon fiber or a carbon fiber/pernambuco blend. Coruss also offers a special rosin meant for synthetic hair. The rosin is made from organic materials with eco-friendly techniques. Aside from its sustainability and longevity, Coruss hair also has visual appeal: you can choose from eight different colors for the hair! Synthetic hair is an intriguing option if you are open to trying new things.

Rehairing your violin bow

We briefly mentioned bow rehairs. Why is that necessary and how often should it be done? You may have occasionally had bow hairs break off while you were playing. If this happens too much, you will need to get a rehair to replace the ones you have lost. The hair is also affected by changes in humidity and temperature that stretch it out over time, and it is dirtied by dust and oils. The question of how often to rehair is rather personal. It depends on how much you play and how well you clean your bow. It never occurs to many people that simply cleaning the hairs thoroughly refreshes your sound and postpones the need for a rehair.

Watch a video of a violin bow maker doing a rehair right here.

How to clean your violin bow hair

To clean your bow hair, unscrew the screw from the frog so that the frog and hair separate from the stick. Dip a toothbrush into a small amount of rubbing alcohol and gently brush it through the bow hairs. Just be sure that the alcohol does not touch the wood of the bow and that you let the hairs dry completely before screwing the bow back together. You can also occasionally clean the wood of the bow with violin polish if there’s rosin build-up. If you are taking proper care of your bow, then you may only need a rehair once a year.

Watch this video to learn how to clean your violin bow hair and stick yourself.

Myth about violin bow hair hooks

The other myth about rehairs is that horsehair gets worn out when the little “hooks” on it start to get dull. However, horsehair analyzed under a microscope is completely smooth. There are no hooks, it is the friction created by the rosin that makes the sound. To prove this, try playing on a new bow that has no rosin and see if you can make a sound!

Violin bow stick

If the bow hair can be either natural or synthetic, what can the stick be made out of? Bowmakers use different materials depending on the desired quality and flexibility.

Terms you may have heard include brazilwood, sandalwood, and pernambuco. How are these three things different, and which is the best?

Pernambuco violin bows

We’ll start with pernambuco. François Xavier Tourte, the famous French bowmaker, introduced pernambuco in the 19th century. Ever since, it has been the preferred wood for bow-making due to its ideal density, strength, and flexibility. Pernambuco is the heartwood (innermost ring) of the paubrasilia echinata tree, the national tree of Brazil. Unfortunately for violinists, this tree is now listed as an Appendix II endangered species. This means that while the use of pernambuco is not banned, it is more strictly regulated. If pernambuco is ever moved into Appendix I, that would mean a near total ban on use, and you would need special permission to even travel with a pernambuco bow. While conservation efforts are being made, it is a slow process as paubrasilia echinata trees require very specific growing conditions.

Sandalwood or Brazil wood violin bows

If you’ve just gotten into violin playing, then your bow is most likely brazilwood or sandalwood.

Sandalwood is a yellow, fine-grained wood that is often used for student bows. Strictly speaking, brazilwood is the outer ring of the paubrasilia echinata tree. Pernambuco comes from the denser heartwood, brazilwood from the less finely grained outer layers. However, in reality other types of wood are sometimes used for bows and labeled as brazilwood, so it can be difficult to know the origin of the wood for sure. (It is also worth noting that only bowmakers distinguish between the inner and outer layers of paubrasilia echinata—in the lumber yard it is all considered brazilwood!) Brazilwood is considered less valuable than pernambuco because its density is not as ideal and because it loses its springiness much more quickly. However, depending on how well it has been cared for, not every pernambuco bow is in better shape than every brazilwood bow, so it is best to get the opinion of a professional.

Sandalwood violin bow

Sandalwood can be a great alternative to pernambuco if you’re tight in your budget. However it lacks the density and is more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, which can make it warp.

Brazilwood violin bow

The term brazilwood doesn’t say that much. You can get a decent affordable brazilwood violin bow as a beginner, but be aware that the quality levels of brazilwood bows vary a lot.

