In Can I play an English horn part with a viola?, jjmusicnotes commented that "transposing down a fifth is a pretty straightforward practice" for violists. I'm not a string player, so I've never thought of this, but:

Can a violinist, violist, or cellist transpose by perfect fifth by just playing one string higher or lower? Can a bassist do this to transpose by perfect fourth? I don't see why they couldn't, but perhaps there are other problems that would arise.

Obviously there are issues of range, with a violin only going down to the G below middle C. But let's say a violinist sees the following music:

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Can they just play this down a string to play it in the key of A?

  • I'm not really great with terminology, but as a bassist (electric, just to be clear), I can play "capo 5" by just moving to the next string.
    – theGleep
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 17:09
  • This actually happens often with fiddle tunes. Some people will learn a tune in one key on a set of strings, others in a different key on a different set of strings. In some tunes it is traditional to switch up a 5th to the next set of strings after a few repetitions. Commented May 4, 2018 at 0:52

4 Answers 4


In principle, yes. In practice, this will be quite harder than, say, for a chromatic button accordionist to transpose up/down in multiples of minor thirds (done by moving one place up on the rather uniform keyboard) because the four strings have significantly different bowing angles and their respective identity and relation to the score sheet tends to be a lot more ingrained than on uniform keyboard layouts (for example, transposing by an octave on a piano tends to come comparatively easy).

Also passages in high position on the E string may map less well to passages in high position on A string since you cannot avoid touching the D string by just tilting the bow down: there is the E string that can interfere there.

But basically, yes. With a bit of practice this will work. Just don't expect it to work out of the box without a bit of training.

  • Oh, bowing angles, great point. Not something I would have considered as a non-string player!
    – Richard
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 17:17
  • Or get a 5-string instrument and "forget" about the top string! (Yeah, I know this has all the difficulties you wrote up in your answer) Commented May 4, 2018 at 12:48


When I was first learning tenor clef on cello, (which is one fifth above bass clef, which I was a fluent reader of,) I simply thought of it as playing one string higher. Playing a C major scale fingering shifted up one string is a G major scale; start one string higher and it's a D major scale. This would work for all positions.

One 'complication' is that you only have so many strings, so at some point you're going to have to shift up on the highest string. You've already anticipated that, though; there's nothing else I can think of that would disrupt the pattern.


While it is quite common for cellists to read and play low tenor clef notes by playing the next string up (and reading as if in bass clef), for violinists and viola players you would likely get more grimaces than happy faces if asked to play up or down one string. The normal note positions are so entrenched in the mind (and fingers) that it would be hard work indeed, unless it was an easy and slow passage.

Playing an octave up is much easier and quite common, especially for violinists. Cellists are sometimes expected to play treble clef passages down one octave which is not so easy and can cause problems.

However, if enough time is given for practise and familiarisation, playing one string up or down could theoretically be achieved.

  • 2
    That is not my experience. I find it very easy to switch to a different set of strings on the violin, and I often teach my violin students that trick when switching from using D major scale to G major, which is using the same finger pattern one string down. Commented May 4, 2018 at 0:49
  • It's one thing to do this in a simple scale, it's another matter all together to play a fast or tricky passage at sight since professionals would rarely be expected to do this. That's why I mentioned that it could reasonably be done in a slow easy passage.
    – Jomiddnz
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 8:19
  • Upon reading your comment, Jomiddnz, I see that you're talking about reading sheet music, and (funny thing) I do agree with you there. The title of the question put my mind in the gear of playing by ear, in which case, to me, there's no competition; fifths are easier. But yes, when reading sheet music, often times you are asked to play up an octave (8va) and that's really not that hard (probably is easier than other intervals in that case). Commented May 5, 2018 at 5:54

Yes. Not only that, but it's an annoying trick that young students catch onto very quickly, and think is very funny.

Please play your Twinkle variations!

[proceeds to intentionally play them a fifth below their correct key]

It's really not as funny as you think it is...

You can play a one octave G major starting on the G string, and then play a one octave D major scale by starting on the D string, all without changing the fingering at all. Which is pretty neat actually.

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