Let's say I have a tune in my mind, one I have invented and so there isn't any sheet music for it still. I would like to play it on the violin. What strategy can I use to find out what strings to use and where to press them?

For the guitar I just play all notes from the lowest to the highest until I find the one nearest to the first I can whistle (since human whistle is quite high in pitch, I may decide to transpose this note one octave sometimes, to not go past the highest available pitch on the guitar) That fixes my first note. Then I play a second note starting from the first and going either up or down until I find what matches the tune second note as I can whistle and so on. Since there are frets, I have a discrete set of pitches (ignore bending effects, which I only add later as embellishments).

But on a fiddle, how to do that? Is it right if I use vibrato to correct the pitch until it matches the note I whistle? How am I going to remember the left hand's positions without frets? Just muscle memory?

How do you composers find out notes for a music you have in your head on the violin? I am especially interested to play a piece of music I am thinking of that has the timbre of the violin.

  • 2
    This sounds more like you don't know how to play a fretless instrument, or how to sing in tune, rather than anything to do with converting between what you "hear" and what you play.
    – user28
    Mar 25, 2016 at 23:59
  • You did not understand me :-( I was asking about another way to play the violin, by imitating human voice rather than fretted instruments. Mar 26, 2016 at 8:03
  • Antonio - your question may need editing then, as it doesn't say anything about imitating the human voice. Practice will help you be able to play any note you can sing - it becomes second nature, whether or not the note holds to Western temperament.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Mar 26, 2016 at 11:12
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    There's a big difference between voice and instrument, pitch-wise. On an instrument, one can reproduce the same note time and time again, as it lives in a particular place on that instrument. As in top string open on guitar will be 'E'. Unless you have absolute (perfect) pitch, you will not be able to reproduce a certain pitch each time without reference - it will vary. Thus trying to play what you sing will vary each time, and patterns will not reveal themselves easily.
    – Tim
    Mar 26, 2016 at 11:46
  • I would play an open A and use relative pitch to find the note. A piano might be easier for finding notes, though. Jan 10, 2017 at 6:10

3 Answers 3


Presumably what you really want is to be able to 'just play' the melody on your instrument of choice, in the same way as you can easily 'just sing' or 'just whistle' it. With sufficient practice, this can come - you hand can develop the same ability to jump to the right position on the right string to get the pitch you want without any obvious thought or analysis going on.

The question is - how to develop this ability as quickly as possible?

If the instrument had just one string, you could probably develop this ability fairly quickly without too much analytical thought - your hand would learn how far to jump, just as your lips or vocal folds learn how to change position.

The difficulty is that violins and guitars have multiple strings, and taking advantage of those is trickier to do through intuition alone.

This is where learning how to play some scales on the instrument is really useful - and at first it doesn't really matter if the scales you learn are not the scales you use in your music. If you learn to play a few different major scales you'll learn how to move a semitone, a tone, a fifth, and how to jump an octave. This will give you an idea of how the pitches 'map' across the strings, and will make it easier for you to play any music using any scale.

You could also try to work out what scales your music is using. If you do find that your music is using a particular scale or scales, then those scales will be the most useful ones to practice as you will be learning / reinforcing the note positions that you need to find for your tunes.

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    Thanks, that's what I learned, without even knowing you call them scales, because for me they are just melodies. BTW the best way to learn these "scales" is by making up and playing these melodies. The more melodies you invent and play, the more you will be able to use the instrument just like your voice. I understand this takes time, we probably spend the same amount of time in our childhood to learn to sing. The amazing thing is that no theory is needed, just a lot of practice. I will probably be able to do on the violin as well one day. Mar 26, 2016 at 14:28
  • I do not use the word "fifth". For me is just a seven fret interval and on the guitar (in standard tuning) is down-right-right, except from 3rd string, where it is down-right-right-right. Thx for letting me think that guitar strings are just multiple single strings that overlap! So it's like one long string, but actually easier to play because you can go faster by moving down. Mar 26, 2016 at 15:08
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    @AntonioBonifati As well as something you can just play up and down like a melody, a scale is a slightly more abstract concept : it's the set of notes used in a melody (or a whole song, or part of a song). That concept isn't necessarily an absolutely essential one, nor is it one that applies to all music, but it's still worth looking at how lots of music can be seen as being built around certain scales. Mar 26, 2016 at 15:21
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    @AntonioBonifati You can see the 'fifth' as a shape on the fretboard (down right right, like a knight moving in chess - though of course on the piano or violin it will be a different shape (or, again, a number of different shapes). You could also see it as a seven fret - or seven semitone - interval, or you can see it as the frequency ratio 3:2 (so a 'fifth' above a 100Hz note is 150Hz). It all depends what way(s) are most useful for you in a particular context. Mar 26, 2016 at 15:23
  • I wonder if a more regular tuning like tuning in fourths could simplify my learning of playing the music in my head. E.g. if I transpose a melody from first to second neck, all positions on the 3rd string are shifted one place right, which breaks my muscle memory. I know violin is tuned in fifths, which is also a regular tuning. Mar 26, 2016 at 16:12