Carbon fiber violin bow

The uncertainty of pernambuco’s future availability has fueled the synthetic bow industry. There are three basic categories of synthetic bows: carbon composite (of various types), carbon fiber, and straight fiber.

Carbon composite violin bows

Carbon composite or fiberglass are often used for beginning student bows. They are durable and cheap to produce, but not very complex. Being offered for as cheap as $ 30 and still being usable, they are great for a tight budget. Usually for a wooden bow you’d have to spend more for a similar quality level. Carbon composite bows usually have a low percentage of carbon and a high percentage of epoxy, which affects the playing characteristics and sound.

Carbon fiber violin bows

Carbon fiber bows like CodaBow, JonPaul and Müsing are of a higher quality. Most of the time they have weaved look. The price and quality levels vary a lot from cheap bows around $ 100 to professional level carbon fiber bows of over $ 1,000. In my buying guide to carbon fiber bows you can see all the major brands including video demonstrations and reviews. 

High tech straight fiber carbon fiber violin bows

Another fascinating synthetic option is Arcus. Arcus bows are based on the principle that wooden bows were created to go with gut strings, so we need a stronger bow for today’s metal strings and higher tension on our instruments. Just like violins, Arcus bows are hollow on the inside, giving them special resonance and flexibility. They are also lighter than standard wood bows. In my buying guide to carbon fiber bows right here I’ve tested and reviewed all classes and types of Arcus bows.

Many players still prefer traditional pernambuco bows, and if that is your preference that is fine! Every bow is unique however, so it is important to keep an open mind. High quality carbon bows are a good option if you are worried about damaging your bow through wear or humidity. Also they have no travel restrictions like antique wooden bows and maybe in the future pernambuco bows in general.

The violin bow that fits you is very personal, so it’s important that you try out different violins bows within your budget.

Materials of the Frog

Aside from the bow and the stick, bows incorporate other materials as well. The frog is not part of the stick, and is usually made from ebony. The “eye” in the center of the frog is for visual effect and typically made from mother-of-pearl.

Bows are mounted with nickel, silver, or gold. The type of metal used does not affect the sound quality of the bow, so why does this matter? Traditionally, bow makers used more expensive metals for higher quality wood. Now due to rising gold prices, using silver for very high quality bows is more common. Not only that, but some excellent makers use nickel out of modesty and a few less scrupulous ones will use a more expensive metal to make a bow more appealing. Although gold does add lovely aesthetics, remember the sound is always what matters when choosing a bow.

violin bow frog parts

The Violin Bow Tip

The material used for the tip of the bow is a complicated topic. The tip-plate is very important because it protects the wood of the tip from damage, so the material used must be strong. Historically, bowmakers used ivory. However, in 2016 the United States enacted a near-total ban on commercial trade of African elephant ivory. Other countries have similar laws. Bow tips fall under the very few exceptions, but only if the ivory was removed from the wild prior to 1976. Even so, traveling with such a bow requires a Musical Instrument Certificate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must be paid for and is only valid for three years. Many musicians choose to avoid the hassle altogether and travel with different bows. Since new bows can no longer be made with ivory, bowmakers have turned to other materials. Mammoth ivory is a popular choice. (Note that it is illegal to use materials from an endangered species, but not illegal if the species is already extinct.) Other options include bone, faux ivory (a polymer), silver, or ebony. Some student bows may simply use plastic.

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Let me help you find a great bow for your violin, so you can improve your bowing technique and sound quality:

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Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

In Summary

One more word on distinguishing between bows: these days it is super easy to go online and find all sorts of cheap bows blatantly advertised as “professional quality”. Sadly, the majority of such bows are not even suitable for beginners! When selecting a bow it is SO important to go directly to a real luthier or respected instrument website that will help you find legitimate products in your price range. Your bow is your sound, so make sure you find what you are really looking for.

What type of violin bow do you have? Share it with us in the comments!

Spiccato Bowing on the Violin

What is spiccato on the violin?

