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Violin 101: What Are the Violin Hand and Finger Positions? Learn About First, Second, and Third Positions on Violin

Written by MasterClass

Jun 24, 2019 • 4 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

String instruments require players to select pitches by depressing strings at specific intervals. On an instrument like a guitar, mandolin, banjo, or electric bass, this is known as “fretting.” On a fretless instrument like a violin, viola, cello, or double bass, this is known as “stopping” the string along the fingerboard.

Violin is one of the more difficult instruments to produce accurate pitches on. This is due to two factors: the fretless nature of the instrument; and the fact that violins produce high-pitched notes which are harder to play in tune than lower-pitched notes. (Learn more about notes and octaves here.)

In order to reliably play notes in tune, violinists use a series of hand positions to make sure their fingers are aligned with the correct places on the fingerboard.

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What Are Hand and Finger Positions in Violin?

Hand positions are specific locations where a violinist’s hand should hover in order to sound accurate pitches. Most violin music can be played using three positions: first position, second position, and third position.

What Is First Position on the Violin?

First position is the fundamental hand position on violin. It is appropriate for sounding all of the lowest pitches on a violin, and it is the easiest position for playing in tune. As such, it is the first hand position that is taught to violinists.

Here is an image of a hand in first position.

Diagram of first position on violin

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Why is this called first position? The answer is that this position aligns a player’s first finger (i.e. the index finger) over the first stop on the fingerboard.

The open strings on a violin are tuned to the following pitches, from lowest to highest: G, D, A, E. (Each string sounds a perfect fifth above the one below it.)

The first stop on the fingerboard will produce a note that is one whole tone higher than the open string. These notes are A, E, B, and F#. Therefore, to be in first position, a player’s first finger must be hovering over the place on the fingerboard that will produce these pitches on their respective strings.

Continuing onward, your second, third, and fourth fingers align such that they hover over each successive note in a major scale. So, on the E string, the notes produced within first position are:

  • Open String - E
  • First Finger - F#
  • Second Finger - G#
  • Third Finger - A
  • Fourth Finger - B

These are the first five notes of an E major scale. Likewise, first position can also produce the first five notes of a G major scale, a D major scale, and an A major scale—depending which string you’re playing.

But what about the notes that aren’t part of a major scale? For example, there are notes between the open strings and the first position pitches. How do you play those?

To access these notes, which are a semitone above the open string and a semitone below first position (specifically the notes are G#, D#. A#, and F), you place your index finger in “low position,” which means stopping the string slightly below where you’d stop it in first position. You can also place your second finger in low position, which—if you are playing a scale starting from the open string—will produce a minor third rather than a major third. All notes are available; they just require a slight finger adjustment.

What Is Second Position on the Violin?

Second position on violin is rarely used by beginning players. Why? Because all the notes in second position can be covered in first and third position. If you can master first and third position, you can skip right over second position and come back to it later. Nonetheless, second position is used to achieve maximum tonal accuracy, and professional violinists like Anne-Sophie Mutter or Itzhak Perlman, make frequent use of it.

The concept of second position is simple: using first position as a reference, second position is when the first finger is placed where the second finger would be in first position. All other fingers move up accordingly. Here is an image of a left hand in second position.

Diagram of second position on violin

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What Is Third Position on a Violin?

Traditionally, third position is learned after first position, followed by second position and the higher positions. Using first position as a reference once again, third position is when the first finger is placed where the third finger would be in first position. All other fingers move up accordingly. Between first and third positions, you can cover all the notes that are possible within second position; this is why the positions are traditionally taught out of order.

Here is an image of a left hand in third position:

Diagram of third position on violin

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Fourth and Fifth Positions And Beyond

Once you’ve mastered first, second, and third positions, you can move on to more challenging techniques, like fourth position, fifth position, and beyond. The violin has a tremendous range, and it can produce notes going well into the seventh octave of a piano. These high notes are quite difficult to play in tune, but with ample practice in the upper positions, they are achievable.

Learn more violin playing techniques in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.