Play Bach Better by Improving Your Fifths on Violin

By outlining the tonic and fifth of the harmony in the lowest two voices, Bach gives great solidity to the chord voicing on violin.

By Scott Flavin | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine

In J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006, the composer’s use of the instrument’s four strings to create a world of multiple voices and complex textures is truly remarkable. Some of the greatest challenges in terms of technique and tuning are to be found in the double-stop writing, most notably in four-note chords. Many of these include the interval of a perfect fifth, especially on the lower two strings, a chord voicing that creates an especially rich and pleasing sonority. By outlining the tonic and fifth of the harmony in the lowest two voices, Bach gives great solidity to the chord voicing. You’ll find four-note chords with the fifths in the bottom two notes in Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Fuga, mm. 58–59 (Ex. 1, below) and Partita No. 2 in D minor, Allemanda, m. 16 (Ex. 2)—this is also the only four-note chord in the entire movement.

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Bach also uses double-stop fifths alone as an expressive device; by omitting the third of the chord, he creates a sense of release (as in Partita No. 3 in E major, Minuet 1, end of the first section at m. 8, Ex. 3), or purity (Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Grave, m. 18, Ex. 4), or even harmonic ambiguity.

Hate ’Em or Love ’Em…

None other than the great violin pedagogue Carl Flesch recommended avoiding fifths whenever possible! As he wrote in his book Violin Fingering: Its Theory and Practice:

“Perfect fifths are the problem children of double-stops, for their intonation depends as much upon the quality and tuning of the strings as upon the skill of the player. Whereas impure intonation in all other intervals can be quickly and inconspicuously corrected by shifting one finger, ‘false fifths’ can be rectified only by changing the position of the whole hand or even of the arm, a procedure that can never be successfully concealed. 


“Besides, when strings get out of tune during a performance, the situation is beyond the control of the performer, as far as double-stops in perfect fifths are concerned. No amount of skill will help the player, and all he can do is either to shorten both notes as much as possible, or to omit one note of the fifth. The elimination or alleviation of these difficulties will be among the most important considerations in choosing a correct fingering for double-stops in fifths. Preference should always be given to the first or second finger; only if these are not available should the third finger be used. The fourth finger should be avoided at all costs.”

By contrast, the fine violinist and concertmaster Rodney Friend is an advocate for practicing practically everything in fifths; he believes that by covering two strings with the same finger, a player finds the ideal position of the left hand, a notion he demonstrates to great effect.

…But Tune ’Em!

No matter your personal feeling about fifths, when you encounter them in Bach, you must play them well! It is vital that you play fifths in tune for several reasons:

  • Most common scale structures can be viewed as a series of perfect fifths (a precise interval).
  • The perfect fifth is the most consonant interval in music (except for unisons and octaves). 
  • When any note is played, the interval one perfect fifth higher is audible in the sound of that note, as a prominent note in the overtone series.
  • The key of a note and the key of its perfect fifth are closely related.

In order to get more comfortable with the unique technical requirements of fifth double-stops, follow two steps: One, practice fifths outside of repertoire for technique. Two, apply them in context to music.


Step One—Technique

It is important to first understand some basic principles about playing fifths on the violin. As Flesch pointed out, unlike other double-stops, the whole hand and even the arm is used to adjust pitch, so be open to moving the arm and hand in different ways to find good intonation. At first, this may prove to be difficult and feel unfamiliar, but as with shifting, the more you practice, the more you “remember” these new positions; when you do, you begin to build more consistently in-tune fifths. 

It is also important to use more of the pads of the left-hand fingers—this will allow more complete coverage of the two strings with the same finger and give greater flexibility to adjust for pitch than if you were to use the tips of your fingers. To help achieve this, position your left hand somewhat lower in relation to the neck of the violin, which will shift the point of contact of the fingers from the tips to more on the pads. Do practice double-stop fifths with vibrato, as this encourages flexibility in the left hand. 

If you have great trouble tuning a particular fifth, balance the left hand more on one string than the other; experimentation will help you find the proper physical solutions. Moving forward, practice scales in fifth
double-stops with and without vibrato. It can also be helpful to take the example of Rodney Friend and practice melodies in fifths, with vibrato and shifts.


Step Two—Context 

Now that you have found increased facility and consistency in fifth double-stops, you can work on them in repertoire. When you find a chord or double-stop containing a fifth, remember that you may have to move the arm or hand to accommodate good intonation. If there are other fingers in the chord, they must use this possibly altered left-hand position as well. 

In the midst of all these left-hand difficulties, do not neglect the right hand—always practice with a beautiful and rich bow sound, which will encourage the left hand to remain flexible. Once you can play the double-stop or chord with consistent good intonation, it is time to put it in the context of the music. First of all, look at the notes before and after the chord. Much like a position change or shift, you need to find ways of preparing the hand for the in-tune fifth. If you don’t prepare the hand ahead of time, your left hand will be forced to move angularly, creating tension, disrupting the flow of the music, and most likely negatively affecting intonation. After the fifth, repeat the process in reverse, using the notes following it to reclaim the previous hand position. The next step is to note the tempo, dynamics, articulation, character, and harmonic or structural function of the passage as well; this will allow the chord or double-stop to become an integral part of the phrase. 

The Good News

Once you start isolating and tuning fifths and fifth-chords in Bach, you will find many commonalities among them, meaning you won’t have to work so hard to improve all of them! The additional benefit is that you will start hearing the fifth relationships in Bach’s music more clearly, and truly understand that they are at the heart of his music.

5 Strategies for Achieving Successful Fifths

  1. This interval is essentially influenced by the shape of the hand, so be willing to adjust your arm and hand position.
  2. Make sure you are using the pads of your fingers rather than the tips (somewhat lowering your hand in relation to the fingerboard will help).
  3. Flexibility is key, so vibrating in practice can help avoid tension in the left hand.
  4. Practice scales and melodies in successive fifths.
  5. Find fifths in repertoire and fix them, then practice them in context.
Play Bach Better by Improving Your Fifths music notation examples 1–3

Book cover for "A Practice Primer: make the most of your practice time" edited by Megan Westberg

Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.