The violin is the smallest and highest pitched instrument in the chordophone family. It has four strings which require a bow to play. The bow is usually made of a collective of strands of horse hair that are tuned to the right tension so that when they glide along the violin strings they create the desired sound.
It is believed that the violin originated from ancient Asian cultures and spread through Europe some time before the 15th century. Then there is the fiddle. Or is there? What is a fiddle exactly and what is the exact difference between a violin and a fiddle?
This is a bit of a trick question. It contains the false presumption that there is an actual physical difference between the instrument referred to as a violin and the instrument referred to as a fiddle. In fact, there is not any physical difference whatsoever.
What we also refer to as a “fiddle” has the exact same mechanical structure as a violin in every way, with four strings, a bow, a hollow wooden body of the same shape and size and the same sized neck. So if the two instruments are exactly the same, why have two different names?
The New York Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines the fiddle as “a generic term for any chordophone (string instrument) played with a bow.” Naturally, the violin fits into this category. This is just one definition out there and it certainly isn’t the most widely used.
On a broader scale, a more popular approach for defining the difference between a fiddle and a violin is that they are, in all practical terms, the exact same thing. The difference lies solely in the style in which the musician is playing it.
When we say “she is a violinist”, this means that the preferred style in which she usually plays this instrument is either classical, jazz or contemporary. When we say “he plays the fiddle” we are still referring to the same instrument, but the style in which he plays differs from that of a so-called violinist. The style and character of the fiddle is far more lively, upbeat and ornamented.
The so-called fiddler is someone who uses this instrument to play traditional Celtic music (whether Irish, Scottish or Welsh), folk, blues or bluegrass. Any genre of music that is played by a violin and is highly decorated with very acutely ornamented melodies, a fast tempo and a variety of intervals of syncopation and vibrato all wrapped into one, is generally called fiddle music.
So now we have discovered that the difference lies not in the instrument itself, but in the instrumentalist. If we look at the famous Irish fiddler Mark O’Connor in contrast with any of the violin concertos or sonatas composed by the classical genius Ludwig von Beethoven, we can certainly hear a stark, audible difference in styles. The fiddle has an almost bouncy feel to it; the melodies seem to go up and down with great haste and without much warning, whereas Beethoven’s violin sonatas seem to follow what we now know as the strict classical form.
Fiddle music is ornamented heavily with unexpected quavers popping up and fluttering around like a family of butterflies flying through a field of flowers on a warm day. The role this style plays is to get the listener up and dancing, in order to provide a lively atmosphere at social and communal events.
Classical violin masterpieces tend to often drag out their notes more like long waves hitting against a shore and they seem to avoid the same kind of fast-paced ornamentation that fiddle music provides. They are characterized by clear homophonic melodies and contemporary expression.
So with this, let the discrepancies and the misinformation about whether the violin and the fiddle are in fact two instruments end. They are not. They are the same instrument and the difference is with the player, whether they are a fiddle player, playing in traditional, folk, or bluegrass style, or whether they are a classical or jazz violin player. The mechanical structure is identical; only the musical style varies, but varies greatly. When you listen to a fiddler and a violinist, you will be able to hear a very obvious, audible difference between the two musical styles.