The violin is a stringed musical instrument that has four strings tuned a perfect fifth apart. It is the smallest and highest-tuned member of the violin family of string instruments, which also includes the viola, cello and double bass. The lowest string (and hence the lowest note) is the G just below middle C, then in ascending order D, A and E.
Sheet music for a violin almost always uses the G clef (treble clef).
A person who plays violin is called a violinist.
A person who makes or repairs stringed instruments is a luthier.
A common colloquial name for the violin is the fiddle, and a violin is typically called a fiddle when used in a style of playing known as fiddling (see below). Occasionally the instrument is modified for playing in these styles.
The parts of the violin
The violin is a carefully made hollow wooden box, with a neck protruding from the top, and an internal sound post connecting the front (belly) and the back. The sides of the violin, curiously, are called ribs. The belly is reinforced by an internal bass bar, which runs vertically through the instrument underneath the lowest string. The inlaid outline of dark wood which follows the outer edge of the surface of the belly and back of the violin is called the purfling . The purfling keeps the wood from splitting along the edges.
The four strings run from a tailpiece attached to the base of the violin, across an intricately carved wooden bridge, then upward just above the fingerboard. At the top end of the fingerboard, the strings cross the nut, a very small second bridge, mounted just slightly above the fingerboard. They then enter the pegbox , where they are wound around their tuning pegs , which are mounted sideways through tightly fitting holes in the pegbox. The tip of the pegbox is ornamented with a carved wooden scroll.
The bridge of a violin has two purposes. First, it holds the strings in an arched configuration, permitting each to be touched separately by the bow. The bridge also transmits the sound vibrations of the strings to the belly, from which they are transmitted to the back by the sound post.
Generally the belly, the sound post, and the bass bar are made of spruce, a light but strong softwood. The back, ribs, neck, pegbox, scroll, and bridge are of maple, a hardwood. The choice of woods is basically the same as in the piano, where a hardwood bridge is attached to a spruce soundboard, mounted on a hardwood frame.
The fingerboard of a violin is of ebony. Some old violins have ivory fingerboards. Still other fingerboards are made of other woods and just painted black. Ebony is the prefered material, because of its hardness and superior resistance to wear.
Strings were originally made of gut. Such strings are still often used in historically accurate performances of music from the 18th century and earlier. However, they have a tendency to go out of tune and snap more easily than modern strings, most of which are made from metal. Modern A, D and G strings are usually metal-cored and wound with metal for greater mass in order to vibrate at a lower pitch, with the E (top) string being a metal mono-filament of steel. Synthetic cored strings, the most popular of which is perlon (a trade name for stranded nylon wound with metal) are also employed today; they combine some of the benefits of gut strings with greater longevity and tuning stability. They are also much less sensitive to changes in humidity than gut strings, and less sensitive to changes in temperature than all-metal strings.
The hair of the bow is traditionally horse hair, although many cheaper bows use synthetic material. The hair must be frequently rubbed with rosin in order to grip the strings and cause them to vibrate. For more on the materials of the bow, see Bow (music).
It has been known for a long time that the thickness of the wood and its physical qualities govern the sound of a stringed instrument such as the violin. The sound and tone of the violin is determined by how the belly and back plates of the violin behave acoustically, according to modes or schemes of movement determined by German physicist Ernst Chladni. Patterns of the nodes (places of no movement) made by sand sprinkled on the plates with the plate vibrated at certain frequencies are called "Chladni patterns", and are often used by luthiers to verify their work before assembling the instrument. A scientific explanation includes a discussion of how the properties of the wood determines where the nodes occur, whether the plates move with end or diagonally opposite points rising together or in various mixed modes.
Children learning the violin often use 'quarter', 'third', 'half', or 'three-quarter' sized violins. In all meaningful parts, they are scaled but otherwise identical to full-sized instruments.
Sometimes, the finger board is inlayed or otherwise marked with finger positions; however, these are not a fret as with a guitar or other stringed instrument. This is also often achieved by applying a piece of adhesive tape across the finger board in several places, though this is not recommended by many violin teachers.
Playing the violin
The violin is played by using the right hand to draw the bow at right angles across one of the strings, near the bridge, causing the string to vibrate. Pitch is controlled by selecting the string that the bow contacts (by altering the vertical angle of the bow), and by regulating the sounding length of that string by pressing it down onto the fingerboard with one of the fingers of the left hand.