Spiccato strokes are short and fast, and the bow leaves the string after each stroke, creating a “bouncy” sound. In Italian spiccato literally means “to separate”. Spiccato usually works best about one centimeter above the balance point of your bow (which is below the middle) but this depends on the speed of the spiccato. Generally speaking, faster spiccato is done a little higher in the bow.

Spiccato bow stroke in sheet music

In sheet music, spiccato is notated by little dots over or under the notes. How do you know if this is spiccato or staccato, since it is the same marking? It depends on the speed of the piece and the length of the notes. Spiccato is a faster technique than spiccato because the bow bounces best when it is moving quickly. Some composers will also use words to clarify that a passage is to be played off the string.

How to play spiccato on the violin?

When playing spiccato, always start the first note from on the string. Do not drop the bow onto the string for the first note, especially when playing in orchestra because all the violinists dropping their bows will not sound together! Pressing the bow lightly into the string first and using the string’s resistance creates the friction necessary to propel the bounces. As mentioned above spiccato is done at or near the balance point of the bow.

Types of spiccato bowing

There are two main types: brush spiccato and bounce spiccato. Brush spiccato is a broad spiccato in the lower half, and is slightly slower than other types of spiccato. Brush spiccato is an active bow stroke (meaning the right hand/arm actively controls the bounce).

Bounced spiccato strokes are less broad than brushed ones, and the bounce in this case is partly or entirely passive. Bounce spiccato works at a variety of tempos, so just keep in mind that the faster you go, the more the bounce of the bow takes care of itself. You will reach a point at which the right hand stays completely relaxed while the bow rebounds on its own. This comes from the right combination of bow placement, speed, angle, and height of the bounce.

How to practice spiccato?

It is helpful to do simple exercises that break down the spiccato motions before trying spiccato passages in pieces. This begins with developing flexibility in the right hand fingers and wrist. One excellent preparation for spiccato is practicing collé on open strings. To briefly explain, collé is a very unique stroke because it begins on and ends off the string. It is also a wonderful exercise to improve finger flexibility. The bow is placed at the frog, and through the action of the fingers scrubs the string and lifts off. Collé can be done in other parts of the bow, but it is most common and easiest at the frog. The right hand fingers are rounded when initiating a downbow stroke and straight when initiating an upbow. Another way to think of collé is “pizzicato with the bow.” After you have done collé on open strings, try going through a whole scale.

The super-precise collé motion makes the hand more flexible and improves spiccato. To make a good sound, think about whether your spiccato bounces are making the shape of a “V’ or a “U”. V spiccato bounces are very short, and U-shaped bounces have a richer sound, staying a little closer to the string.

There are also several etudes for practicing spiccato. Many of the etudes from Rodolphe Kreutzer’s very famous 42 Studies for Violin can be adapted to this purpose. Let’s use Kreutzer’s Etude No. 5 as an example:

kreutzer etude no 5 sample

Start by playing each note four times (four G’s, four B♭’s, etc.). Do it at a comfortable speed where the bow will bounce naturally. When you can do this evenly with a straight bow, repeat the etude playing each note three times, then two times, and finally as written in spiccato. Do not worry about increasing the tempo right now, just notice how relaxed you are and how consistent your bowing is.

Learning this technique is very important because it appears everywhere in famous violin repertoire. There is this famous spot from Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, in the beginning of the third movement:

Perhaps you’re thinking “There’s no way I could play that right now!” Not to worry, if you’re looking for more intermediate spiccato example there are several. Accolay’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, a popular piece for advancing students, has a wonderful brush spiccato section:

Another famous spiccato place is in the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5:

Finally, it is important to clearly understand the differences between spiccato and some very similar violin bowing techniques. Sautillé is very similar to spiccato, as both are bouncing techniques. However, in spiccato the bow actually leaves the string, whereas in sautillé the stick bounces but the bow hair itself remains on the string. Sautillé therefore works for much faster passages where the bow does not have time to leave the string.

