Bowed stringed instrument. The violin is the highest-pitched member of a family of instruments that includes the viola, cello, and double bass. It has a fretless fingerboard, four strings, and a distinctively shaped wooden body whose “waist” permits freedom of bowing. The violin is held on the shoulder and bowed with the right hand. It has a wide range of more than four octaves. It evolved in Italy in the 16th century from the medieval fiddle and other instruments. Its average proportions were settled by the 17th century, but innovations in the 18th–19th centuries increased its tonal power. With its brilliance, agility, and singing tone, the violin has been immensely important in Western art music, and it has the largest and most distinguished repertoire of any stringed instrument. From the mid-17th century it has been the foundation of the symphony orchestra, which today usually includes 20–26 violins, and it is also widely used in chamber music and as a solo instrument. It is played as a folk instrument in many countries, folk violins being often called fiddles.

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Double bass, viol-shaped, side and front views.

Lowest-pitched of the modern stringed instruments. It varies in size, up to 80 inches (200 cm) tall. Its shape also varies; its shoulders usually slope more than those of the violin, reflecting its status as a hybrid of the viol and violin families (the name comes from the double-bass viol). It emerged from these families in the late Renaissance, and it has always been less standardized in form than its cousins in the violin family. It normally has four strings; the orchestral instrument often has a lower fifth string (more often, an extension is added to the fourth string), and the jazz instrument has a higher fifth string. Its range is an octave below that of the cello. It is normally bowed in orchestral music and plucked in jazz. In rock bands and some jazz bands, the electric bass is used instead.

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The term fiddle refers to a violin; it is a colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music. Fiddle playing, or fiddling, is a style of music.

Violin vs. fiddle

Any violin may be informally called a fiddle, regardless of the kind of music being played with it.

Non-violin specific

Fiddle has a more generalized meaning than violin. Whereas violin refers to a specific instrument, fiddle may be used to refer to a violin or any member of a general category of similar stringed instruments played with a horsehair bow, such as the Hardanger fiddle, the Chinese erhu, the Welsh crwth, the Apache Tzii'edo' a 'tl, the cello in the context of a Scottish violin/cello duo ("wee fiddle and big fiddle"), the double bass ("bull fiddle" or "bass fiddle"), and so on.


The etymology of fiddle is uncertain: the Germanic fiddle may derive from the same early Romance word as does violin, or it may be natively Germanic. A native Germanic ancestor of fiddle may even be the ancestor of the early Romance form of violin. Historically, fiddle also referred to a predecessor of today's violin. Like the violin, it tended to have four strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another family of instruments which contributed to the development of the modern fiddle are the viols, which are held between the legs and played vertically, and have fretted fingerboards.

Musical style

Common distinctions between violins and fiddles reflect the differences in the instruments used to play classical and folk music. However, it is not uncommon for classically trained violinists to play fiddle music, and today many fiddle players have some classical training. As might be expected from the differences between the classical and folk music cultures, more musicians with no formal training play fiddle music than play classical music.

Construction and setup

In construction, fiddles and violins are essentially identical (with the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle excepted as a special case).


Some (folk) fiddle traditions fit the instrument with a flatter bridge than classical violinists use. The difference between "round" and "flat" is not more than about a quarter or half a millimeter variation in the height of one or two strings, but is sufficient to reduce the range of right-arm motion required for the rapid string-crossings found in some styles, and those who use flatter bridges say it makes playing double stops and shuffles (bariolage) easier. It can also make triple stops possible, allowing one to play chords. In bluegrass and old-time music, for example, the top of the bridge is sometimes cut so that it is very slightly flattened; the Hardanger fiddle uses an even flatter bridge, and the bridge of the kontra or bracsa (a three-string viola used in Hungarian and Transylvanian folk music) is flat enough that all three strings can easily be played simultaneously.

