The violin is a string instrument with four strings, usually tuned in perfect fifths. It is the smallest member of the violin family, which includes viola, violoncello or ‘cello, and double bass, and has the highest pitch.
The violin, from the Medieval Latin word vitula, which means stringed instrument, was developed in its modern form in 16th Century Italy, and modified throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. Also known as the fiddle, from the same root, the violin is played in a huge variety of Western music, from Baroque and Classical to Jazz, Folk and even Rock and Pop. It descends from remote ancestors that were used in folk music and played throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas.
The violin was initially a poor-man’s instrument, popular with gypsies and in Jewish culture, easily hand made and robust. There are hundreds of shapes, sizes and designs of these rustic folk instruments throughout the world.
The Chinese fiddle, or Erhu, is a remote ancestor of the violin.
… and the violin is also found in India, where the instrument is the same as a Western violin but the technique of playing differs, with the violin balanced between the left shoulder and the right foot.
The violin is normally tuned to the pitches G, D, A and E, but in Indian music it can be tuned D#, A#, D#, A# and many other pitches are used. In Baroque music and in British and Irish folk music this technique, which is called scordatura, literally meaning mistuning, is frequently used to create entirely different tonalities and harmonic effects.
Making a Violin
The parts of the violin are made from different types of wood. Its sound is dependent on the specific acoustic characteristics of its shape. Sound is produced when a bow is drawn across the strings, or when the string is plucked, causing it to vibrate.
The top of the violin, which is also called the belly or soundboard is made of spruce. The back and ribs are made from maple or sycamore. The best wood for violin making has been seasoned for many years, and the seasoning process continues indefinitely after the violin is made.
The voice of the violin depends on its shape, the quality of its wood, and its varnish. Wood that has grown too quickly in lush environments is considered less resonant, and there is a romantic belief that wood from trees grown in high altitudes and poor conditions produces the best violins.
There has been a huge amount of speculation into the techniques of the Italian master violin-makers of the 17th Century, Stradivarius and Guarnari, whose violins are now investment items selling for many millions of pounds.
This short film explains some possible differences in the wood and varnish preparation, which have created such fine instruments.
The violin is glued with animal hide glue, a soft adhesive that can easily be removed if repairs are needed. The softness of the glue also allows for expansion and contraction of the wood and means that the violin is more likely to come unglued in extreme conditions than for the wood to split. The purfling, the decorative inlay around the body of the violin, is actually designed to protect the edges of the wood from cracking and allows the belly of the violin to flex independently of the ribs.
The arched body with its hourglass shape and curved bouts is essential for the tone. The shape of the instrument is designed to withstand the stress of use and the tensions of the strings, and these curved shapes also give it aesthetic beauty. The design of the violin was influenced by Renaissance philosophies, and results from a fusion of mathematical, aesthetic and scientific principles, not least the Pythagorean teaching that beauty is the result of perfect number ratios.
The neck of the violin is normally made from maple, with an ebony fingerboard. Ebony is used for its hardness and resistance to wear. The neck ends in a peg box and a carved scroll, the fineness of which is often used as an indication of the skill of the violin maker.
This storyboard by Chicago violin shop Fritz Reuter, shows a simple step-by-step illustration of the violin making process.
Why Choose the Violin?
In his book Life Class, Yehudi Menuhin describes the affinity some people have for the violin, explaining that it is not only a melodic instrument, it is also immediately tactile and accessible, even to a child. The violin can be purchased in many different sizes suitable for even the smallest child. These small violins, which can be as tiny as 1/62nd of a full size instrument, are not finely made as they are designed to be resilient for beginners to use, but can be picked up, as Menuhin describes, as easily as a child picks up a teddy bear.
“A child who has a direct natural inclination for the violin has something of an advantage in choosing this instrument over others,” he says. “It is rather like the voice, is a much more tactile instrument than many others and can come in a variety of sizes.
This picture from thesoundpost.co.uk shows the common sizes of beginner instruments for children of different ages.
Menuhin ascribes the appeal of the violin mainly to its sound, which is like that of the human voice.
“With the violin you have to make your own sound and pitch. It is your own voice you are projecting or …learning to project.” He explains that this is why it is possible to distinguish the sounds, tone and styles of different violinists. Playing the violin involves the whole body and this gives the violin the greatest and most immediate range of expression of any instrument.
This playfulness and expression can be seen in this video of a young Sarah Chang playing Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy.
“I look to the child who, with the child’s confidence, is willing to take up the fiddle, to play it and to play with it, to explore its infinite range of tones and qualities until he finds that voice which is uniquely his own.” Yehudi Menuhin