Compare this excerpt from Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 with the videos above to see if you can hear and see the difference:

Flying spiccato is the other very similar technique. It is several spiccato notes played on the same bow stroke (usually upbow) and staying in the same spot on the bow. This happens in the third movement of the Mendelssohn concerto:

In summary, spiccato is definitely one of the more challenging violin bowing techniques, and requires patience and perseverance. However, learning it opens the doors to some of the best violin repertoire in existence.

Hi! I'm Zlata

Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

Improve your violin bowing technique with these lessons and articles:

Do you want to know every possible bowing technique on the violin? Watch this video with 102 violin bowing techniques.

The basis for all bowing techniques is to bow smoothly. This video lesson will help you with that.

A proper and relaxed violin bow hold will help a lot improving your bowing technique and sound. Read this article.

Take bowing technique lessons with Zlata

Join my Violin Bowing Bootcamp to build a great basic technique, make a beautiful sound and learn the most common bow strokes.

Join Bow like a Pro for personal guidance by Zlata and her teacher team combined with an extensive curriculum all things bowing.

Staccato Bowing on the Violin

Staccato, or “detached” in Italian, is a bowing technique where you stop the bow at each bow change to create separation

More generally, it is also a musical term that indicates short, separated notes. Basically any instrument can play staccato, but here we are concerned with what it means as a bowing technique.

How do you know where the staccato is in your sheet music?

The notes will have little dots above or below them. If you see staccato dots only at the beginning of a passage but then the word simile, it means the entire passage is staccato.

Regular staccato is done on separate bows. However, there is also such a thing as upbow staccato.

This is multiple staccato notes on one upbow, but the bow does not leave the string as it travels. Here is an example from Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

Staccato is much easier to play than most people think.

Common errors include trying to make an accent at the beginning of the note, really crunching the bow into the string, or changing the amount of pressure. Here’s the secret: the amount of pressure throughout the stroke remains the same. It is the same concept as detaché, but you stop the bow at the end of each stroke just before changing directions. It is not necessary to change anything else about the stroke.

Like all bowing techniques, staccato is best learned on open strings first, doing the technique described above. Once you can play one staccato note on each bow stroke, try doing to per bow, then three, etc. This will help you develop control and understanding of how much bow you should use per note.

Early Suzuki pieces are designed with staccato in mind, because learning staccato comes before learning beautiful smooth legato bowing. The Twinkle Variations, Lightly Row, and Song of the Wind all incorporate staccato. If you have never played staccato before I suggest starting with simple tunes like these.

Another very fun and easy staccato piece La Cumparsita Tango. It is full of repeated staccato passages in an engaging tango dance rhythm.

If you already know staccato but would like to refine it, or are just curious about how to identify it in pieces, here are some famous examples.

The Kabalevsky concerto is an energetic piece popular among advanced students. The frequent upbow staccatos add vitality to the melody.

Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor by Saint-Saëns is a major concerto and frequently performed. In the main theme of the third movement, there are sequential staccato triplets. They are very rapid so it is difficult to tell they are staccato by ear, but Saint-Saëns notated them that way to imply a little extra bite.

Samuel Barber’s violin concerto alternates between flowing legato melodies and dramatic staccato/spiccato passages. Notice the upbow staccato (four notes together) in the passage marked below. Some violinists choose to play this completely on the string (upbow staccato) while others do it slightly off the string (upbow spiccato). Either is fine so long as you have a clear concept of what effect you want.

Lastly, we have our “ultimate staccato challenge”: Hora Staccato by Grigoraş Dinicu. This was one of Jascha Heiftez’s famous encore pieces. It incorporates BOTH upbow and downbow staccato, which is even more challenging! If you are interested in learning this charming piece, now is the time to be dedicated about your staccato practice!

Hi! I'm Zlata

Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

Improve your violin bowing technique with these lessons and articles:

Do you want to know every possible bowing technique on the violin? Watch this video with 102 violin bowing techniques.

The basis for all bowing techniques is to bow smoothly. This video lesson will help you with that.