Fingering and positions
The placement of the fingers on the strings invokes no physical aid like frets; the player must achieve the correct position from skill alone, or else the instrument will sound out of tune. Violin players practice long hours partly to train their fingers to land in the right places, and partly to cultivate the ability to correct the pitch very rapidly as it is played.
The fingers are conventionally numbered "first" (index) through "fourth" (little finger). The digits 1-4 sometimes appear over the notes in violin music, especially in instructional editions, to indicate the finger to be used.
For the beginning player, the highest note available on a violin is made by pressing the fourth finger down on the E-string, sounding a B. However this is only the highest note in so-called first position, which is taught to beginners first. A higher note can be achieved by sliding the hand up the neck of the violin (towards the player's face) and pressing the fingers down at this new position. Thus, for example, in first position, the first finger placed on the E string gives an F#. Pressing the first finger instead on a G is called second position. Third position is achieved when the first finger presses down on an A, and so on. The upper limit of the violin's range is largely determined by the skill of the player. A good player can easily play more than two octaves on a single string, and four octaves on the instrument as a whole.
Violinists often change positions on the lower strings even though this seems unnecessary. Often, this is done to handle a musical passage which would otherwise require fast switching of strings. It is also done to produce a particular timbre: a violin note will sound different depending on what string is used to play it.
A special timbre results from playing a note without touching its string with a finger, thus sounding the lowest note on that string. Such a note is said to played on an open string. Open string notes (G, D, A, E) have a very distinct sound resulting from absence of the damping action of a finger, and from the fact that vibrato (see below) is extremely difficult. Other than low G (which can be played in no other way), open strings are usually selected for special effects.
One striking effect that employs open strings is bariolage. Here, the player fingers the same note of an open string (necessarily D, A, or E) on the immediately lower string, then moves the bow with a rapid snake-like motion that causes it to touch the fingered string and the open string alternatingly. The same pitch is thus sounded, but the different timbres of an open string vs. a fingered string produce an audible rhythmic pulsation. Bariolage was a favorite device of Joseph Haydn, who used it for example in his string quartet Opus 50 no. 6, and in the "Farewell" Symphony.
Playing two open strings simultaneously produces a bagpipe-like drone, often used by composers in imitation of folk music.
Double stopping is when two separate strings are depressed (stopped) by the fingers, and bowed simultaneously, producing a chord. This is much harder than normal single-string playing as more than one finger has to be accurately placed on two different strings simultaneously. Sometimes moving to a higher position is necessary in order for it to be physically possible for the fingers to be placed in the correct places. Double stopping is also used to mean playing on three or all four strings at once, although such practices are more properly called triple or quadruple stopping. Collectively, double, triple and quadruple stopping is called multiple stopping.
See Double stop for general information about the techniques of double stopping and bowing.
When a note is marked pizzicato in the written music, it is played by plucking the string with a finger rather than with the bow. For details of how pizzicato notes are played, see the Wikipedia article "Pizzicato".
Vibrato is a very common device used by violinists which causes the pitch of a note to vary up and down quickly. This is achieved by moving the finger pressing on the string slightly forwards and backwards. Vibrato is often perceived to create a more emotional sound, and it is employed heavily in music of the Romantic era. There are several different styles of vibrato ranging from the use of just the fingers, to the use of the wrist or even the whole forearm. These produce different effects and are favoured by different players for different styles of music. Some styles of music use little or no vibrato at all.
It is often thought that vibrato can partially disguise an out of tune note, the intuitive idea being that the ear should not be able track pitch as accurately when it is moving up and down. However, recent experimental work finds no such effect: the human ear detects the mean frequency of a vibrato note just as accurately as it detects a non-undulating pitch. It is not necessarily the case that results obtained under careful experimental conditions will carry over to real-life playing, and there is at least some evidence that vibrato may be able to disguise mistuning at faster tempos. Nevertheless, it now appears that individuals learning to play the violin are well advised never to suppose that using vibrato will help them with their pitch problems. In fact, music students are taught that unless marked in music, vibrato is assumed and even mandatory.
