3. Scordatura

Violin strings are typically tuned in perfect fifths at the pitches G3, D4, A4 and E5. Scordatura, or “mistuning”, refers to tuning the strings to irregular intervals. This can result in an increased resonance on certain pitches, minor alterations in timbre, and the potential for chords and passage work that would otherwise be impossible in fifths tuning.

Scordatura was used widely throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras on a variety of stringed instruments including lutes, violas da gamba, and the violin family instruments. Tobias Hume’s collection of Musicall Humors from 1605 includes examples of scordatura on the viola da gamba. Examples may also be found in repertoire for the lyra viol,[1] viola d’amore[2] and the baroque violin itself. The famous 17th-century violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber explored scordatura on the baroque violin in his 1676 works, the Rosary Sonatas (Biber, 1905/1959, pp. 4-8), a set of fifteen sonatas depicting each stage of the Rosary. All but one of these sonatas, being The Ascension, are in scordatura tunings, some of which are so extreme as to require the use of two D string gauges.

Scordatura has never completely fallen out of fashion with examples appearing throughout the 18th century, such as Mozart’s famous Sinfonia Concertante (Mozart, 1779/1881), and in the 19th century in Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (Paganini, 1818/n.d.) and Saint-Säens’s Danse Macabre (Saint-Säens, 1874). With increasing use over the second half of the 20th century,[3] many examples of scordatura may be found in 21st-century repertoire for the modern violin, including in Santiago Díez-Fischer’s Loop’s Definition (Díez-Fischer, 2010), Catherine Lamb’s work three bodies (moving) (Lamb, 2010), and Michelle Lou’s string quartet Porcupine (Lou, 2012).


Scordatura on the baroque violin:

In addition to the historical examples discussed above, there is a growing repertoire of 21st-century composition being written in scordatura for the baroque violin. This includes examples from my own repertoire, such as Smith’s archive (2017a), a performance of which may be viewed in the Recitals, and Anderson’s The Target Has Disappeared (2018), a performance of which can be heard in Stephen Adams’ New Waves podcast (Adams, 2018). A performance of Lim’s Philtre (1997), the first given on the baroque violin, may also be found in the Recitals.


The following is an excerpt from the legend of archive by Samuel Smith (2017a, p. iv), indicating the required pitches for the strings in scordatura.

Figure 23.1 – excerpt from the legend of archive by Samuel Smith (2017a, p. iv) 


The following is an excerpt from the score of archive by Samuel Smith (2017a, p. 1), indicating that the score is transposed and that the “middle C” pitch shown here refers to a position on the instrument, rather than the sounding pitch. The sounding pitch for this note is actually a B3 and not a C4.

Figure 23.2 – excerpt from the archive (2017a, p. 1), bar 1


The following is an excerpt from the legend of The Target Has Disappeared by Natasha Anderson (2018, p. 2), indicating the required pitches for the strings in scordatura, and that the notation indicates the sounding pitch on the upper stave and fingering position on the lower stave.

Figure 23.3 – excerpt from the legend of The Target Has Disappeared by Natasha Anderson (2018, p. 2)


The following is the first bar of The Target Has Disappeared by Natasha Anderson (2018, p. 4).

Figure 23.4 – excerpt from the score of The Target Has Disappeared by Natasha Anderson (2018, p. 4), bar 1, depicting the fingered pitch on the lower stave and the sounding pitch on the upper stave


Suggested notation:

To avoid ambiguity, it is preferable that the sounding pitch be printed in a stave above the fingered pitch stave, as in Figure 23.4 above. It is also possible to notate in a transposed score, only providing the fingered pitch. In this instance, the fingered pitch stave acts as a sort of tablature.[4] By providing both the fingered pitch and the sounding pitch, composers may avoid any confusion as to where on the instrument the notes should be played.


[1] For an example of lyra viol music, see Richard Boothby’s 2016 recording Lawes: Complete Music for Solo Lyra Viol (Lawes, 2016).

[2] For example, in the 17th century with Biber’s Harmonia Artificioso-ariosa (1696/1956), and in the 18th century with Vivaldi’s opera Juditha triumphans (1716/2006).

[3] For instance in Lachenmann’s string quartets Gran Torso (1988) and “Reigen seliger Geister” (1989), Lim’s Philtre (1997), Scelsi’s Quartetto No. 4 (1964) and Duo pour violon et violoncelle (1988), and Sciarrino’s Sei quartetti brevi (1967/1992).

[4] Tablature refers to a style of notation that uses letters or numbers to represent a physical position on the instrument rather than a pitch. For further details, see Dart, Morehen and Rastall (2001).