The highest pitched member of the violin family, the violin has four strings, a hollow body, an unfretted fingerboard and is played with a bow. Bowed, stringed instruments reached Europe in the middle ages, but it took many centuries of evolution to come up with the violin. The first true violins were made in the mid-sixteenth century; the oldest true violin in existence was made by Andrea Amati in Cremona, and is dated 1555. Cremona has stayed at the forefront of violin making ever since, with a still-thriving community of violin makers, or luthiers: it was the home, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, of the best known luthier of all time, Antonio Stradivari. His instruments are still highly prized, with players and collectors paying thousands, or even millions of pounds for them. They are copied worldwide by luthiers, students and the manufacturers of mass-produced factory violins.
The violin is one of the most versatile instruments. Along with violas, violoncellos, and double basses, violins make up the string section family of any orchestra: they are divided into two groups called First and Second violins. Each group consists of several players and has a leader: the leader of the first violins is the Concertmaster of the orchestra.
String Quartets also have first and second violins, though only one of each, alongside a viola and a cello.
Violins have a place at the forefront of almost every kind of music-making. They are used in folk, jazz and pop music all over the world; they are one of the most popular solo instruments with violin solos ranging from concertos with the full backing of an orchestra, through sonatas where they are accompanied by a piano, to unaccompanied pieces. In the film The Red Violin one had a prominent part and the soundtrack, played by Joshua Bell, has become a staple on classical music radio.
Playing the Violin
The violin can be played in two different ways:
Bowing: a bow, made of wood strung with horsehair under slight tension, is drawn across the strings between the bridge and the fingerboard, setting up a vibration. The amplitude and complexity of the vibration can be controlled by altering the pressure and speed of the bow, which is treated with rosin, a block of hard tree resin, to increase the friction. Bowing is the default method, and will usually not be marked on a musical score, but if neccessary it is denoted by the word arco. A variation is col legno, 'with wood', where the wooden stick of the bow is used instead of the hair, but this is not common1.
Plucking: The strings are plucked with either hand, though usually the right. Strings should always be plucked over the fingerboard as the bow won't get sufficient friction if the strings are oily. This method is called pizzicato. A similar method is used to play a guitar.
Different notes are produced by pressing the string against the fingerboard. The vibration of the string is stopped at that point, altering the pitch of the note - a shorter string means a higher note. Since the violin has no frets to stop the string against, as a guitar does, the pitch can be varied easily. This makes it very easy to play out of tune, but gives the violin a versatility which is lacking in most other instruments. The strings of the violin are tuned in fifths, pitched at G, D, A and E; the four fingers (numbered 1-4 from forefinger to little finger) can easily fill in all the notes between strings, and overlap the string above: the size of the instrument makes it possible to reach right to the end of the fingerboard. Rocking the finger on the fingerboard produces vibrato by changing the pitch minutely, and touching the string lightly beyond the fingered note can produce harmonics, where the higher frequencies inherent in all notes are brought out and the fundamental note supressed.
Small violins have been made for almost as long as full size ones. Mozart famously started playing on a scaled down violin. It is very hard for children to play an adult sized instrument, since a fairly long reach is required to finger it properly. As a result violins are made in 3/4 size, 1/2 size, 1/4 size, 1/8 size, 1/16 size and even 1/32 size. These all have the same proportions as full size violins and are tuned at the same pitches. There are some drawbacks to small violins; they cannot produce the volume or depth of tone which full size instruments can, and since they are made for children they are often made very cheaply and designed to be robust rather than beautiful. It can be very frustrating for a child to play a bad violin and struggle to produce a nice sound - and frustrating for their parents, too. However it is very important that the instrument fits the player, both from a technical point of view (it makes playing easier and players will learn fewer bad habits) and from a physical one - holding a violin which is too large and too heavy will cause poor posture, back and neck strain and puts stress on the hands as well.
There are several methods for teaching violin, each of which has its passionate supporters. It would of course be possible to learn without any teaching at all, but it is much easier and probably far less stressful to find a good teacher who can show you how to get the most out of your fingers and your violin.
A Few Of The Classics
Many pieces of music have been written for violin. Here are a few classics well worth listening too. There are plenty of others.
- Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
- Johann Pachelbel: Canon and Gigue in D
- Vaughan Williams: Fantasia On A Theme of Thomas Tallis
- Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto In D Major
- Bach: Violin Concerti, especially the Double Concerto in D Minor.
- Bach: Sonatas for keyboard and violin.
- Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 and Sinfonia Concertante For Viola And Violin.
- Beethoven: Violin Concerto, violin sonatas.
- Brahms: Violin Concerto.
- Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto.
- Berg: Violin Concerto.
Other brilliant composers - in fact, probably most composers - have written music for the violin. Vivaldi and Haydn readily spring to mind. An exhaustive list of composers is outside the scope of this article.
What's the Downside?
Almost every style of music is enhanced by the use of violins. Alas, although the violin is a wonderful instrument there are drawbacks.
