Discovering the Shapes of Keys on the Fingerboard

 by Clark Chaffee

Each key signature has a unique shape on the fingerboard that can be ‘discovered’, discussed, and used to accelerate sight reading accuracy and technique development. Since most string playing moves from string to string more than shifting up and down the strings, learning patterns that move across the strings is very useful to the performer.

Learning keyboard note placement is the best way for any musician to learn all of the notes and the intervals between them. Note to note movement up the keyboard is the same sequence as moving up any single string.

The most important lessons for a string player to learn from the keyboard are:

  • Whole and half steps
  • E to F and B to C are half steps – there is no “black note” between them – even on the fingerboard!
  • The 5 accidentals – what they look like, how they function, and where they are on the keyboard for each note. (figure 1)

Have each student make a chart of all the notes in the chromatic scale moving up each string in first position for his/her own instrument. For now, use both names for the “black” notes. (figure 2)

Moving up each string, the notes are in the same sequence as moving up the keyboard. Seeing this helps with fingerboard visualization. For more advanced students, have them make a chart that goes beyond first position up to the octave on each string. Have students draw another chart but with only the natural notes. Leave appropriate space in the chart for the unused “black notes”. (figure 3)

The pattern of half step locations becomes clear in this chart. On the G string, B and C are a half step apart so fingertips 2 and 3 would be touching. For the sake of rapid identification and discussion of the patterns, let’s call this pattern the 2^3 pattern. (The “^” symbol is widely used in string parts to identify half steps between notes.)

On the D string, there is a half step between fingers 1 and 2. We can call this a 1^2 pattern. On the A string there is another 1^2 pattern. We can call the E string pattern a 4^1 pattern since there are no half steps within the hand but there is a half step beyond the hand at both ends.

Looking at this whole chart (figure 3), we could call the “Shape” of the key of “C major / a minor” in first position on the violin a “2^3 1^2 1^2 4^1Key Shape” – low string to high string. This is a quick reference to the hand shapes and is easy for students to remember as they play.

These 4-note hand shapes are sometimes known as “tetrachords”. A tetrachord is any four notes in a row within a scale. Since all major (and natural minor) scales have one half step in the lower half and one more in the upper half, a vast majority of music uses only the most common four tetrachords. In a “4^1 Tetrachord”, there is a whole step between each of the four notes. There is a half step to the next note above and below this shape.

To move on from here, students must learn key signatures. Since there are only 15 key signatures (all naturals + 7 sharp keys + 7 flat keys) it is best to teach all 15 in the same lesson then follow up as needed. For a comprehensive understanding of first position in all keys, have each student make a chart for each key following the figure 3 model. More advanced students should make the charts for the entire first octave on each string. Moving from one key to the next and identifying the ‘key shapes’ for each, the tetrachord cycle emerges. It is particularly helpful to recognize the cycle when working on unfamiliar positions or keys.

Look for the very predictable pattern moving across the strings from key to key. Help your students “discover” the tetrachord cycle. It is 3^4 3^4 2^3 2^3 1^2 1^2 4^1

Warming up in class with key-signature-specific tetrachords and tetrachord cross-string pairs helps students get a strong sense of the sound and feel of each pattern. For effective tetrachord cycle warm-ups, contact the author.

Learning standard scale patterns is very important, scale passages within the performance repertoire often do not go from “Do” to “Do”. Sequential tetrachord cycle warm-ups will help your students comfortably play in any key, starting and ending on any note. This kind of warm-up is common in jazz pedagogy. It prepares students for all of the modes as well as the major and minor keys.

If you are working to develop aural pitch accuracy and interval identification skills along with string technique, there is benefit from alternating playing with singing all the tetrachords and tetrachord pairs. Humming and identifying each interval within each group significantly improves interval ear training.

For violin and viola players, the numbers used above directly correlate to finger numbers. Not so for the lower strings. Cello and bass players benefit significantly from these activities, too. They have to superimpose special fingerings on top of the tetrachord patterns. Locating the first half step on the string in each key is an important habit to develop. Practicing the tetrachord patterns (with lots of shifting) and being able to tune to the violins and violas turns positions 2 and 3 from “black holes” into very accessible areas.

Figure 6 offers one good set of fingerings for each of the tetrachords. Since the low string players will need to become comfortable moving freely in the first four positions, consider encouraging them to get very creative with alternative finger choices as soon as they become comfortable with these basic patterns.

For these introductory shifts, cello always shifts a 1st to 4th finger substitution – 1st finger shifts to where the 4th finger was.

Bass 1st finger shifts to a half step above 4th except for the 4^1 tetrachord. For that tetrachord the shift is to a whole step above 4th.

Students will naturally want to use familiar fingerings when working on an unfamiliar assignment. To encourage them to get familiar with the tetrachord patterns, start them in an unfamiliar position (1/2 or second perhaps) so that they will be more likely to rely on the fingerings you are requesting. They will quickly become comfortable enough to review the “Key Shapes” before sight reading and apply these patterns to performance repertoire. The improvement in intonation will be rapid and significant.

While this may seem like quite a bit to learn, with the systematic introduction of each pattern, over a few weeks of warm-ups students gain confidence quickly. By itself, the strong focus on half step placement yields significant improvement in ensemble intonation.

Routine review of key signatures and key shapes dramatically reduces the performance of wrong notes. The early phases of repertoire development happen much faster. The time you invest in this training allows much more rehearsal time to work on higher level refinement on more challenging repertoire. Shifting to and playing in any position are much more comfortable once the “key shape” for that position is clear.

Most important, this investment in your students brings their level of independent musicianship and self-confidence to a much higher level. They will practice more often, longer, and with better results. They will be more likely to become life-long performers and carry this confidence into all aspects of their lives.

Clark Chaffee recently retired from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire IL and from his long tenure on the ILMEA board including 4 years as head of the orchestra division. He is a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, University of Michigan, and Northern Illinois University. He has earned national certification from both MENC and NBPTS. He has extensive experience as a professional performer in classical and jazz and as a conductor of opera, musical theater, and orchestras from elementary through adults. His Rhythm Workshop and Note Finders for Strings were published by J Weston Walch. Re-publication of Rhythm Workshop and the release of his Key Shapes for Strings are scheduled for 2014. In 2014 he will be presenting clinics on Key Shapes at the Illinois IMEA convention in January, Developing Professional Learning Communities within the Music Team at the Arizona convention on February 1, and Fundamentals of Rhythm Reading Development at the national ASTA convention in