Just touching the string with a finger and not pressing down can create harmonics. This means that instead of the normal solid tone a wispy-sounding note of a higher pitch is heard. This is caused by the light finger blocking the string's fundamental; the string must be touched exactly at a "node", an integer division of the string, for example exactly half-way along the length of the string, or exactly one-third along the length of the string. When one touches the node at one of these points, the string vibrates in parts: either in halves or thirds, in these two examples. The pitch produced in these two cases will be an octave higher in the case of halves, and an octave and a fifth higher in the case of the string vibrating in thirds. This way, different members of the string's harmonic series are allowed to sound. If the pressure on the string is too deep, the harmonic will not sound, and a scratchy, unclear sound will resonate, so it is essential to touch the node lightly.
Harmonics are marked in music with a little circle above the note that determines the pitch of the harmonic. There are two types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics.
Natural harmonics are the type of harmonic described in the first paragraph of this section, and are achieved by simply touching the string with one finger at a node point. This is a relatively easy technique, and can be done by most beginner to intermediate students.
Artificial harmonics, however, are much more difficult. They requires pressing down a finger on one string (for example, first finger on the D string on the note "E"), and having another finger just touching the string a fourth higher, in this case on the position of the note "A". When the violinist stops the string with the first finger, and touches it lightly with the fourth finger in this way, the node one-fourth of the way along the string is touched, and the string will vibrate in four parts, sounding a tone two octaves above the note that is stopped (in this case, E). The distance between the two fingers must be extremely accurate, or else the harmonic will not sound. In addition, the pressure from the bow and the two fingers must be exactly right or it will not sound.
The "harmonic finger" can also touch at a major third above the pressed note, or a fifth higher. These harmonics are less commonly used because they are even more difficult to make sound well. In the case of the major third, the harmonic is higher in the overtone series, and does not speak as readily; in the case of the fifth, the stretch is greater than is comfortable for many violinists. The sounding pitch of the major third harmonic is two octaves and a major third above the lower note, and in the case of the fifth, it is an octave and a fifth above the lower note.
Traditional notation of artificial harmonics uses two notes on one stem: the lower note employs a round note-head representing where the string is strongly stopped with the first finger, and the upper note uses an open diamond note-head representing where the string is lightly touched with the fourth finger.
Elaborate passages in artificial harmonics can be found in virtuoso violin literature, especially of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The tone of the violin can also be altered by attaching a small rubber device called a mute to the bridge of the instrument usually between the middle two strings (D and A). This stops the bridge itself from vibrating as much, and causes a more mellow tone, with fewer audible harmonics above the note being played. It is often used for practice purposes to lower sound, and often in performances for a desired dulled effect. The effect on a single violin is noticeable, but mutes are more often used in an orchestral situation with the entire section playing with muted violins.
There are also large metal, rubber, or wooden mutes available that encompass the top of the bridge. These are known as "practice mutes" or "hotel mutes". Such mutes are not used in performance, but are used to deaden the sound of the violin in practice areas such as hotel rooms.
The violin produces louder notes when the player either moves the bow faster or pushes down harder on the string. The two methods are not equivalent, because they produce different timbres; pressing down on the string tends to produce a harsher, more intense sound.
The location where the bow intersects the string also influences timbre. Playing close to the bridge (sul ponticello) gives a more intense sound than usual, emphasizing the higher harmonics; and playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard (sul tasto) makes for a delicate, ethereal sound, emphasizing the fundamental frequency.
There are several methods of 'attack' with the bow that produce different articulations
Détaché - The term détaché simply means ‘separated’ and it can be applied to any notes not linked by a slur. Stopping the bow on the string deadens the vibrations and thus creates a muted accent, elastic détaché which covered off-the-string strokes, and dragged détaché (détaché traîné) where smooth bow changes leave no audible gap between each note. Video Example of Detache.
- Legato - Of successive notes in performance, connected without any intervening silence of articulation. In practice, the connection or separation of notes is relative, and achieved through the presence or absence of emphasis, Accent and attack, as much as silences of articulation; degrees of connection and separation vary from legatissimo (representing the closest degree of connection), tenuto, portamento, legato, portato, non legato, mezzo-staccato, Staccato (the natural antonym of legato), to staccatissimo, and some of these terms have connotations going beyond simple degrees of connection or separation.