A proper and relaxed violin bow hold will help a lot improving your bowing technique and sound. Read this article.

Take bowing technique lessons with Zlata

Join my Violin Bowing Bootcamp to build a great basic technique, make a beautiful sound and learn the most common bow strokes.

Join Bow like a Pro for personal guidance by Zlata and her teacher team combined with an extensive curriculum all things bowing.

Detache Bowing: Default Violin Bow Stroke

Even if you’ve just started playing violin, you’ve probably realized that every single technique has some fancy French or Italian name! Did you know this is even true for the most basic bowing technique? Detaché (which is literally just “detached” in French) is probably the first stroke you learned on violin, along with simple staccato. It sets the stage for future advanced techniques by developing control and smooth bow changes. It may have a complicated French name, but it is not that difficult to understand.

Detaché bow stroke in sheet music

Other bowing techniques have special notation in sheet music, but detaché does not. This makes things simple: if there are no slurs, no dots, no accents or dashes—it’s detaché!

Simple detaché is when there are no special markings in the sheet music, the notes are played to their full value, you make seamless bow changes, and you play one bow stroke per note.

How to practice detaché bowing on the violin

To practice detaché, place your bow at the middle on the D string. The point of contact (where your bow touches the string) your wrist, elbow, and shoulder should form a square that rests all in the same plane. Place your bow on other strings, and adjust your arm to maintain that square shape. Keeping everything in one plane is very important for minimizing tension. Once everything is aligned, being making very small up and down strokes, only a few inches. The most important thing is to keep the bow parallel to the bridge and the tilt of the bow hair even.

Types of detaché bowing

Besides the simple detaché there are other types of detaché as well, including accented detaché with or without bite, grand detaché, and finger detaché.

Accented detaché has accent marks over the notes. The accent is created by adding a little index finger pressure and bow speed at the beginning of the note. Accented detaché with a bite is a slightly stronger version of this and is very similar to martelé.

Grand detaché is also very similar. The bow strokes are very long (almost the entire bow) with a full-bodied solistic sound.

Finger detaché is ideal for very fast passages, and utilizes the fingers and wrist. These should be very flexible. A good way to practice finger detaché is to put your right elbow against a wall so that your arm cannot move. In this way you can only move the bow with your wrist and fingers. At first this will be easiest in the middle, but eventually you can do the same thing at the frog and at the tip.

There are even more types of detaché than these, but these are the most important ones to know in the beginning. If these five definitions are too overwhelming, then just focusing on the first one will get you very far. To help clarify how these are all different, below are examples of every detaché variation we just discussed.

#1 Simple Detaché: Paganini’s Caprice No. 16

#2 Accented Detaché: Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor

#3 Grand Detaché: Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro

#4 Finger Detaché: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

After watching these examples you probably notice that some techniques overlap. For example, fast simple detaché will require a lot of finger/wrist motion. Many detaché passages in violin music are much simpler than any of the above examples. It is the first bowing technique you will learn and the basis for all the others, so take your time and practice with confidence!

Hi! I'm Zlata

Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

Improve your violin bowing technique with these lessons and articles:

Do you want to know every possible bowing technique on the violin? Watch this video with 102 violin bowing techniques.

The basis for all bowing techniques is to bow smoothly. This video lesson will help you with that.

A proper and relaxed violin bow hold will help a lot improving your bowing technique and sound. Read this article.

Take bowing technique lessons with Zlata

Join my Violin Bowing Bootcamp to build a great basic technique, make a beautiful sound and learn the most common bow strokes.

Join Bow like a Pro for personal guidance by Zlata and her teacher team combined with an extensive curriculum all things bowing.

How to Read Violin Sheet Music (easy guide for beginner violinists)

Beginner guide to reading sheet music for the violin

Learn how to read which note and finger to play and in which rhythm

Do you have a strong desire to learn the violin, but have never read music before in your life?

The prospect of learning music notation should not be a paralyzing fear that keeps you from following your musical dreams. By learning a few basics and practicing patience, you can learn to read music fluently while still enjoying your music-making.

