Differences in Playing the Piano and the Violin. Which do I learn? The Piano Or the Violin? Or both?

All over the world, the Piano is a popular choice for starting music classes for children and outnumbers any other instrument including the second most popular instrument, the Violin.

In this post, I shall endeavor to cover the differences you will encounter with the two instruments as this is a popular question I get, “Which should I start my child with first? The Piano or the Violin?” So hopefully after discussing some differences in learning and playing the two in this blog post, there can be some conclusion to this matter

  1. Size matters

This would be the first difference between the Piano and Violin, a Piano no matter at what age, is a “one size fits all” instrument. Whereas a Violin grows in size as you grow starting as small as a 1/32 size for a 2 year old. For a good article on sizing Violins please refer to my other blog article about Violin sizing.  This means that proportionally, if you have really small hands like I do, the piano would be more daunting to achieve than a Violin would.  It is also not as portable so for example when you travel you would have to leave your piano behind or if you do concerts, you will always need to get used to the key touch and resonance of the instrument…constantly.  The violin once chosen by you is yours and follows you like a beloved pet or favorite pillow wherever you would like it to go and whenever you would like to be with you.  Which is why choosing a violin that you like to play and hear is so important!

  1. Precise Intonation, playing the Right notes

On the Piano, you are not in control of intonation, one just merely hits the right notes and the sounds come out as the notes.  On the Violin, the notes are more obscure and you are in charge of the intonation, likened to knife thrower, a small minute misplacement of the finger even in a millimeter would render the target out, disqualifying the player from a perfect rendition of a piece.  Hence, constant ear training to be sensitive to intonation- being able to play immediately the true pitch of a note should be paramount in learning the violin. You need to even differentiate between enharmonic notes such as a B flat and an A sharp. On the Piano they would be regarded and struck on the same note. On the Violin, this is not so and would require the player to know the subtle difference of pitch even between these two enharmonic notes. (For example, the B flat would be placed lower on the fingerboard than an A sharp)

  1. Right and Left Hand functions

On the Piano, most of the time the Right hand plays the melodic line while the left plays an accompaniment (e.g. Alberti Bass common with Sonatinas or Sonatas).  While sometimes where there is a more polyphonic texture like in playing Bach pieces, the Left hand would be playing a counter melody as well.  Or both hands could take turns playing the accompaniment and melody.  On the Violin, the Left hand plays the notes, while the Right hand bows or plucks (pizzicato) the strings, they work hand in hand to produce a melodic line with accompaniment or polyphonic parts.  As Solo Violin Music is usually just a melody and lacks accompaniment, (except for Bach’s composition of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and other rare compositions that feature the Violin as a Solo instrument) a Piano accompaniment is usually written for its performance of the piece.  So most of the time, the Violinist does not perform by himself or herself but with an accompanist on the piano (or an orchestra).  However, a Solo Pianist usually is able to have a music performance without any form of accompaniment necessary since the Right and Left hand has enough harmonic structure to support a range of music for the listener.  The concept of harmony for the Pianist would be more important than the Violinist (though it should be as important) as the Pianist will have to consider his Left hand harmonising with his Right hand (especially for the process of memorization) and the different importance and voices of the two almost always.  The Violinist will also need to think about the Harmony and how his part would fit and harmonize with the accompaniment, but less for sure (though it should be just the same).

  1. Range of the Piano Vs Violin

The range of the Piano is 7+octaves (a group of 8 notes), whereas a Violin is only a range from G (just before middle C) to a High C about 3 octaves up.  The Violin has a more limited range of notes that it can play, and only requires reading in the treble clef with all the lower notes on the ledger lines being played on the G string (the lowest string on the violin).  The Piano on the other hand, has typically the Left hand reading the Bass clef and the Right hand reading the treble clef.  This means there is another clef for the Pianist to learn.  There are also more notes to learn as there are about 4 more extra octaves both higher and lower in registers that a Pianist will have to encounter.  The Pianist also can play cool melodic structures like contrary motion, whereas the Violinist will only encounter this upon harmonizing with another instrument like in a trio, quartet or piano, orchestra.

  1. Violin Invisible Notes Part 1 – (Harmonics) and Piano Pedals

On the Violin, one can play magical sounding notes where you do not depress your finger on the string and play “harmonics” when bowed.  These notes have an ethereal effect and are widely used in many compositions to create this angelic tonal quality that is peculiar to the Violin but impossible to do on a Piano Keyboard.  The Piano usually has three pedals (if not two) the right pedal sustains any note or notes played on the keyboard.  It gives an effect that even though you may be in a small room with sound proof padding, it can give an acoustical effect that you are in a large hall with a lot of echo.  Some music in Piano playing will require this maneuver.

