This is a short section of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite.

Where the notes are stacked, are they meant to be played as double stops, or do some violinists play the top note while others play the bottom?

After reading this, I suspect they're supposed to be double stops. But how do I know this wasn't done to economize the number of staves? Or would there always be another staff if there was another part?

I'm not a violinist, so I don't know.

Excerpt from The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

5 Answers 5


It's... tricky.

With no other indication, this probably means to play double stops. They're all pretty easy to play and there's no marking to the contrary.

To indicate divisi, the composer should either mark "div.", or would split the stems, so that the top note stems point up and the bottom note stems point down.

That being said, there are exceptions all over the place. You'll find music where the composer meant for divisi but lumped the notes together like this. And you'll run into situations where the composer wanted double stops but since you have more players available (or it's a beginner ensemble) you choose to divide.


If the notes are clearly playable by a single player throughout the passage, and wouldn't restrict the flow (i.e. it “fits” the music), it's probably supposed to be non divisi unless otherwise indicated. Technically, divisi should be marked explicitly.

However, orchestra members will often decide to divide the parts anyway, since it can make for cleaner sound. Especially if the composer was not a violinist himself/herself, it may be better.

For this reason, a composer may mark a passage specifically non div.—so ask that players not divide, perhaps for a special effect. Players, of course, have the last word and may ignore this instruction if they feel it will hurt the performance.

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    In fact, I was guilty of dividing in a non div. passage just last weekend… Sep 25, 2014 at 2:11

Interestingly enough (or not :-) ), I ran across several variations in notation within the pieces a local orchestra is working on at present. One piece includes a square bracket , "[" in front of the phrase to indicate double stops. Another piece assumes no marks means "double stop," and specifically writes "divisi" where desired.

It can depend on the conductor's desire as well. In the cello part for Tschaikovsky's Capriccio Italien (op45), there is a pizzicato passage with triple- and quadruple- stops. My teacher said the more common approach is to go divisi, and to "pluck" both assigned notes (in each division) simultaneously, as opposed to the necessary "strum" sound if everyone played the entire chord.


In an instrument score, putting notes on one stem usually indicates double stops. However, the way your score cuts off at the bottom, it looks like a partitura. While partiture are less condensed than a piano extract, they still have a certain tendency to compact homophonic passages.

If you take a look at the distribution of the material, it is sometimes two voices in Vi with one in Vii, sometimes the other way round. All of the material is playable as double stops, and part of the reason is that there is some heavy crossing of voices between Vi and Vii. Now if we were talking about plain divisi, most of that would appear quite unmotivated.

So in this particular case, my money is on double stops.


It is a double stop! It would say div. on top if it were meant to be played by two violinists. You can always decide to split it though if it is too hard or if you like how it sounds better that way.

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