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I have been been composing for piano for some time (with Sibelius), and now I have the interest to try strings (solo instrument for the beginning, e.g. violin). Obviously I cannot take piano scores and "give" them to violin.

What are the constraints and specific features composing for strings as opposed to piano?

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Long notes:

On violin you can play a long note, you can change the sound quality while playing, you can change the dynamic like make a crescendo.

On piano there are several options to compensate for that:

A) You can make a trill.

B) You can make a tremolo chord either fast unmeasured tromolo or slower measured tremolo.

C) You can have melodic lines in the right hand with fairly long notes and then add colour to it with arpeggio chords in the left hand. The notes in the right hand would then be played with a stronger attack so the melodic line is emphasized.

Fast repeated notes:

Fast repetition of the same note is easier on a violin compared with piano.

Other aspects:

I just realized that you wrote

(solo instrument for the beginning, e.g. violin).

Well, for a beginner violinist don't write long notes. Once they are beyond the total beginner state you can add some long notes, but maybe better keep them "not that long" and not too many.

Avoid C-major. Many violin students start with A-major on the upper strings (A and E strings) but not on the lower strings, like G sharp a half tone below the A string is not for beginners while G-sharp on the E-string (a major third above E) is easy.

At the beginning violin students often play on the upper strings, but it doesn't take that long before they play on the lower strings. D-major is good on D and A strings. G-major is good on the G and D strings.

Once the students is beyond the total beginner state G- major is very good on all 4 strings. Leave C-major to more advanced students.

For beginners ascending scale patterns are easier than descending scale patterns.

String crossings can be a big issue for beginners. Melodic lines that constantly go back and fourth between two strings can be difficult, but you do need to change strings now and then of course. Changing string to an open string, a nabour string, is fairly easy.

Repetition of notes is great whether you just repeat two quarter notes or make a little rhythmic pattern on a note.

So that is some things that I can think of at the moment.

  • Awesome answer! And are there any keys that are completely excluded as being very hard to play? – NickQuant Oct 26 at 8:05
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First the obvious: a violin's range only goes down to G3, and it has much more limited capabilities for polyphony. In fact you're probably well-advised to use no more than double-stops, i.e. two-note chords: a single third, fourth, fifth and sixth can generally be played quite well, but even they shouldn't be lined up to fast runs unless you're writing for a Paganini-proof virtuoso. Arpeggiated 3- or 4-note chords are also a thing, but these depend heavily on the concrete tuning. Don't write such chords without either having explored the instrument yourself or consulting a proficient player.

The other way around, bowed string instruments can do lots of stuff that piano can't. Every single note can be played in a whole bunch of very different ways. And at least for a solo part, I'd consider this quite important to bring life into the performance. You can leave it for the performer to figure out those details, but often it's a good idea to be explicit already in the sheet music. The simplest way to access some of those expressive resources is to add legato slurs and staccato dots. Unlike on piano, even a very fast run sounds completely different depending on whether it's played legato or staccato.

Then there's dynamics. Here it's particularly in slow passages that strings have much more ability than piano to sculpt expression out of only a few notes. Crescendi on a single note (swell) may have a pretty dramatic effect. Careful not to overdo this (unless you're sure you want a cliché romantic-movie effect). It's even more dangerous for the really juicy effects, particularly glissandi. Still, all of these are possibilities you should keep in mind.

I recommend you don't use a keyboard for trying out parts, at least not at first. (Unless you have one with aftertouch that can actually replicate string articulations.) Better sing to find the melodies you want, record it and only then transcribe it and figure out the best articulation marks.


Actually, string players will normally play fast dotted notes as spiccato rather than staccato – slight technical difference, but for your purposes, it's basically the same.

  • And between different strings the differences except from obvious ones (timbre and range) can be neglected, am I correct? – NickQuant Oct 26 at 8:08
  • I wouldn't say they can be neglected, but at least they're less important. Most viola or cello parts could indeed just as well be played a fifth / tritave higher on violin; the other way around it's a bit more difficult but usually still possible. The exception is double bass: that really plays quite different because of the huge size and fourths tuning. But bass parts are typically quite constrained anyways by harmony considerations and expression isn't as notable, so for those you can often just go by what you'd play on piano in the left hand. – leftaroundabout Oct 26 at 9:48

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