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Double [stop] Trouble

The double stop is the most misunderstood (by orchestrators) and ignored (by players) orchestration device EVER!

I know that is a bold statement, but after many years observing the orchestra from the podium and seeing what they play and what they don’t, I can say it with assurance. Keep in mind, we are talking about writing for the orchestra here, not for soloists or chamber music. There are three things you need to think about before you decide that you need to write a double stop. The first two are related to the mechanics of playing a double stop, and the third, to the instrument itself. These are also the reasons why when you write one, they may divide it anyway.

To play a single note you put a finger down in the right place, with a ridiculously small margin of error, and bow or pluck the string. You can tune the note to it’s context and the ensemble with ease. Your hand is comfortable and it is easy rock back and forth for a nice vibrato. You have three free fingers to chose from to best play the next note. With a double stop, however, you have two fingers down. You just doubled the chances of an error. You now have two notes to worry about, tune, and vibrate.

Books are full of examples showing what double (and triple and quadruple) stops are possible, but the texts are generally considering them in isolation. You must remember that moving from a single note to a double stop, a double stop to a double stop, or double stop to a single note is much harder than moving between single notes. If you already have two fingers down, it is very hard and often impossible to make a legato transition to another double stop.

Finally, there is the resonance of the instrument to consider. Unless you are using open strings (more on that in a minute) the instrument usually resonates better playing a single note, not two of them. It can fight with itself. This is quite subtle, but is more pronounced the larger the instrument, and so still should be a consideration of whether to double stop or divide.

Open Strings
The problem with open strings is that players are conditioned to avoid using them. They sound brighter and more strident than fingered notes so it is hard to balance and blend them with fingered notes. If the double stop contains an open string so tuning and finger placement should not be an issue, I have found players will often still ignore it and divide.

When someone plays a double stop it does not double the volume, it only adds a little more, and due to the potential damage to the resonance and tuning it does not always increase the sound in a good way. As discussed in Divide and Conquer, in many cases you can divide sections and you will not notice any change to the mass or quality of the sound.

String players dividing notes marked as double stops is not only common in the recording studio; the concert repertoire is full of places where they will divide where the composer has not indicated they should. String players are always listening to what is going on around them and if they hear no obvious reason as to why a double stop is necessary, they will divide it, the sound will be better and that is what they care about.

Since I’ve been around a while now, if the orchestra knows I have orchestrated a cue they will play the double stops (most of the time, at least; I will admit they still ignore me sometimes) as I really mean them and have thought about it. On the other hand, when I am conducting others’ scores they will divide the notes.

You have thought about it, don’t believe me, and you want to use a double stop. How should you notate it? There are two common ways.

1: Use text non div. Non divisi is also fine, but I always go for the least amount of letters that get the point across.

2: Use the bracket. The double stop only applies to the bracketed notes only, whereas the non div. text applies until there is only one note.

Don’t use both at the same time, that is redundant.

What about triple and quadruple stops? There are two considerations, and the first is the sound. These multiple stops will come out as a broken chord. The bottom one or two notes will be played slightly before the top two. This can help make a ‘stab’ wider and bigger sounding, but means the timing can be rough. Think ‘Blap’ instead of ‘Bap.’ At loud dynamics it is possible to press the bow hard enough to contact three strings at once, but it can be hit and miss, so will not be played like that in a section. It is only possible to sustain the top two notes. Secondly, you have compounded the possible pitch and technical issues mentioned above. In these cases the players don’t seem to mind playing open strings as they often have no choice. You also need to make sure it is actually playable. My teacher always told me to draw a fingerboard so you can work out where fingers are going to be. If that does not help you, check with a player or look up one of the tables that shows possible stops.

Labeling divisi

We have been told by authors and teachers to mark it when we want the section to divide and when to play unison again. But if we dictate when to divide, why then do we ever need to mark non divisi when we want a stop? The historical assumption (or in other words, the default), is that unless you label something divisi, players will perform a double stop. In reality this is not the case. Is there a default at all? I think there is, it is just the opposite of what most people think it is. The players know exactly what to do, but knowledge of that common practice hasn’t always filtered its way back to the textbook authors. They will divide unless told otherwise, and even then, they will make a judgement call as to the musical and practical sense of doing it.

I remember the first time I conducted an orchestra, I was an undergrad at the Queensland Conservatorium of music. We were playing a piece of mine and I noticed that the players were not playing double stops even in places where I had marked them. They told me they divide, it sounds better. Fast forward to working in Hollywood and one of my first jobs was as a copyist at one of the big copy houses. In the handbook for the house style it said not to use the word divisi in the parts (as they would divide anyway). I do not use the word in my scores. I use the bracket if I really want a double stop. Having orchestrated hundreds of cues and recorded all over the world with both regular session musicians and symphonic musicians playing their first session, how many times have players asked me if they should divide? NONE!

