Violin family

Violin family

The Violin family of musical instruments was developed in Italy in the sixteenth century. The modern violin family consists of the violin, viola and cello, along with the double bass.

Instrument names in the ancestral violin family are all derived from the root viola, which is a derivative of the Medieval Latin word vitula (meaning "stringed instrument). A violin is a "little viola", a violone is a "big viola" or a bass violin, and a violoncello (often abbreviated cello) is a "small violone" (or, literally, a "small big viola"). (The violone is not part of the modern violin family; its place is taken by the modern double bass.)

The instruments of the ancestral violin family may be descended in part from the lira da braccio.

Violin Viola Cello (violoncello) Double bass (Contrabass)


The playing ranges of the instruments in the modern violin family overlap each other, but the tone quality and physical size of each distinguishes them from one another. Both the violin and the viola are played under the jaw, the viola being the larger of the two instruments, with a playing range reaching a perfect fifth below the violin's. The cello is played sitting down with the instrument between the knees, and its playing range reaches an octave below the viola's. (The double bass is played standing or sitting on a stool, with a range that typically reaches a minor sixth, an octave, or a ninth below the cello's).

While the violin, viola and cello (originally the bass violin) are indisputable members of the ancestral violin, or viola da braccio family, the double bass's origins are sometimes called into question. The double bass is occasionally taken to be part of the viol family, due to its sloping shoulders, its tuning, and its sometimes flat back. Others say that these features are arbitrary, and point to the internal construction of the double bass, which is proportionately identical to the violin's, as a more weighty piece of evidence than the external features. Its origins aside, it has historically been used as the lowest member of the violin family since its "invention."

All string instruments share similar form, parts, construction, and function, and the viols bear a particularly close resemblance to the violin family. However, instruments in the ancestral violin family are set apart from viols by similarities in shape, in tuning practice, and in history. They have four strings each, are tuned in fifths (the bass is tuned in fourths), are not fretted, and have four rounded bouts.


The members of the ancestral violin family are the most used bowed string instruments in the world today. Although all share a place in classical music, they are also used (less often) in jazz, electronic music, rock, and other types of popular music, where they are often amplified, or simply created to be used as electric instruments. The violin is also used extensively in fiddle music, country music,and folk music. (The double bass plays an indispensable part in both classical and jazz music forms).

One of the most popular and standardized groupings in classical chamber music, the string quartet, is composed entirely of instruments from the ancestral violin family. This similarity in the manner of sound production allows string quartets to blend their tone colour and timbre more easily than less homogeneous groups. This is particularly notable in comparison to the standard wind quintet, which, although composed entirely of wind instruments, comprises four fundamentally different ways of producing musical pitch.



  • Hoffman, Miles (1997). The NPR Classical Music Companion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-395-70742-0.
  • Witten, Laurence C., II (Oct., 1982). "The Surviving Instruments of Andrea Amati". Early Music Vol. 10,No. 4 (Oct., 1982): 487–494.
  • (1990). The Complete Luthier's Library. A Useful International Critical Bibliography for the Maker and the Connoisseur of Stringed and Plucked Instruments. Bologna: Florenus Company. ISBN 88-85250-01-7.
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See also

  • Violin octet, an experiment in part to create an even more homogeneous blend of instruments related to the violin.
  • String instrument
  • String orchestra
  • List of string instruments
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