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When you first start learning the violin, you will also start learning to read music. To a musician, written music is like an actor’s script. It tells you what to play, when to play it and how to play it. Music, like language, is written with symbols which represent sounds; from the most basic notation which shows the pitch, duration and timing of each note, to more detailed and subtle instructions showing expression, tone quality or timbre, and sometimes even special effects. What you see on the page is a sort of drawing of what you will hear.

The notes in Western music are given the names of the first seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Once you get to G the note names begin again at A.

The notes of the violin strings without any fingers pressed down, which are commonly known as the open strings, are called G, D, A and E, with G being the lowest, fattest string and E the highest sounding, finest string.

When notated, the open string sounds of the violin look like this:

You will see that the notes are placed in various positions on five parallel lines called a stave. Every line and space on the stave represents a different pitch, the higher the note, the higher the pitch. The note on the left here is the G - string note, which is the lowest note on the violin. The note on the right is the E - string pitch, which is much higher. The round part, or head of the note shows the pitch by its placing on the stave. Each note also has a stem that can go either up or down.

The symbol at the front of the stave is called a treble clef. The clef defines which pitches will be played and shows if it’s a low or high instrument. Violin music is always written in treble clef. When notes fall outside of the pitches that fit onto the stave, small lines called ledger lines are added above or below to place the notes, as you can see with the low G - string pitch which sits below two ledger lines. Once too many ledger lines are needed and the music becomes visually confusing, it’s time to switch to a new clef, such as bass clef.

The numbers after the treble clef are called the time signature. The stave works both up and down (pitch) and from left to right. From left to right, the stave shows the beat and the rhythm. The beat is the heartbeat or pulse of the music. It doesn’t change. The music is written in small sections called bars, which fall between the vertical lines on the stave called bar lines. Some pieces have four beats in a bar, which means you feel them in four time, some have three, like a waltz, and so on. The time signature shows how many beats are in each bar, and what kind of note each of those beats is.

The rhythm is where notes have different durations within the structure of the bar. This is where pieces can really start to get interesting.

Here we can see a variety of rhythms.

Each of these bars has a value of four beats. The first of the notes above is called a semibreve. It lasts for four beats. The second is called a minim (or half note, in America) and each minim lasts for two beats. You can see there are two minims in a four-beat bar. The third example is a crotchet or quarter note. Each crotchet is one beat long. The fourth rhythm is a quaver, or eighth note, which lasts for half a beat, and the last note value shown is called a semiquaver or sixteenth note, and lasts for quarter of a beat, so sixteen semiquavers fit into a four beat bar. The smaller notes are written in groups of four so they match up with the beat visually and are easy to read. Each note length has a corresponding symbol to show when there is a rest (silence) of that duration.

The time signature 4/4 shows that there are four beats in each bar (the top 4) and that each of those is a crotchet or quarter note (the lower 4). The time signature 3/8 would show three (the top number) quaver, or eighth note, (the bottom number) beats in a bar.

As you put your fingers on the strings to play new notes on the violin, the music shows the pitch rising. So the first finger note on each string of the violin would look like this:

The note after G on the G – string is called A and is played with the first finger. The note after D on the D – string is called E, on the A – string it’s B and on the E – string it’s F. The first finger in violin fingering is the index finger, unlike on the piano where 1 denotes the thumb.

There are other symbols which show pitch, one of which, the thing that looks like a hash tag, is shown above. This one is called a sharp and the full name of the second note shown on the E – string is F sharp. You will see these symbols for sharps or flats in the key signature of nearly every piece. The key signature is placed between the treble clef and the time signature and shows you which key or tonality to play in.

As you add the other fingers, you can see below how the gaps on the stave are filled, until you are playing every first position note on your violin.  As you build up your fingers one at a time, the pitches on the stave look like this:

The very last note here is played with the fourth finger on the E – string. It is worth noting at this point that because the pitches of the violin strings are five notes or a fifth apart, each open string note after G can also be played with the fourth finger or pinkie on the previous string, so the A – string note, for example, can be played with the fourth finger on the D –string.

This seems a lot to remember but there are a couple of helpful memory tricks. The notes in the spaces of the stave, in ascending order, are F, A, C and E, or FACE. The notes on the lines are E, G, B, D and F. You may remember learning the mnemonic, Every Good Boy Deserves Fun.

