By Katharine Rapoport

Often at the very end of a piece, the composer asks for an even richer sound from violins by writing three and four notes to be played at once (or as close as possible to at once), which means you’re actually playing chords on your violin. You use your bow in special ways to make these chords sound as clear as a bell.

Bowing on three or four strings requires some understanding of the curvature of the bridge and the shock-absorbing qualities of the hand and the bow. Here are the two most usual ways to play chords.

Chords are generally played from the bottom note to the top note. You make a richer sound, and you highlight the highest note (which is most usually the note belonging to the actual tune of the song). So always place a finger on the lowest string first, and then add the next-higher notes in sequence. The exception is if one of your fingers is already playing on the previous note, in which case, you usually add all the remaining fingers from the lowest string first.

Three-note chords

Getting round the curvature of the violin bridge involves some artful moves to make your three-note chords sound rich. Violinists begin three-note chords by playing the lower two strings together and then switching to the upper two strings during the same bow stroke, without batting an eyelid— or stopping the bow stroke!

Take a look at how to bow four different three-note chords below. Follow these moves for the first chord:

  1. Set your left hand up for the first three-note chord by simply placing finger 1 on the A string and leaving it there before you start bowing.

    The three notes of your chord are the open G, the open D, and note B on the A string, played by finger 1.

  2. Begin your down-bow on G and D strings together.

  3. Switch your bow over to play on the D and A strings together before you’re at the halfway point of the bow, while continuing the down-bow direction, to play the top two notes together.

After you get going, there’s an empty measure to get organized for each three-note chord. While still referring to the figure below, do the following moves for the second, third, and fourth chords:

  • Second chord: Land finger 1 on the E string, and then follow the preceding Steps 2 through 3, adjusting the steps to use the new notes and strings.

  • Third chord: Land finger 1 on the D string, with finger 2 close by on the A string, and then follow the same bowing moves as in the preceding Steps 2 through 3.

  • Fourth chord: Notice that the final chord is very similar to the third chord, but this time, finger 1 lands on the A string and finger 2 is close by on the E string.

    Four three-note chords.
    Four three-note chords.

Keep a strong bow contact as you finish a chord to make it sound rich. You may need to work a little extra weight into your bowing when you’re approaching the tip of the bow, which is naturally lighter, and you want to maintain the full sound.

Four-note chords

For the juiciest possible sound, four-note chords are really peachy! Bowing these takes a bit of finesse, because you can’t really bow on all four strings at once without making a tremendous amount of crunchy bow noise. To get a clear sound, think of bowing four-note chords as if your bow were a seesaw (or teeter-totter), and roll across each pair of strings while you keep the bow moving steadily.

First, prepare your fingers in their correct placement. For the first four-note chord, land finger 1 on the A string and then place finger 2 close by on the E string. For the second four-note chord, land finger 1 on the G and D strings together (aim finger 1 at the black space of the fingerboard between the two strings to land on both), and then place finger 2 a whole step away on the A string and finger 3 close by on the E string.

Putting fingers on one at a time makes good sense when you first practice a chord, but later, you can shape up all your fingers together to land them in one movement.

After your fingers are in place, follow these instructions and look at the example below to play an impressive four-note chord:

  1. Balance your bow at the frog on your G and D strings together, and then draw about of the down-bow before stopping lightly on the strings.

  2. Roll the bow silently over to the D and A strings together, draw the next of the bow, and then stop lightly on the strings.

  3. Roll the bow silently over to the A and E strings together, and then bow out the final of your bow.

After you’re able to feel the different levels, you can reduce the amount of stopping, until the transitions are smooth. Then, try the last two moves:

  1. Save some bow at the start of the chord so that you have plenty of sound for the top notes, which is usually where you need extra bow.

  2. Try bowing 2 + 2 strings; in other words, go from the G-D string level to the A-E string level by rolling quickly across the middle of the chord.

    This technique is useful when the chord happens quickly, and you have no time to linger on the middle strings.

    Two four-note chords to get ahead with!
    Two four-note chords to get ahead with!