You ask for strategies. The first is to be able to play various scales - major and minor are good for starters. It seems at the moment that you need to play each and every note up and down till you find the matching one, then do almost the same for subsequent notes.

Most tunes use the notes from a particular key - they're the scale notes, and are, in lots of cases, seven out of the twelve. The other five often don't feature, so why waste time playing them to check if they're in your tune.

So, armed with scale knowledge, you can more easily find the key your song is in, and choose only from that set of notes for the rest. At the same time, you'll get used to intervals, e.g. going from note one to note three in a scale is a third, so when you recognise the sound, it'll save a lot of time and pointless searching.

If you struggle more on the violin, it's not surprising, as landmarks on the fingerboard don't exist. As ever, a teacher will be another strategy.

Yes, learning scales is often perceived as tedious, but nowhere near as tedious as your method right now!

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    I'm trying to help, but haven't much to go on. Do you mean your tunes do not use the standard 12edo notes? If so, how do they translate onto guitar, which is presumably tuned as the majority of guitars are.
    – Tim
    Mar 26, 2016 at 8:13
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    @AntonioBonifati - 'every tune is a scale'? A scale is an ordered set of notes, ascending and descending, using each note in pitch order. One tune from the Aristocats - 'Scales and Arpeggios' does this, but not many other tune is actually a scale.
    – Tim
    Mar 29, 2016 at 13:03
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    That may well produce a scale, maybe even going over the octave, yes. 'Every tune has notes from a scale in it'.
    – Tim
    Mar 29, 2016 at 20:32
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    @AntonioBonifati "Why should scales help me on the violin?" Because if you practice putting your fingers in the right place to make notes a lot, it will be easier to put your fingers in the right place to make notes. By definition. A scale is a set of notes. All songs are, as I believe Tim said, have scales in them. If you recognize the tune as being in the same key as a scale you've learned, you will be better able to play the notes since you've practiced them together. Mar 30, 2016 at 23:48
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    @AntonioBonifati - this is where ordered music comes from. Folks realised that certain patterns were cropping up time and time again, and sounded good. Theories became apparent, which helped future players to save a lot of time and effort re-inventing the wheel.
    – Tim
    Mar 31, 2016 at 10:31

There are two ways that come to mind:

  1. Find a violin teacher, whistle the melody to them and ask them to teach it to you. (Easiest way, but also requires money)

  2. Use a computer or a smartphone to record yourself whistling the melody. then use a transcription tool like "amazing slow downer", "music speed changer" or even "audacity" (open source) to slow the notes down to 1/2 or 1/4 speed. You can also set loop points - loop the first note so the computer or phone plays it over and over until you find it on the violin, then loop the next one, etc. (Needs no money, just lots of time and patience)

To find notes on the violin (or just about any string instrument):

  • Play an open string.
  • If it's higher than the note you're imagining, play the next string to the left (thicker). If it's lower, play the next string to the right (thinner).

Eventually one of 3 things will happen:

  1. You're back and forth between 2 strings: This means the note you want is somewhere on the left string in the pair, but not higher than the right string. Slide up the left string in the pair until you find your note.
  2. You're on the right-most string (on the violin: E). Slide up until you find your note.
  3. The note is lower than the left-most string (on the violin: G). It's out of range. Move the whole tune higher and try again.

Getting hold of a mandolin might help - it's tuned the same as a violin, but has frets, which will help give you some structure.

There's also some ear-training software specifically for violin like this: http://www.violineartrainer.com/ which will help you orient yourself and speed up the connection between your head and your fingers.

Good luck, and enjoy your musical journey. It may take a while.

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