The first step is making sure you understand what all the shapes and symbols on the page refer to. If the composer bothered putting it down, it’s probably important! To demonstrate this, let’s look at a simple example where I’ve highlighted all the different types of markings:

Orange: Composers often put a simple word or phrase in the top left-hand corner to describe the emotion feeling the piece should have, in this case “Lively”. Often there will also be a specific tempo marking in this corner.

Red: The treble clef sign appears at the beginning of every line of violin music. Treble clef tells you which line the note G is on. All violin music is written only in this clef (sorry violists!).

Blue: The key signature consists of either sharps or flats (never both). If the piece is in C Major or A Minor, there will be nothing marked in the key signature. Don’t worry, this will make more sense when we discuss keys and accidentals further down. Knowing your key signatures is very important for putting your fingers in the right place.

Pink: Measure lines divide music into equally-sized boxes, making it easier to read and count.
Green: The time signature shows how many beats are in each measure. The top number shows how many beats there are, and the bottom number shows what type of note (half, quarter, eighth, etc.) gets the beat. We will discuss this more in the section on rhythms. In more advanced sheet music, the time signature (and/or key signature) may change in the middle of the piece.

Yellow: A double bar line with two dots is a repeat sign, meaning to play the preceding section over again. In the second half of this piece, you can see repeat signs at the beginning of the third line and the end of the fourth line, indicating the exact section to be repeated.

Grey, Purple, Lime Green: Any other special markings you see on the page are technique markings. In this case, there are slurs, staccato marks, and accent marks. Advanced pieces, such as the Sibelius violin concerto, have tons of very specific technique marks! Always look up ones you aren’t familiar with.

Now that we’ve been through the basics of what you’ll see in music, let’s get to the fun part: reading notes!

Reading Notes in Violin Music

The first notes you will learn on violin are the open strings: G, D, A, E.

open violin strings sheet music

Below is how the open strings sound, so you can recognize them. Always make sure your violin is tuned. You can use my free online violin tuner with microphone and tuning notes for that.

Now before we jump in to reading all the notes in first position, let’s go over some key signatures. Sharps # raise the note a half step, flats b lower the note a half step. Every piece of classical music has a key signature, and every key signature goes with its own major and minor scales. The most common beginner violin scales are A Major, D Major, G Major, and C Major. If you want to get in some practice on these scales, check out the article Violin Scales: Learn the Most Common Scales on Violin.

If you have tapes on your violin, those tapes correspond to these notes (from low to high):
Open G A B C D
Open D E F# G A
Open A B C# D E
Open E F# G# A B

If your violin does not have tapes, watch this clip to see how the fingers are placed:

Every finger, but especially the second finger, can be placed on the fingerboard in “low” or “high” position. Just remember that this does NOT always correspond to sharp and flat. Playing a series of half steps is called chromaticism. Check out this clip to see how the fingers move from low to high and the corresponding notes:

Now that you are comfortable with reading the notes of first position (you’ve been practicing those scales, right?) It is time to see how they fit together in pieces. This is where rhythm becomes very important. Rhythm is how long or short notes are in relation to each other. So what does that mean?

How to Read Time Signatures

Measures of music are divided into beats. The beat stays steady, even if the rhythm is changing over it. Beat and rhythm are not the same thing! The beat of the music is more formally called the meter. There are two types: simple meter and compound meter. Simple meter is when the beats divide into twos, and compound meter is when the beats divide into threes. 2/4 and 4/4, and 3/4 are all examples of simple time, while 6/8 and 6/4 are examples of compound meter.

Let’s quickly review how to read time signatures

Time signatures are made up of two numbers. The top number indicates how many beats are in each measure and the bottom number indicates which note is equivalent to a beat. For example, in the time signature ¾, the top number 3 tells us there are 3 beats in the measure, and the bottom number 4 tells us the quarter note gets the beat. If you were to see a 2 on the bottom, that indicates the half note gets the beat, an 8 indicates that the eighth note gets the beat, and a 16 indicates that the sixteenth note gets the beat. You can think of the beat as one metronome click.