Keep in mind that we are now talking about two subjects with inconsistencies that have combined into the perfect storm of misunderstanding. Firstly, the notation of divisi and non divisi, and secondly, the practical issues of performing double stops.

So my rule and what I believe is the true default, is that for a two-way (two parts) divisi, there is no need to use the word, they will do it. Also, many times I have conducted scores where someone has missed labeling unison after a divisi, and yet I have never heard half the the section simply sit silently after the division, waiting for an indication to play again. To me, that indication is completely redundant. But I know I am bucking hundreds of years of tradition with this so I do not get too upset when I see others use the word.
Therefore in 95% of musical situations, I recommend never writing double stops. So what are the 5% where I do use them?

1. Clusters: As there is already dissonance in a cluster, the potential tuning issues of double stops are not a problem, in fact it is an advantage. We can get a lot more notes, in a way that can be sight read. To make it even more crunchy, pick an interval that is not easy to play and tune.

cluster chord

2. Big resonant chords in C,G, D and A: This is where theopen strings can be used to great advantage.

Big chord

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  1. Thanks for the above. certainly a different approach than Adler gives. Surely there can be little need for double stops in most orchestral writing, but I often work with chamber music where there is often no choice but to use it or go without an important harmonic element. And the does and don’t of writing for them can boggle the non-string players feeble intellect.

  2. my issue is about harmonics and double and triple stopping for the VIola da gamba as well as because no one seems to agree just how they are should be written as far as harmonics are concerned. Also how to write for this instrument so that it does not cover up other instruments in an ensemble. I recently attended a recital in which a Virgina ( a one manual smaller ‘harpsichord’) part was singly covered up by a gamba. The score calls for equal volume of both.

    . We have diamond shaped notes ; diamond shaped notes with regular notes; et al. In frustration I have begun to simply write the notes I want to be played no matter how many flags are required and leave to the play who they wish to achieve these very high notes.

    IF you know anything about the Brass and especially the so-called odd ball instruments like the serpent etc. I would like to know if there is an Alpine Horn that can play C+2 note. This is the note I had heard (French ) Horns sounding when I wrote the composition containing it. F Horns can only be counted on at most going to G+2. The Alto horn in G cant get there to. The harmonic series indicates that if an instrument can play any note in that series -C+2 is on the menu–which the Piccolo Trumpet in B-Flat can do but I do not want a trumpet sound. Someone suggested the Flugfelhorn–well that might have worked but at C+2 the Flugelhorn sounds like a trumpet not the smooth mellow sound of a horn.. Now I know what the sound should be because I have a computer program that allows me to hear what out of range notes for various instruments would be.
    In my literary notation system. (no staves) , any note spoken of is based on the octave of middle c on the piano ./ Middle c is C-0 and going up the scale the next B is B-0 . Likewise going down from C-0 the b next door to C-0 is b-1, the octave c below mid-c is c-2.

  3. Thanks for this Tim. I am beginning composer, and having sent a musical friend of mine a piece for Viola da Gamba with multiple stops (I have never played a stringed instrument) she referred me to this article amongst others. I had to laugh when I saw the charts for multiple violin stops, because the Viol has seven strings! She said that figuring out whether the multiple stops I had written were playable using the charts and your info would be “the mother of all puzzles”! Unfortunately I also wrote the piece as a solo! You live and learn.

  4. I’m a string player and composer. I disagree with your recommendation to avoid the word “divisi”. I can tell you that if I see multiple notes in a violin or viola part, I will assume a double stop is meant unless I see the word “divisi”.

    Of course, sometimes it’s impossible to play a double stop as written. But if I see a case like that without a divisi marking, I generally assume that the copyist was being lazy, or that the composer/arranger didn’t know how to write for strings. In either case, it sets up the assumption in my mind that the part is untrustworthy or poorly edited.

    Perhaps things are different in the studio orchestra scene, but for classical writing, I would recommend always marking divisi explicitly. If double stops are really vital, use brackets or “non div.” (but I rarely do that).

  5. I have wondered about this topic for years and your explanation is exactly what I needed to hear. You can only get this kind of detail from someone who has spent lots of time in the trenches. Thanks so much for sharing, Tim.

  6. Tim, Great Blog! Quick question about your thoughts on using open strings for a drone. It’s an effect to be sure, but for example, having a cello melody on the A string with a D drone for the “double stop” and backing the melody up with violas and/or violins up and octave or two, do you feel this still would be an issue?

    • If you want that drone, open string sound, then it is fine. Just remember though that the bowing on the drone will then match the bowing on the melody and that may not be ideal. It will also be not as smooth as if it were divided. As you are now limiting the melody to a single string, you also have to be careful what you write as there will be hand position shifts.

