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A violin and bow in its case

The violin is a string instrument that is played with a bow. The violin has four strings, which are tuned to the notes, G, D, A, and E. The violin is held between the left collar bone (near the shoulder) and the chin. Different notes are made by fingering, with the left hand while bowing with the right. It has no frets or other markers, so players have to learn the exact place to put the fingers of the left hand by memory alone.

The violin is the smallest and highest pitched instrument in the string family. The other instruments in the family are: viola, cello and double bass. A person who plays the violin is called a violinist. A person who makes or repairs a violin is called a luthier.

The violin is about 400 years old. By the time the modern orchestra started in the 17th century the violin was fully developed and it became the most important orchestral instrument. It is used as a solo instrument, in chamber music, in orchestral music and in jazz as well as in folk music.

History of the violin[edit | edit source]

Parts of the violin

The violin was more like the medieval rebec which was an instrument held under the chin and bowed. In the 16th century there was an instrument called the lira da braccio, which was an early form of the violin.

In the 17th century there were several families of luthiers who were extremely good at making instruments. The most famous violin makers were Stradivarius, Amati and Guarneri. Some of the instruments that these luthiers made are still in existence today. They are some of the best instruments in existence, and can fetch prices of several million dollars.

The construction of a violin[edit | edit source]

The biggest part of the violin is the wooden body. It is made of spruce.

  • This acts as a resonating box: it amplifies (makes louder) the sound of the vibrating strings. Many of the parts of the violin are named after parts of the body: the front is called the “belly”, the back is the “back”, the sides are the “ribs”.
  • The strings travel from near the top of the “neck” down the “fingerboard” and on to the “tail piece”.
  • Halfway between the end of the fingerboard and the tailpiece the strings go across the bridge. The bridge is not fixed onto the violin. It is held in place because the strings are so tight. If the strings are completely loosened the bridge will come away. The bridge helps to send the vibrations of the strings down to the body of the instrument.
  • Inside the body there is a “soundpost”. This is a small piece of wood, like a small finger, which goes from the belly to the back. The soundpost, too, is held in place by the tension (tightness) of the strings.
  • In the middle of the belly there are two long, curved holes. They are called “F holes” because of their shape.
  • The top of the strings are wound around pegs. The violin can be tuned by turning the pegs. The very top of the neck is called the “scroll”.

Many violins also have a chinrest. This helps to hold the violin against the player's shoulder. A shoulder rest is also used. These are now made of foam, with special legs to hold them on to the violin. As these are not particularly cheap, many beginners instead use a sponge and an elastic band.

To make it easier to tune the violin, many people find it helpful to have “adjusters” for “fine tuning” when the string is only slightly out of tune. These adjusters go through holes in the tailpiece.

Strings used to be made of gut, but now they are mostly made of steel or nylon. Adjusters can only be used with steel strings.

The bow can be made of several kinds of wood, for example pernambuco. Some players today use bows made of carbon fibre. The bow is strung with horsehair.

How to play the violin[edit | edit source]

Violon first position fingering chart

As with most instruments, it takes years of practice to become a really good violinist.

Beginners start by practicing on the “open strings” (without using the left-hand fingers). At first the beginner can pluck the strings, then he or she can learn how to use the bow.

Gradually the player can learn how to stop the strings with the fingers to get all the different notes. At first the learner will play in “first position”. This means that finger 1 (the fingers are numbered from 1 to 4, the thumb being behind the neck of the instrument) is playing a note which is a whole tone above the open string, e.g. on the D string it is playing a stopped E. When he or she is more advanced they will play in other positions by moving the left hand up the fingerboard nearer to the bridge. There is also a half position in which the first finger is stretched back.

The violinist has to learn to put the fingers in exactly the right place so that the music is “in tune” (this is called intonation). He will also learn vibrato.

Besides plucking (pizzicato) there are many special effects such as glissando, portamento and harmonics as well as double stopping, chords or using scordatura tuning.

The violin can be played either standing or sitting down. When playing solo music the violinist normally stands, but when playing in chamber music or in orchestras he sits (although this was not always the case). When sitting he may have to turn his right leg in so that it does not get in the way of the bow.

Violin music[edit | edit source]

Telemann. Two violins sonata-1
The famous violinist Itzhak Perlman playing in the White House.

In the 17th and 18th centuries composers wrote a lot of music for solo violin. Many of these composers were from Italy and were themselves violinists: Corelli, Vitali, Vivaldi, Veracini, Geminiani, Locatelli and Tartini. In Germany, Schmelzer and Biber wrote some very virtuoso violin music. Later, in the early 18th century, Bach and Handel wrote many masterpieces for the violin.

In the Classical music period the great composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote solo works for the violin as well as a vast amount of chamber music, especially string quartets.

In the Romantic period many virtuoso violin works were written. These include concertos by Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Bruch, Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák. In the 19th century Niccolò Paganini was undoubtedly the most famous violinist. He composed and played violin music that was harder than anyone had played before. People compared him to the devil because he could play so brilliantly (and because of his looks).

In the 20th century Elgar, Sibelius, Szymanowski, Bartók, Stravinsky, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith and Penderecki.

In recent years the violin has also been used in jazz playing. Stephane Grappelli was especially famous for this.

Famous violinists[edit | edit source]

Some of the most famous violinists of the last century are Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, Ida Haendel and Isaac Stern. Today some of the greatest players include Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, Nigel Kennedy, Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, and the fiddler[1] Sara Watkins.

  1. The violin is sometimes called a “fiddle”. Someone who plays it is a “fiddler”. There is even a verb: “to fiddle” (meaning: “to play the fiddle”). This word can be used as a nickname for the violin, but is properly used when talking about folk music.

Other websites[edit | edit source]

P treble clef.svg Music Portal — All articles about music