Most classical violinists prefer a more rounded curve to the top of the bridge, feeling that this allows them to articulate each note more easily and clearly. Many fiddle players use the same top curve as well; most fiddles are fitted with a standard classical bridge, regardless of the style of music played on the instrument. Since the bridge may be changed, it does not permanently define an instrument as fiddle or violin.

Strings and tuners

Fiddle is more likely to be used than violin if the instrument's strings are steel rather than gut or synthetic, as the sound of steel strings better suits some fiddling styles. Tuning steel strings is easier with fine tuners (small screw mechanisms attached or built into the tailpiece) so fiddlers may favor instruments with fine tuners on all four strings; it is very uncommon to see four fine tuners on full-size instruments played by classical musicians. Strings are subject to regular replacement, fine tuners may be added or removed, and tailpieces may be changed, so, like flattened bridges, they do not make an irreversible difference.


Various clichés describe the difference between fiddle and violin: "When you are buying it, it's a fiddle. When you are selling it, it's a violin." "What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? About $10,0000". "The violin sings, the fiddle dances." "A fiddle is a violin with attitude." "No one cries when they spill beer on a fiddle." According to the performer Shoji Tabuchi, the difference lies "in how you fiddle around with it." The clichés concerning cost reflect folk/fiddle music's lack of concern about or need of high priced instruments.


In performance, solo fiddling is the norm, though twin fiddling is represented in some North American, Scandinavian, and Irish styles. Violins, on the other hand, are commonly grouped in sections. These contrasting traditions may be vestiges of historical performance settings: large concert halls in which violins were played required more instruments, before electronic amplification, than did more intimate dance halls and houses fiddles were played in. The difference was likely compounded by the different sounds expected of violin music and fiddle music. Historically, the majority of fiddle music was dance music, while violin music had either grown out of dance music or was something else entirely. Violin music came to value a smoothness which fiddling, with its dance-driven clear beat, did not always follow - in situations that required greater volume, a fiddler (as long as they kept the beat) could push their instrument harder than could a violinist. (Different fiddle traditions had different values, as detailed below; these explanations are meant to present the differences between fiddle music and violin music generally.)

Following the folk revivals of the second half of the 20th century, however, it has become common for less formal situations to find large groups of fiddlers playing together -- see for example the Swedish Spelmanslag folk-musician clubs, and the world-wide phenomenon of Irish sessions.

In the very late 20th century, a few artists have successfully attempted a reconstruction of the Scottish tradition of violin and "big fiddle," or cello. Notable recorded examples include Amelia Kaminski and Christine Hanson's Bonnie Lasses and Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas' Fire and Grace

Bows used in fiddling

Most fiddling styles that use the standard violin also use the standard violin bow, the same as classical players. However, there are a few styles which use other bows. One notable example is the folk music from Hungary and Transylvania used in the táncház tradition. While the violinist uses a standard bow, both the kontra (3-string viola) and bass are played with heavy and crude "folk bows", consisting of a stout stick, usually hand-hewn, with the hank of horsehair attached at the tip and tied around the frog. The player tensions the hair by squeezing it when playing.

Violin bows used by fiddlers are usually made from wood, but bows made from fiberglass and other materials are becoming more common.

Scottish fiddlers emulating 18th century playing styles sometimes use a replica of the type of bow used in that period, which is a few inches shorter, and weighs significantly more.

Fiddling styles

To a greater extent than classical violin playing, fiddle playing is characterized by a huge variety of ethnic or folk music traditions, each of which has its own distinctive sound, including, but not limited to:


See also


  • The Fiddle Book, by Marion Thede, (1970), Oak Publications. ISBN 0-8256-0145-2.
  • The Fiddler's Fakebook, by David Brody, (1983), Oak Publications. US ISBN 0-8256-0238-6; UK ISBN 0-7119-0309-3.
  • Oldtime Fiddling Across America, by David Reiner and Peter Anick (1989), Mel Bay Publications. ISBN 0-87166-766-5. Has transcriptions (standard notation) and analysis of tunes from multiple regional and ethnic styles.

External links

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