Sautillé - A bowstroke played rapidly in the middle of the bow, one bowstroke per note, so that the bow bounces very slightly off the string of its own accord. It is not indicated in any consistent manner: sometimes dots are placed above or below the notes, sometimes arrow-head strokes, and sometimes the stroke is simply left to the performer's discretion. Spiccato and sautillé are sometimes used as synonyms, though Spiccato tends to be applied to a broader range of off-the-string strokes. Video Example of Sautille.
- col legno - Occasionally the strings are struck with the back of the bow (col legno). This gives a much more percussive sound, and is most effective when employed by a full orchestral violin section, since it produces little volume.
See also: How to play the violin
Violins are tuned by twisting the pegs in the scroll, around which the strings are wrapped. The A string is tuned first, typically to 440 Hz (see Pitch (music)). The other strings are then tuned to it in intervals of perfect fifths using double-stopping. Some violins also have adjustors (also called fine tuners). These permit the tension of the string to be adjusted by rotating a small knob. Such tuning is generally easier than using the pegs, and adjustors are usually recommended for younger players. Adjustors work best, and are most useful, with higher tension metal strings. It is very common to use one on the E-string even if the others are not equipped with them.
Small tuning adjustments can also be made by stretching a string with the hand.
The tuning G-D-A-E is used for the great majority of all violin music. However, other tunings are occasionally employed (for example, tuning the G string up to A), both in classical music (where the technique is known as scordatura) and in some folk styles.
There is a three-dimensional geometric underlying construction that explains the main properties and placement of the different parts and proportions. The outer contour is designed by the violin maker, and today the outlines of the old masters' violins are usually used.
The traditional approach starts with a set of plans, which include a drawing of the outer shape of the instrument. From these plans a template is constructed, which can be made from thin metal or other materials, and is a flat "half-violin" shape.
The template is used to construct a mould, which is a thick violin-shaped piece of wood.
Around the mould are built the sides (or ribs), which are flat pieces of wood curved by means of careful heating. The front and back are carved sections which fit on top. When the body is complete, the neck, which is carved out of a separate piece of wood (usually maple), is grafted on to complete the basic structure of the instrument.
Violinists carry replacement strings with their instruments to have one available in case a string breaks. All four replacement strings must be included, since they differ in thickness. Even the strings which do not break are usually replaced after about a year of use, as they tend to become "false" over time, producing an unreliable pitch that varies in an inconsistent manner. The cost of strings varies, and the quality of the strings strongly influences the timbre of the sound produced. Most commonly, a violinist has to replace the higher strings more frequently than the lower strings. The higher strings also cost less money.
It is said that Niccolo Paganini purposefully weakened some of his strings so that in performance they would snap. He would then play the rest of the piece on the remaining strings, sometimes going into remarkably high positions in order to impress the audience.
In the course of playing the violin, hairs are often lost from the bow, making it necessary to have it rehaired periodically.
The violin itself usually does not require maintenance, but it should be occasionally checked by a technician and is regularly cleaned with a gentle polish. Also, for the non-varnished wood such as the ebony on the fingerboard, or the wood on the neck, and the strings should be rubbed with a swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to eliminate grime and debris. Care must be exercised to prevent any alcohol from coming in contact with the varnished parts of the violin. The tuning pegs may occasionally be lubricated with "peg dope" (also called "peg drops"; a solution of rosin in alcohol), or "peg soap" (a soft solid cake of rosin resembling soap) when they either slide too freely, causing the violin to slip out of tune often, or they do not slide freely enough, making tuning difficult.
For the bow, the only real maintenance is re-hairing the bow, or replacing the old horse hair, or in cases polyester, with new ones. Other than that, sometimes the wire lapping needs to be replaced, or the screw (which tightens and loosens the bow) is lubricated at times. When storing the bow, the hair is loosened in order to prevent the bow from becoming "sprung". There are now bows available made from fiberglass or carbon composite which are less fragile.
The violin first emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century. While no instruments from the first decades of the century survive, there are several representations in paintings; some of the early instruments have only three strings. Most likely the first makers of violins borrowed from three different types of current instruments: the rebec, in use since the 10th century (itself derived from the Arab rebab ), the Renaissance fiddle, and the lira da braccio . The earliest explicit description of the instrument, including its tuning, was in the Epitome musical by Jambe de Fer, published in Lyons in 1556. By this time the violin had already begun to spread throughout Europe.
