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Spela Bättre! #3


by Matt Fichtenbaum

Double Stops

I started learning to play nyckelharpa in Sweden, but continued back home in the U.S. where there were few other nyckelharpas to play with. As a result I came to appreciate the nyckelharpa’s qualities as a solo instrument. High among these are its double stops, two notes played on two separate strings at the same time. Double stops are a traditional nyckelharpa technique, a way of bringing out a tune’s rhythm for the dancers, or suggesting a tune’s harmony even when one plays solo. Playing double stops involves the left hand, the right hand, and the mind. Double-stop technique overlaps what it takes to play some other melodic figures, too, so we’ll discuss them as well.

Playing two notes at once demands that the left hand press the correct keys while the bow plays two adjacent strings with appropriate pressure on both. It’s a consolation that the individual pitches are determined by the keys’ pegs’ placement and so the intervals are likely to be in tune. Because the harpa’s bridge is curved and the bow hair is stretched tight, it’s impractical to play more than two strings at once, but we’ll get back to this later.


An octave consists of two notes that have the same name, eight scale positions apart. For example, C (key #3) on the A string sounded with the open C string. Play these two notes, first alternately to hear the sound, then together. It may be easier to get a good sound on an up-bow. Experiment with bow pressure and bow motion to get a good sound, and try varying the pressure on the two strings to make each string’s sound more prominent.

Other good octaves to play are:

  • D on A (key #5) with D on C (2). I use third and first fingers for these.
  • E on A (7) with E on C (4). Use the same fingers, or fourth and second.
  • F (A8) with F (C5).
  • G (A10) with G (C7).

You can even try playing the C scale, C up to G and back, in octaves. I use 4th and 2nd fingers for all except C (A3) with C (C0), and just move my hand. The C and A strings’ interval is a sixth, relatively wide, which makes the octave grip an easy reach.

Octaves aren’t restricted to the high two strings. Here are two more to try.

  • G (C7) with G (G0)
  • C (G5) with the C bass string

What do I do with these octaves?

When you play two notes together you get a stronger, richer sound. You can use this to bring out the rhythm of a tune, adding energy to the music and helping the dancers to find the beat. For example, on the first beat, or first and third beats, of an eighth-note polska measure. Or on the first beat of a schottis measure. In general, double-stops work well on the important beats of the measure, or on notes you want to give specific emphasis.

Other intervals

Double stops aren’t restricted to octaves. Thirds, fourths, fifths are common. On the A and C strings, respectively, try

  • B (A2) with G (C7)
  • A (0) with F (5)
  • C (3) with E (4)
  • C (3) with F (5)

and on the C and G strings, respectively,

  • F (C5) with A (G2)
  • E (4) with C (5)
  • D (2) with G (0)
  • D (2) with B (4)
  • C (0) with C (5) – this is the same note, called unison, played on two strings. Hear the effect.

Choosing which notes to play

There’s logic to this choice. It’s based on the tune’s key, and on the particular chord appropriate to the moment, and it has a lot in common with the logic behind playing harmony to a tune. But a discussion-in-print of music theory gets very dry very quickly, so we’ll not follow that path.

Music Clips
(Click on the picture above to download a pdf version)

Fingerings for Trollrikepolska:

Measure Chord A string note/key (finger) C string note/key (finger) G string note/key (finger)
1 F C/3 (middle)
& F/8 (pinky)
F/5 (ring) A/2 (index)
2 Bb D/5 (middle) F/5 (ring) Bb/3 (index)
3 G D/5 (middle)
& G/10 (pinky)
G/7 (ring) B/4 (index)
4 C E/7 (middle) G/7 (ring) C/5 (index)
& G/open

Observe, instead, that tunes are built up from scale fragments and arpeggios (see my article in the first Nyckel Notes). Arpeggios are the notes of a chord played in sequence, for example, the first two measures of Båtsman Däck. In an arpeggio passage, any of the notes previously played, or the notes about to be played, are likely to be good choices for double stops. The first phrase of Båtsman Däck is shown here with some possible double-stop notes.

Left hand technique

When a double stop includes an open string you need finger only one note and there’s no special left-hand challenge. The open strings – C, G, A – are particularly important notes in the keys of C, F, and G; tunes in these keys are likely candidates for playing double stops.

When you play two notes at the same time and both are fingered, the left hand needs to be able to play both keys comfortably and the fingers need to find their target keys quickly and with certainty. In effect, you learn to play “chords” – consistent sets of two notes at a time – as well as single notes. This takes practice. The more you practice and experiment, the more natural it will feel. The same pairs of notes recur multiple times and in more than one tune; the object is to play them naturally, as a unit, without worrying about the details.

Right hand technique

Getting good tone from two strings is more difficult than playing one string. Making the bow play two strings with the right force on each takes practice. It’s important to hold the bow with the right hand relaxed, so that the hand and fingers are free to make the minor adjustments needed. Playing tune fragments and whole tunes, slowly and methodically, is good exercise as is playing scale fragments in octaves, sequences of double-stop intervals, and anything else you find to do.


This Swedish word means “dip,” and describes the way the bow, playing a tune, makes a quick dip downward to sound a lower string briefly. In other words, when playing a double stop, the second note isn’t sounded for the full duration. Instead, you sound it briefly, with the start of the melody note, and let the harpa’s sustain continue the sound.

Doppning is part of traditional nyckelharpa style: if you listen to recordings of good players, you’ll hear that the double-stop notes are quick and light. The sound is not as heavy as if both notes were played for the full duration; at the same time, the sharp attack on the lower note makes the rhythm very clear. Developing this technique is one way to make your harpa playing sound “Swedish.”

Playing above the melody

Traditionally the extra notes are below the melody, where they support it without competing with it. In my playing I follow this rule, with two exceptions: if the melody is on the G string and the C-bass isn’t the appropriate note to add, I’ll play a second note, quietly and gently, on the C string above. And if I’m playing a tune in D, usually a fiddle tune, I might touch the open A string, again gently, while the melody is down on the C string. Use this sparingly – it’s also OK to forgo playing double stops now and then.

Three strings and other extensions

You can’t, with a taut bow, sound more than two strings. But you can play a quick sequence of notes over three or even four strings. The second part of Trollrikepolska is an excellent example: the arpeggios of the first four measures use all three melody strings and even use the bass C string. The bow plays a single note at a time, but the left hand fingers keys on as many as three strings simultaneously.

When you play Trollrikepolska at normal tempo there’s no time for the left hand to find “first one key on the A string, then a key on the C string, then a key on the G string.” Instead, you have to consider the three notes as a chord fingering, with the fingers in known relationship to each other and depressing their keys at the same time. To play this tune you have to learn the chord fingerings it uses.

The music excerpt above shows the skeleton of Trollrikespolskan. The fingering is constant through each measure, except for the A string (see table below music example).

Chords and accompaniment

Since the harpa can play chords – two notes at once – one can play a chording, or “boom-chuck,” accompaniment on it, even using a third note as a bass to alternate with the other two. Musically, the effect may leave something to be desired, but it’s nonetheless a way to practice finding workable combinations of notes and to become facile in playing them.


Double stops are part of basic harpa tradition, technique, and style. They add energy and interest to the music and they give you one more way to develop your playing. And your listening as well – the next time you hear a good recording, or a player whose music you enjoy, keep an ear out for those extra notes below the melody.

On to the next article (#4)