Standard Instruments

  • Violin (treble clef)
  • Viola (alto clef)
  • Cello (bass clef, also tenor/treble clefs for high pitched sections)
  • Double bass (bass clef, sounds an octave lower than written)

Open String Tunings

When a string player plays a note without pressing a finger down anywhere on the string, this is called an “open note”. If the player touches the string, the vibrating length of the string is shortened, and the note produced is higher.

The note produced by the open string is the lowest note possible on that string, and it is the note which the string is tuned to.

You need to know what notes are produced on the open strings for each of the four string instruments. You might be asked, for example, to circle in a score a note which could be played on an open string.

So, you need to know not only the letter name, but also which octave the note is in.

string tunings
open string

= use an open string

  • Notice that the viola and cello are tuned to the same notes, except the cello is an octave lower.
  • Notice that the violin, viola and cello are tuned in 5ths, whereas the double bass is tuned in 4ths.
  • Don’t forget that the double bass sounds an octave lower than written (which is why there is a little 8 on the clef here).
  • It might help you to remember these tunings if you notice that the double bass strings are the same as the violin’s in reverse order!

Often an exam question will ask you whether a string instrument must or can play on an open string.

A player must use an open string if any of these conditions if:

A player can use an open string if their instrument has a string tuned to that particular pitch.

String Words

“sul A” = use the A string  “arco” = use the bow as normal  
“una corda” = 1st string  “pizzicato” = pluck with the finger  
“due corde” = 2nd string  “divisi/div.” = instrumental section divided into two parts  
“tre corde” = 3rd string  “unison” = instrumental section plays all together  
down bow   up bow  
“con sordino” = use a mute on the bridge° play a harmonic note (touch the string lightly to produce a higher sound)
Double/triple stopping = play 2 or 3 notes at once.
(With 2 notes, they are played at the same time. With 3 notes, they are played quickly from lowest to highest).
Double bassContrabassoKontrabassContrebass