The cello is using scordatura, the tuning is Cb Ab Eb Ab (from the fourth to the first string).

I want to know if the following passage is possible, tempo is around 220~240 quarter notes per minute:

The passage

The question arises because I think this is too high to play on the II and III strings (although clearly I am no cellist so I don't really know), and if it is played on the I and II strings then the cellist needs to play a major 9th in order to get the 8ve.

If the passage is not possible at all, then I need to know what makes it impossible to play (or very difficult), be it a problem of excessive hand stretch required or the piece is too fast to ask for an awkward and unfamiliar position and would require a virtuoso to play it, or whatever reason applies.

  • You mean, thanks to the scordatura, the 9th fingers like an octave? I mean, a ninth sounds like a ninth; anything that sounds like an octave isn't a ninth.
    – Kaz
    Jun 12, 2013 at 22:42
  • Is this an interval, or a double stop? What is the tempo and what duration notes are these? Quarters? Sixteenths? Do the notes have to be legato, or can there be a gap between them?
    – Kaz
    Jun 12, 2013 at 22:44
  • Kaz brings up some good points - there are many variables to consider: tempo, preceding material, the figure you intend to write, whether it is a double stop, multi-stop, an arpeggiated chord, etc. More information is needed before a proper answer can be given. Thanks! Jun 12, 2013 at 23:58
  • I'm lacking some specific terminology because english is not my first language, but to clarify, due to the scordatura, a major 9th is played but it sounds like an octave (the I string is lowered half-tone and the II is raised half-tone). And the idea is that the two notes have to sound at the same time. If there is a way to append an image and show a measure it would be great because it would make things so much clearer, if this function exists please let me know. Before talking about note duration and articulation, I want to know if it is possible to just play the notes.
    – Jojojopo
    Jun 13, 2013 at 4:38
  • 1
    It does depend to some extent on the performer -- I can reach a 9th very easily even in first position (using thumb), while my rather petite teacher can do so only with some difficulty. Question: are you planning on changing the key of your piece to "move" this double-stop up the fingerboard? That would seem to be counter to your desire for pitch/timbre combinations in going scordatura in the first place. Would it be out of the question to allow the performer to use II and III (D and G) to play this double-stop? Jun 13, 2013 at 11:46

2 Answers 2


A major 9th double stop is not possible using just the four fingers in conventional position -- in that case the maximum double stop would be a minor seventh (or a major seventh with an extension). However, it is possible using an extended thumb position, especially if the notes are high (e.g. the lower note around an octave above the string on which it's played). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thumb_position for more.

That said, because the passage requires a bunch of these 9th-fingered double stops in rapid succession, requiring an already awkward hand position to shift with every note change, this passage would require virtuosic ability.

  • I already know that the use of the thumb is required, but it is still not clear if a major 9th double stop is something that is achievable for an average cellist or if it would require a virtuoso. I need to know this to decide if it is worth it to use in the music I'm writing.
    – Jojojopo
    Jun 14, 2013 at 1:21
  • 1
    Ah, I see. The average cellist will never have played a major 9th double stop at all. Now that you've added the passage (and it's clear that you want not just an isolated stop but a bunch of 9ths rapidly moving from pitch to pitch), I'd have to say this passage would require a virtuosic player. Jun 14, 2013 at 15:14

The best advice I can offer here would be to find someone that plays cello (well) and ask them to re-tune their instrument and try and work through the passage in question. I greatly suspect this passage will lead to copious amounts of frustration and head-shaking on the instrumentalist's part.

  • First:

    Strings are used to reading / thinking in sharps because of their open strings. Scordatura has its own problems to begin with, but such awkward intervals mixed with asking the player to think of the strings as all flats is just begging for your piece to never be played ever after its premiere. Not being mean here, just being practical.

  • Second:

    Are you notating what you want to be sounding when they play with scordatura tuning or are you notating what you want them to play with scordatura - regardless of how it sounds? There seem to be some notation inconsistencies here.

  • Third:

    Here are some reasons that make your passage extraordinarily difficult:

    1. Notational inconsistency
    2. Suggested tempo
    3. Range of instrument
    4. Scordatura tuning
    5. Awkward gesture

Cellos have thicker strings, intervals are wider apart, instrument is bigger, and gestures easily done on the violin sound typically less effortless on larger instruments.

Personally, I think this passage is unnecessarily difficult to get the effect that you might be looking for. Again, I strongly recommend you have someone play this so you can learn first-hand. I predict that they would end up omitting your octaves in mm.357-358 entirely and arpeggiating the intervals in the remaining measures in order to make the gesture work.

Asking a cellist to meet all of the demands above, as well as marking the notes tenuto with detaché bowing at the specified tempo is at best going to make those measures sound clunky.

Instead, you may want to look into bariolage with legato bowing indications which might give you the effect you're looking for (not to mention emphasize the scordatura - after all, that's the point of scordatura right?)

Also, it's not necessarily my business, but why would you ask such an awkward scordatura and then mark the key signature so traditionally?

  • I respectfully disagree with some of this. quarter=240 means 80 per measure, so look at this as a fast andante triplet pattern. Transposition is a pain, but is a fact of life for musicians. Violinists occasionally tune up a full step ("voice of the devil" or some such), and as a former clarinetist, I transposed Bb-A, A-Bb, Bb-Eb, Bb-C and more. It's really no tougher than swapping clefs on the fly. Jun 14, 2013 at 11:47
  • @CarlWitthoft - Yes, I am aware of the math...my issue regarding tempo wasn't so much for the 2nd half of the excerpt in question, but the first two measures, which is going to be very difficult to get the connected sound the OP is looking for at that tempo. My point there was for the OP to think about using slurs. Scordatura and transposition are similar but handled differently. The scordatura would be more manageable if it only affected 1 or 2 strings (like much music) or if the OP had retained the original intervals between the strings. Jun 14, 2013 at 15:54
  • @CarlWitthoft - By tuning to non-standard intervals, the OP is completely changing all note placement / scalar patterns on the instrument. This will make learning / playing the piece much less reflexive, and passages / figures that might have worked with normal tuning may no longer be feasible due to new note placement. The resulting scalar patterns would almost be like trying to play an A Cl. in the bottom third of it's range, an F Horn in the middle range, and an English Horn in the upper range - all while reading concert pitch. Yes, it's manageable, but possibly unnecessarily difficult. Jun 14, 2013 at 16:09
  • @jjmusicnotes All answer point by point. Regarding notation (the second item you listed), I'm aware that this should be written as you would write a transposing instrument: you write what the player needs to play in order to get the desired result. I can't write it that way yet because I don't know how this passage should be played (if using the I and II strings, or the II and III, or when to switch from a pair of strings to the other), so what I showed as the musical example are the notes that have to sound. I need to know how the passage will be played to be able to write it properly.
    – Jojojopo
    Jun 14, 2013 at 16:56
  • The tuning on each string is self-consistent, but I appreciate your comment on having to learn to play with different intervals between strings. I admit that it took me a while to get comfy on bass (4ths) after studying cello (fifths). Jun 14, 2013 at 16:56

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