  1. Violin Invisible Notes Part 2 – just a black fingerboard? No black or white Keys!

The notes on Violin on the ebony fingerboard can be said to be intangible and cannot be seen where to press to a layperson who has no idea how to work a Violin.  The Piano on the other hand, is more welcoming and even babies which are starting out to grasp coordination of their limbs are able to hit the notes and produce different notes and sounds.  The Violin relies mostly on muscle memory to grasp the distance and situation of the notes on the fingerboard.  This is where I would say if one has learnt the Piano first, would have the advantage of grasping the concept of the note distances clearer and faster.  The fingerboard of the Violin is simply just the same keyboard as the Piano and would have the white and black keys in the exact situation with the exact semitones and tones.  So to play a scale, someone with prior knowledge of how a keyboard looks like will be able to press the strings of the violin and bow just by working out the tones and semitones (distances) on the Violin fingerboard.  This is the same where grasping concepts of the accidentals (namely flats, naturals and sharps), where sliding your finger along the fingerboard toward your face while holding the violin would achieve a higher note than the notes toward the scroll of the violin.

  1. Moving Up and Down the Registers Easier on the Violin

As the Violin has strings in perfect 5ths, one is able to play and jump notes easier than on the Piano.  Therefore, Violin music and composition will often be more “acrobatic” in texture than Piano music there are often notes in 10ths on the Violin as it is possible to stretch that far and most virtuosic pieces would feature 10ths as part of their scoring.  But you will not see a Pianist practising scales in 10ths on the Piano.

  1. Musical Key Patterns make a bigger difference

As music Key moves in a circle of 5ths (C-G-D-A-E major etc.) and the Violin is also in string intervals on open strings of a perfect 5th.  Transpositions and patterns are slightly more recognizable and similar on the Violin than on the Piano where the piano is only a lateral movement up and down the keyboard.  Whereas the Violin is able to move a 5th up simply by changing the strings they are playing.  A case in point is that you can have the exact position and fingering playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the D-A strings Vs A-E strings of the Violin.  Whereas on the Piano you would need to consider finger positions on the black keys depending on which key you are in.  Intervals and semitones are therefore harder to count.  Violinists think of positions of their finger patterns, i.e. playing in the first position to the tenth position but there are not really such finger patterns on the Piano, you simply need to understand a good concept of maximising your finger range and different ways to achieve good seamless fingering to go with the music.

  1. Dynamics

This is purely out of experience that I am writing this, so it may not be as founded ^_^  I find that as a Violin student, a little goes a long way.  When my teacher told me to be louder on the piano, I needed a great deal of energy to strike the keys, whereas on the Violin, just a slight forceful and more added pressure or speed with the bow will go a long way.

  1. The Bow

There seem to be 101 ways you can play with your bow on the Violin which is almost true! You can play a detache bow, a martele bow, a ricochet bow, a colle bow, a mixture the list goes on.  You will also have to learn that slurs and bowing are directly related.  On the Piano, you will not need to use anything but your fingers and hands to play the instrument.  This usage of the bow has to be grasped as part of violin technique.  The bow also produces the tone of every note so much practise is needed to concentrate on just Right hand technique on the Violin to achieve a good sound.  I would say that the Violin could be equated more to a sport than the Piano.  I actually give my students physical exercise to do with their bows. (like sword wielding!)
This list of 10 differences isn’t exhaustive and I’m definitely biased as the violin is my major instrument though I have played the piano since I was three and nothing is more satisfying than digging into the harmonies of Chopin or playing the ethereal Grieg Piano Concerto! Violins tend to start cheaper than Piano, by miles,  The cheapest violin in my shop in a full set is $150.  I think with $150 you will not be able to buy a Piano unless perhaps second hand.  Piano classes are also thought to be less costly than Violin classes as the Violin teachers are usually rarer to find.  A very important consideration to make is also the true interest of the child or student learning.  If the child gravitates to liking one instrument over the other, I’m of the opinion that upon fulfilling a certain aptitude with the less liked instrument, they should concentrate and specialise in just one.  

Lastly, the piano is an important instrument to learn if in all doubt as to what instrument you should do.  It features the entire keyboard perception clearly with the white and black keys. You would find most instruments collaborating with the piano (like in Sonatas) and most orchstral scores are reduced into a piano score for accompaniment with the violin. So having prior knowledge about the collaborating instrument does make a difference to how you want your performance to turn out as a whole. Nothing is wasted in music learning. And most importantly, try to keep the passion for learning alive!

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