I am so excited to answer this question! And for once, the answer is simply… yes! The fact that the violin can play two notes at the same time is actually one of my favorite characteristics of the instrument. It is also a relatively rare quality for an instrument to have.
Let’s dive into exactly how it is possible to produce two pitches at once on the violin, and why this is so incredibly cool! We’ll also look at three- and four-note possibilities.
How do violinists play two notes at once?
Violins are primarily melodic instruments. In other words, they usually play the main tune of a song, which is only one note at a time. And in order to play notes individually on the violin, the bridge of the violin must have a curved design. This makes it possible for a violinist to draw the bow across each string separately, thus isolating individual notes.
However, when it comes to playing more than one note simultaneously, the curvature of the bridge can seem to get in the way! After all, we have just one bow, but four different strings! Because of this, for example, it is impossible to simultaneously strike the G (lowest) string and the E (highest) string.
However, violins can play two adjacent strings at the same time! The caveat is that the bow must be at EXACTLY the correct angle at all times to maintain consistent contact with both of the strings that are being played. Specifically, it is possible to play the following combinations:
The technical term for playing two notes at the same time on the violin is “double stop”.
Can a violin play three notes at the same time?
This answer is a bit more nuanced. Theoretically, and from what I told you above, it should be impossible to do this. However, very skilled violinists know how to pull this off in certain situations.
The curved setup of the violin’s strings becomes less dramatic as you move away from the bridge. If you place the bow far enough from the bridge and apply more force to the bow, three strings can be sufficiently flattened and thus struck simultaneously. However, using this much pressure at a distance from the bridge can cause some tone issues. Therefore, it must be done with a very fast bow and cannot be sustained for very long.
This technique is common in the eighth variation of Paganini’s 24th caprice. In particular, Hilary Hahn does this incredibly well. In her interpretation, it really sounds like all three notes are playing simultaneously.
Fun fact: since chords contain a minimum of three notes, this means violins can, in fact, play chords! In violin jargon, we call these triple stops.
…What about four notes?
Okay, this is where the answer becomes a solid no. Unless you were to completely flatten your bridge (as TwoSet did in this video), it is impossible to simultaneously play four notes on the violin. However, you will still see four-note chords in violin sheet music! And a violinist has some different choices about how to play these. Sometimes, we’ll roll our bow over the four strings, playing each note of the chord quickly in succession. Though, more often, we’ll break the four notes into two parts by playing the bottom two strings together first, followed by the top two. In either case, we call these quadruple stops.
Moreover, because of the difficulty involved in playing three strings simultaneously, we often take one of these approaches with triple stops as well.
What makes playing two notes together so cool?
The fact that the violin can play two notes together at the same time really sets it apart from other instruments. Of course, violas and cellos can do this as well. But instruments like the flute, trumpet, clarinet, etc. could never play two notes at once.
Other instruments, such as the piano, guitar, and xylophone can play two (or more!) notes together. But these instruments don’t sustain their sound like the violin (each note fades pretty quickly as it is played). And though I know that there are definitely others out there, the only instrument I can think of that can sustain two pitches at once is an organ.
So, the violin’s ability to produce two simultaneous, sustained pitches really sets it apart from the other instruments. Personally, I love playing double stops. The notes just blend in the most gorgeous way on the violin! (Of course, this is only true if you play in tune! 😉)
What is the purpose of playing two notes together?
In music, we have melodies and harmonies. The melody is simply the recognizable tune of a song. The harmony is everything else that supports that main tune, adding depth and structure beneath it.
Its ability to play double stops (as well as a selection of triple and quadruple stops) means the violin is capable of playing both the melody and the harmony! Bach took great advantage of this fact when composing his works for the violin – namely, the Sonatas and Partitas. These pieces are loaded with intense passages of chords and double stops. Check out this little snippet of me playing a beautiful movement of Bach’s A minor Sonata. This piece really illustrates the amazing ability of the violin to harmonize with itself.
While there are certainly many violin pieces which do not involve any double, triple, or quadruple stops, there are equally many – if not more – pieces which do involve them. Playing multiple notes together is simply an integral part of violin playing! This technique gives the violin a much more standalone effect, which is perhaps why Bach felt comfortable not writing any accompaniment for the Sonatas and Partitas.
To wrap it all up…
The violin is more than capable of playing two notes at once. And it is actually extremely common for violinists to do so! In addition, three notes can sometimes be played simultaneously as well. Four-note quadruple stops are also played, but they need to be broken into parts, since the bow cannot strike all four strings at once.
The violin has the super-cool ability of harmonizing with itself. It is one of my favorite things about the violin! So, let’s celebrate yet another thing that sets the violin apart and helps to make it the awesome (and difficult) instrument that it is. 🎻