The standard rhythm is 4/4. If you see a big “C” in front of the music where the measure usually is, the measure is 4/4. A waltz is usually a 3/4 measure. A tango is often a 2/4 measure.

Rhythms let us know when a note should be played and how long a note should be held for. Here are some of the most common rhythms and how many beats they get in a 4/4 measure.
A whole note gets four beats
A half note gets two beats
A quarter note gets one beat
An eighth note gets half a beat (two eighth notes equal one beat)
A sixteenth note gets one-quarter of a beat (four sixteenth notes equal one beat)

rhythm notation music chart

Dotted Rhythms

Whenever you see a dot next to a note (directly next to it, not under or over it as that means something else entirely), it tells us to add half of that note’s value to that note. Let’s use a dotted half note as an example. A half note gets two beats- half of two is one, so I add one beat to the note getting a total duration of three beats.

dotted rhythm chart

Reading Rests in Violin Sheet Music

For every note value, there is also a rest of the same length. Rests can also be combined into different lengths by using dots. Here is a chart of all the symbols for notes and rests:

note value chart

How to know how fast you should play?

We’ve covered a lot around rhythm, but you might have noticed that this covers how fast the notes are in relation to another. We haven’t covered how to know in which tempo, how many beat per minute (BPM) a quarter note should be for example. That’s because there’s no fixed BPM for a quarter note or any other note value. It’s indicated by tempo markings. You can find a list of the most common tempo markings and their corresponding BPM right here.

Other symbols: Dynamics, Technique Markings, Etc.

We will talk a little bit about the other “stuff” you see on violin music, because when there’s a lot of it it can be overwhelming!

Dynamic Markings

Dynamic markings show how loud or soft to play a passage. Dynamics come from italian words: piano means “soft”, mezzo means “medium”, and forte means “strong”. To make something even softer or louder, you add more of the same letter. The dynamics in order of softest to loudest are ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, and (very occasionally) ffff. (Is it just me, or should there be an mmm dynamic?)
Composers also use words like crescendo or diminuendo to indicate changes in dynamic level. “Hairpins” like this are also used.

Technique Markings

Technique markings can be either symbols or words. They might also be in french, italian, or german! Symbols you’ll see include slurs, staccato dots (over or under the notes) accents, fermatas, trills, codas and repeat signs. I invite you to do a little more research into this as you feel moved. As for words, composers put all kinds of things in music these days! It is best to look it up on a case by case basis if you’ve never seen it before. It is tempting to ignore things written into the part, but that is what brings life to the notes.

Now that you have a basic idea of what everything on your sheet music means, don’t hesitate to open up your next piece! The only real way to learn music reading is by doing it consistently. Even if it is slow at first, through repetition and dedication you will grow more and more fluent.

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BONUS: How to Read Violin Notes in High Positions

If you have already mastered reading notes in first position and want a challenge, it is time to move on to the higher positions! Shifting is an essay in itself, so here we will simply talk about how to read all those crazy leger lines that you see in super high violin melodies. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky Concerto:

Aside from the fact these are all sixteenth notes, how do you even know what notes those are!? Advanced violin music frequently incorporates leger lines to play notes far above the staff. The challenge is remembering which note goes where! Just remember the pattern is the same. The very top line of the treble clef staff is an F, so the next note is a G and the first leger line is an A, etc.

Often you will have to quickly figure out what a note is by counting the leger lines. It is very important to memorize the notes on the leger lines in the right order. This is A, C, E, G, B, etc. Sometimes composers make this easier by using an 8va sign (see fourth line of Tchaikovsky). There’s fewer leger lines so it’s easier to read the note, but it’s actually an octave higher than that!

Learning to read music fluently takes time, but it is possible for everyone. If the sheet music looks overwhelming just take it slow, look up symbols, and learn one step at a time.