You will soon begin to memorise which note corresponds to which sound and finger placement on your violin. Remember that when you learned to read, you were simultaneously studying writing skills. Try downloading and printing this music manuscript paper, and practice writing out the notes as you learn to play them. Write out the open string notes and practice from your own copy. Making the connection between writing, reading and playing will speed up and deepen the process of learning. Soon the note reading will become habitual, and just as you don’t have to process every letter to read a word, you will begin to see the piece as a whole rather than having to read each note and work out where to play it.

As with any new skill, the more you practise and try it out, the more confident you will feel and the sooner you will be reading music fluently.

 

As Christmas approaches, it is always a nice chance to learn some festive music to get into the seasonal spirit.

There is loads of Christmas music available, from carols to favourite pop songs, but before we delve into the Christmas goodies, here’s some improvised fiddle fun from Peter Lee Johnson to get you in the mood…

If you want to try something less complicated, there is a wealth of music for beginner and intermediate level violinists. Perhaps the best book for adults and children is by Kathy and David Blackwell, authors of the Fiddle Time series. They have put together a great selection in Fiddle Time Christmas (Oxford University Press). It’s available on Amazon, where it has five star customer reviews.

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Their book contains 32 Christmas tunes, some well known favourites and some lesser known songs, many of which have the words to sing along to; there’s a selection of solo and duet pieces and easy chord symbols for piano or guitar accompaniment. The arrangements are nice and easy with simple finger patterns and the book even comes with a CD to listen or play along to.

Let’s take a quick look through the book.

The first song is the Christmas carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which is a lovely tune by Mendelssohn. This version is in G major and has simple rhythms. Look out for the C naturals on the A string, which need a low second finger, and try singing the words to help with the dotted rhythms. The dynamics increase as the song draws to a triumphant close.

The first duet piece is the traditional English melody The Holly and the Ivy. This song has three beats in a bar. Most of the rhythms move together between the top and bottom parts, but look out for places where one player has two quavers and the other has a crotchet. Much of the harmony is quite close so listen to make sure your tuning works together.

The same is true of Silent Night, a bit further on in the book. Close harmony needs good intonation so that the song sounds really beautiful. Notice the dynamics in Silent Night. There are ‘hairpins;’ crescendos and diminuendos marked to shape each phrase in the same way that you would sing it. Listen to the way the phrases are sung by these choristers.

The next duet is I Saw Three Ships. This is in a compound time signature, 6/8, which sounds like a jig or sea shanty. This recording gives a strong sense of the dance-like rhythm from an unlikely source.

The book continues with the carol Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and the Trinidadian carol Christmas Calypso. Again this is a more complicated rhythm. Sing the words and notice where the strong beats fall. The bow distribution is slightly tricky in this song as there are notes of different lengths mixed up in each phrase. Try using slightly less bow for the quavers and more for the crotchets to help divide up the bow and to give the swinging calypso rhythm. Listen to this Christmas Calypso to hear the gentle sway and emphasis of the beat.

The next few songs are Once In Royal David’s City, again in G major, so look out for those C naturals, then Go Tell it on the Mountain and O Christmas Tree. O Christmas Tree is another duet which will be great fun to play with a friend.  Playing Christmas songs together is great fun for adults and children. Although the children in this video are playing in D major, their performance gives a great idea of the rhythm of the song.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas, While Shepherds Watched and We Three Kings are next. Many of these songs will be familiar to even young children who will have heard them or sung them at school. It’s always nice to start with the songs you know. Listen to them all on the CD and you’ll discover plenty of new songs too.

Next come plenty more favourite carols including Away in a Manger and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, before the carols are interrupted by a simple version of the famous Skaters’ Waltz by Waldteufel. Listen to the full orchestral version and imagine the skaters gliding over the ice! Waldteufel’s name is pretty fun too. It’s German for Forest Devil.

The next tune is from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, which is a huge Christmas favourite with a surreal surfeit of dancing mice and sweets. Watch these dancers performing Dance of the Reed Pipes. Notice how the shape of the dance follows the shape of the music.

The book ends with some more famous melodies, including Jingle Bells, and two Hogmanay tunes. Hogmanay is Scots for the last day of the year, and the Hogmanay Reel is a Scottish dance tune. Auld Lang Syne is a song traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve and also at the very end of any decent Scottish party when everyone is feeling sentimental about having to go home.

Fiddle Time Christmas is a really great place to start learning Christmas music, but there are also plenty of Christmas songs available as free downloads. There is a nice selection of carols at www.violinonline.com. They all come with sheet music, scores and sound files. Some are perfect for beginners, and others more suitable for the intermediate player. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear has some more advanced accidentals and the Messiah Medley is quite challenging but great if you like Handel’s music.