  7. I enjoy your blog greatly, Tim! On this topic, I would humbly submit that there is a quality difference in double-stops–the increased bow pressure required to contact both strings confidently imparts a crunchiness to the sound. It’s difficult to begin a double-stop softly. But repeated double-stops (on the same two notes) gives a bit of extra energy from the aggressive playing necessary. I write double-stops to get this sound–dividing these two notes sounds more elegant, and that’s not always the sound I want.

    • Yes, I agree. There are always going to be exceptions, places where it is good to use them and where players will not think that they could do better by dividing. If there is a passage where the player has time to ‘grab’ the notes and does not have to play legato out of it, then it is a cool thing. I am just trying to point out all of the issues that arise from double stops that are not mentioned in other texts.

  8. Tim… and what about cello “rock” power chords (Root+Fifth on C and G string)?

    Fingered power chords are playable too? (like Eb+Bb, F+C, G+D…)

    Dividing it won’t lack power on “epic” ff staccato passages?


    • Players do not like stopping 5ths that much, not comfortable. The same reasons I mention still apply- possible tuning issues and problems changing notes as two fingers are now being used at the same time. You can do it in a string quartet, you have no choice, but I do not do it in orchestral settings and when I did, they divided it…….. I have not felt that I was lacking power by dividing and with only one note per player to worry about, you will get a more confident performance.

      • hmmm, got it, Tim! Thanks 🙂

      • As a composer-performer, and especially as a violist/violinist, I highly caution composers and orchestrators against fingered fifths as well. On a viola in particular, the strings are just far enough apart where it is especially difficult for many players to stop both strings in tune, and when it is out of tune, the instrument fights itself considerably. However, the strings are close enough together so that many people assume it is reasonable, but it often requires rotating the fingertip at odd angles in order to prevent one of the two notes from coming out as flat or sharp. On violin, this issue is not as big of a problem; on cello, fifths often require the player to “bar” the two strings (i.e. lay their finger flat across it), and again that contributes to difficulties in creating smooth melodic lines, etc.

        Another occurrence I’ve seen with less-experienced composers is the temptation to use double stops simply as a means of completing harmonies. Unless you’ve given a lot of thought to the color, effect, and practicality of such a technique, my advice is: just don’t do it.

        Thank you so much Tim for conquering these orchestration evils, lol!

        • I should edit my post to talk about 5ths. Thanks for bringing it up. I think a lot of people think you can ‘bar’ a viola like you can a guitar when you play power chords. I just avoid them as much as I can.

  9. […] will not tell you what they have done to make it work. You will never know that they divided that double stop, split a line up between two people, or did not need to be told to ‘breathe when […]

  10. […] stringed instruments, trills and tremolos share some technical issues with double stops and harmonics in that you are using two fingers at once. Depending on where they are, it may be […]

  11. Fantastic. Exactly the guidance/reassurance I was looking for. I always wonder about a default, this does fit with what my string player friends keep telling me!

  12. […] Stops As with¬?arco stops, the same technical and sonic issues apply. ¬?In solo works or chamber pieces, stops are not a […]

  13. Every word you write is solid gold, Tim. You are a bloody beauty!!

    Graham Lloyd

  14. Really enjoying this blog, Tim, and this is an important article in particular, which, as you point out, is not often examined in the standard texts. Orchestrators are often too wary (have been guilty of this myself) of losing power by dividing; yet the point remains, if 10 violins are playing, whether unisoni or divisi, you still have 10 violins playing. But they hate double stops, in my experience – or perhaps I should temper that and say they’d rather not play double stops – which can actually lead to a drop in power (and intensity of tone) as a result of the three points you mention at the top of the article. After a session a few years ago, I asked the players to answer honestly if they had actually played any of the double stops I’d notated, on the basis that I’d heard what I wanted to hear, and would promise never write an unnecessary double stop again if they had actually played them divisi. Of course, they had divided them all. Point proven, point taken. Of course there is a big difference between concert hall and recording studio, where one can rebalance after the event if necessary; and as you say there will be situations where double stops are necessary – the Chamber, for starters; but I absolutely agree that at least 90% of the time, dividing is fine, if not perfect, and allows the players more space to play, so let them decide for themselves!

    • Thanks for backing me up on this one! Great point about 10 players are still 10 players. I have no idea why the texts have largely left this ‘real world’ behavior out.

  15. Thank you very much for your thoughts, Tim!

    These are things that we have needed for a loooong time, and I’d certainly have been willing to pay for them! Kudos to you for disseminating your knowledge freely with us.

    • Thanks Michael. It is quite amazing the amount of information that is ‘missed’ or brushed over in the texts. I think one reason is that it is very complicated and many people have differing versions of what happens. It took a lot of work to get these posts to where I think I have it covered and the players I have talked to agree with what I am saying.

      • Well, you’ve done brilliantly here! I think it is very intelligent to think about things from “the default”. Take things down to their basic elements and it makes the thought processing much clearer/cleaner!


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