The violin (along with the viola and cello) is considered by many the most difficult of the mainstream instruments to learn to play well. This is due to the way notes are produced - placing the fingers correctly, while simultaneously getting the bow speed, pressure, placement and direction right is not an easy task. Many young people, struggling to master this initially terrible sounding instrument, may find themselves left behind by their musical friends who have chosen to play other, initially easier, instruments.
Another problem is that often children, required to learn an instrument, choose the violin as it is readily available, yet have no idea what sound they are aspiring to having never listened to good players. Listening to the average school orchestra may not correct that.
It is possible to place tapes on the fingerboard, making it easier to learn correct placement of the fingers and leaving the novice player free to concentrate on the sound they are producing but some teachers disapprove of this practice.
A Few Of The Greats
Any list of excellent violinists will include:-
Please feel free to listen to - and enjoy - your own favourite violinist.
There are established centres and schools of violin making in many places, each with their own particular style and typical sound qualities, including Mittenwald in Germany, Mirecourt in France, Newark and Cambridge in England and many in the United States. The differences between the different styles of violin are relatively small however. They may vary in shape, curvature and thickness, and methods of making them may differ but the basic structure is the same in all instruments.
The violin's cornered, hourglass-shaped body is made up of several pieces of wood. The top and bottom of the carved carcass are fairly thick; the front plate, also known as the belly, is made from fine-grained spruce and is of an even thickness - around 3mm, though that varies depending on the maker and the qualities of the wood. A pair of soundholes, known as 'f' holes because of their shape, are cut into the lower part of the belly. The back plate is nearly always made from flamed maple - which in fact is sometimes known as 'fiddleback maple' for this reason. It varies in thickness, being thinner around the sides and thicker in the middle. The sides, or ribs are made of six thin pieces: the upper bouts form the shoulders of the violin, the 'C' bouts form the waist and the lower bouts, occasionally formed from a single long strip instead of two, curve round to meet at the bottom. They are usually made of flamed maple, which is steamed and bent to a form, then allowed to dry until the form keeps (adheres). The ribs are reinforced at the joins by blocks of wood and narrow strips of wood known as 'linings' are glued to the edges inside to give more surface area and form a stronger joint with the plates. There is a spruce sound post which connects the top to the bottom of the violin; this spreads the vibrations of the instrument evenly, thus creating a good tone. It is wedged in place (never glued) on the treble side of the instrument. Across the inside of the belly, on the bass side, is a bass bar, a long strip of wood, curved more than the belly. This produces some tension in the plate which counteracts the pressure of the bridge and is a relatively new invention, made necessary by modern strings. Baroque violins may not have a bass bar. Another feature is the purfling, the black lines round the edges of the front and back plates. Purfling is made from three strips of wood or thick paper, joined together in a sandwich, usually with a white strip between two black strips. These are inlaid around the edges of the plates, which effectively makes the plates even thinner at that point, allowing freer vibrations which enhance the tone but without compromising on strength. Cheap violins sometimes have only painted lines instead of real purfling.
The glue used to join the various parts of the violin is usually Scotch glue3. This is a water-soluble glue: the grains are soaked in water and then heated, the parts to be glued are also heated and moistened with hot water, the glue is applied and the joint clamped and allowed to dry. This makes a strong and nearly invisible joint which should be as strong as the wood, yet it can be unglued with hot water if adjustments or repairs need to be done. Obviously it is advisable to keep your violin dry and away from sources of heat to prevent the joints opening up. String players in humid climates keep de-humidifiers such as silica gel in their instrument cases to help protect them.
The Neck and Scroll
Affixed to the body is the neck of the instrument. This, like the back and ribs, is usually flamed maple. The part which joins the body is the heel and it is set into the ribs and end block with a dovetail joint and glued into place. At the other end of the neck is the peg-box, which holds the tuning pegs and, with the scroll, is made of one piece with the neck. The ends of the strings are carefully wound around the pegs. The violin ends with the wooden flourish which is the scroll.
The fingerboard, usually made of ebony, is glued to the neck. Your left hand rests here. At the peg end of the fingerboard is a notched piece of ebony called the nut, which raises the strings from the fingerboard and holds them in evenly-spaced positions. The other end of the strings pass over the wooden bridge which is held to the body by the tension of the strings. The bridge is made from hard maple and is placed with one foot close to the soundpost and the other over the bass bar. The strings attach to the tailpiece past the bridge, which is in turn attached to the end pin, which is inserted in a tapered hole through the ribs and the bottom end block. At the rear left quarter of the body is the somewhat self-explanatory chin rest. The tailpiece and end pin are commonly made from ebony or rosewood; the chinrest may be made from one of those woods, any other decorative hardwood, or plastic.
The strings themselves were originally made from sheep's gut4, but today these strings are more commonly used when playing early music. Modern strings are usually made with cores made from steel, titanium, nylon or similar materials and often have a steel coating. They can be strung with a higher tension than gut strings, giving a brighter, clearer, louder sound; the increased tension is the reason for the introduction of the bass bar.