Fiddlerman.com has a downloadable version of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, suitable for intermediate players. There’s no sound file and it’s not in the original key because vocal scores are often in very difficult keys, but if you love the song, here it is.

Christmas only comes once a year, so dive into the seasonal repertoire, have fun, and happy Christmas!


 

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Finding new music to learn is a huge part of studying the violin, and if you want to expand your music library without spending a fortune there are several ways to find free easy violin sheet music.

During your lessons, your teacher will guide your choice of repertoire and help you progress through different styles and skill levels.  However, discovering new music for yourself, even with a teacher’s help, can be an overwhelming task, and buying new music books only to find you don’t like the pieces can be expensive.

A simple Google search, “Free Easy Violin Sheet Music,” yields a staggering 731,000 results. But it’s not that simple. There is a reason why good quality sheet music is not cheap.

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Firstly there is the question of copyright. Any piece of music published in the last 70 years is still in copyright and photocopying it or downloading it from the Internet is illegal. Easy versions of many familiar tunes are available as arrangements, but most arrangements are still in copyright. Secondly, whilst music published more than 70 years ago is now in the public domain and can be legally downloaded and copied, many old scores and parts contain editing marks from the early 1900s which are confusing, obsolete and often stylistically incorrect. Some of the arrangements or new compositions which are available to download for free are of questionable musical quality. Some baroque music appears in facsimile - the original handwritten manuscript - which is interesting to see, but not much use.

It is also difficult when you are starting out on the violin to know which music is suitable for the level you have reached. So where should you look, what can you expect and how do you find music of the right standard?

Taking an old-fashioned view, your local library is a good place to start your search for free easy violin sheet music. Your local branch may not stock sheet music, but it’s very likely that a city branch will. Ask what they have on their catalogues. It’s free (unless you forget to renew it) and it saves printing costs.

If you have a friend who is also learning the violin, ask them if they would like to exchange music, or if they would let you have any they no longer need.

There are also many online resources available, covering a huge range of repertoire from Christmas carols and folk songs to sonatas and concertos.

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A small number of websites offer free easy violin sheet music to download legally. The most comprehensive is IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project. IMSLP is a huge archive of public domain scores and parts. You can search by composer or instrument, although it is sometimes simpler to do a Google search of the piece you want, “Handel violin sonata, IMSLP” for example. Much of this music is more advanced, but if you know what to look for, there is something for everyone.

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One way to source repertoire could be to look at past and current exam board syllabuses. The Sicilienne from Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francoeur by the notable violinist Fritz Kriezler is on the ABRSM Grade 4 syllabus 2012-2015, which gives you an idea of the difficulty level. It’s also available on IMSLP. The Trinity Guildhall syllabus is available online and contains guidance for scales and technical work as well as suggested pieces.

Virtual Sheet Music is another website with free music downloads, although these are more limited. Pieces are rated with clear skill levels and reviewed with stars. There are free downloads of Christmas carols and easy arrangements of classical melodies such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. If you want to stretch your budget a little, $37.75 for a year’s membership entitles you to unlimited sheet music downloads.

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The Violin Site has a nice list of free violin sheet music including works by Albinoni, Bartok and Vivaldi, but the website makes it clear that the quality of editing is not the same as with professionally purchased music. Free Violin Sheet Music Previews has music and midi previews for forty or so pieces including A Whole New World from Aladdin, StarWars, You Raise Me Up, Skyfall and Pachelbell’s Canon in D. You have to pay a small fee to receive the full piece but can print the first page free of charge.

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A search on YouTube will produce plenty of easy arrangements complete with synthesised midi recordings. These come with links to the downloadable sheet music on websites such as Capotastomusic and the Facebook page Violin Tutorials. Some of these arrangements are of modern songs and may have certain copyright implications. Some are original compositions.

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There is a huge amount of traditional music available online at sites such as thesession.org, www.jimpix.co.uk, www.8notes.com and www.traditionalmusic.co.uk. These pieces are often song melodies which are simple, easy to learn and melodic. Learning some traditional music is also a great way to explore another style of playing. A few other good resources for free folk music downloads are Richard Robinson's Tunebook, the Kitchen Musician, where you can find Scottish, Irish, English, French and North American Folk Fiddle music and Contemplator Folk Music which again has a wealth of music from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and America.

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