The oldest surviving violin, dated inside, is the "Charles IX" by Andrea Amati , made in Cremona in 1564.
The most famous violin makers, called luthiers, in Cremona between the late 16th century and the 18th century included:
Amati family of Italian violin makers
Guarneri family of Italian violin makers
Stradivari family of Italian violin makers
The violin in classical music
Since the Baroque era the violin has been one of the most important of all instruments in classical music, for several reasons. The tone of the violin stands out above other instruments, making it appropriate for playing a melody line. In the hands of a good player, the violin is extremely agile, and can execute rapid and difficult sequences of notes. Indeed, the violin seems to lend itself to virtuosity more than any other instrument (its only plausible rival is the piano), and top violinists have amazed their audiences with their wizardry since the 17th century.
The violin is also considered a very expressive instrument, which is often felt to approximate the human voice. This may be due to the possibility of vibrato and of slight expressive adjustments in pitch and timbre.
Violins make up a large part of an orchestra, and are usually divided into two sections, known as the first and second violins. Composers often assign the melody to the first violins (who are often given more technically difficult music), while second violins usually play harmony. A string quartet similarly has parts for first and second violins, as well as a viola part, and a bass instrument, such as the cello or, rarely, the bass.
The violin in folk music
Like many other instruments of classical music, the violin descends from remote ancestors, cruder in form, that were used for folk music. Following a stage of intensive development in the late Renaissance, largely in Italy, the violin had improved (in volume, tone, and agility), to the point that it not only became a very important instrument in art music, but proved highly appealing to folk musicians as well. As a folk instrument, the violin ultimately spread very widely, sometimes displacing earlier bowed instruments, and ethnomusicologists have observed its use in many locations throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
In many traditions of folk music, the tunes are not written but are memorized by successive generations of musicians and passed on in both informal and formal contexts.
See the immediately following section on the fiddle for more information.
When played as a folk instrument, the violin is ordinarily referred to in English as a fiddle.
One very slight difference between fiddle and violin occurs in American (e.g., bluegrass and old-time music) fiddling: the bridge is shaved down so that it is less curved. This makes it easier to play chords.
Most musicians agree that the technical difference between a violin and a fiddle is the bridge. Most classical violinists prefer rounded bridges that allow them to more easily articulate the notes which have better clarity. Fiddlers often prefer flatter bridges that allow the playing of double notes and shuffles. In practice, most instruments are constructed with a rounded bridge to better accommodate the shape of the fingerboard.
Historically, the word fiddle also referred to a predecessor of today's violin. Like the violin, it tended to have 4 strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another series of instruments which contributed to the development of the modern fiddle was the viol, which was played while held between the legs, and has a fretted fingerboard.
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:
Balkan Music & Tanchaz (Transilvainian) or Romanian Music
Irish fiddling (with many distinct styles, including, for example, the Donegal fiddle tradition)
- Scottish fiddling
- English fiddling
- American fiddling (including Old Time fiddling, New England style Fiddling, Cajun fiddling, Texas style fiddling, Contest Fiddling, Bluegrass fiddling, and other related traditions)
- Canadian fiddling (including Cape Breton fiddling, where it's more commonly called Cape Breton Violin Music ; Québécois fiddling, and others)
- Norwegian fiddling (including Hardanger fiddling)
- Swedish fiddling
- Finnish fiddling
French fiddling (including a rich Breton fiddling tradition)
English folk fiddle players include Dave Swarbrick and Ric Sanders , both of whom have been members of Fairport Convention, and the "darling" of the new generation of English folk musicians Eliza Carthy.
Famous Bluegrass fiddle players include John Hartford and Alison Krauss.
For instruments related to the violin, see String instruments. See also Electric violin and Stroh violin. The piccolo violin, a transposing instrument playing a major third higher than written, appears in a few works by Bach.
Latin Violin, by Sam Bardfeld, ISBN 0962846775.
The Contemporary Violin: ExtENDed Performance Techniques, by Patricia and Allen Strange, ISBN 0520224094
"Violin" is a track from They Might Be Giants' 2002 Corvinus Quartet album No!.