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violin

also: violon, Violine, Geige, fiddle

violin
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Overview

Contextual Associations

The modern violin, a bowed box-lute chordophone, is the soprano member of the violin family of string instruments (see viola and violoncello) that was developed in Western Europe. See the separate entry for Baroque violin for a summary of the social uses and associations during the early centuries of the violin’s development; the modern violin pictured and discussed here was in existence from around 1800. By the turn of the 19th century a vast repertoire of solo (unaccompanied, sonata and concerto) literature existed for the violin, and this literature continued, and continues at the present, to grow (listen to first audio clip). The violin had already become a mainstay both of the orchestra and of chamber music (see String Chamber Ensembles and Piano and String Chamber Ensembles). The performance of this ‘classical’ repertoire is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of violin and offer degrees in violin performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professional violinists find employment in orchestras, chamber ensembles, freelancing in the commercial music industry (performing and recording), and studio teaching. A few professional violinists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. Historically, in Europe of the 19th century and anywhere in the world where Europeans were introducing themselves (through trade or imperial conquest) and their cultural habits, the violin was played both by highly trained professionals and by amateurs. Musicians from genres outside of the classical music establishment and from a variety of music cultures around the world have since adapted the violin to their own sensibilities and traditions--Anglo-American folk fiddling (audio #2), bluegrass, country and western, jazz (audio #3), indigenous peoples of the Andes (audio #4), Mexican mariachi (audio #5), European Gypsy, Yiddish Klezmer, Arabic, Turkish and Persian classical music (audio #6), South Indian classical music (audio #7), Indonesian kroncong, Zulu traditional (audio #8), and many others. The violin has arguably proven itself to be one of, if not the most adaptable musical inventions in human history, serving at one and the same time as an icon of European 'high' culture, a practical replacement for bowed lutes of indigenous music cultures around the world, and as a central voice in myriad vernacular, popular, and commercial musical practices globally. Perhaps because of its details of design and method of sounding, the violin can be played in ways that come closer than most other melodic instruments to mimicking the subtleties and flexibilities of the human voice.

Description

The resonator of the violin is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a narrow side band (‘ribs’). The ribs, constructed from six curved strips of thinly-shaven maple, are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the endpin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate and ribs of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned wooden nut. The pegbox has four laterally mounted wooden tuning pegs, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. The three lowest-pitched strings are made of wire-wound gut, the highest one of steel wire. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of a wooden tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the endpin that is anchored in the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 12.8 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of an in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge). A removable chinrest is attached to the bottom end of the resonator, to the left side of the tailpiece.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

In the performance of classical music the violin is held roughly horizontally with the bottom end of the resonator (as viewed in the gallery image) pinched lightly between the player's left shoulder and chin so that the belly of the resonator is facing upwards. The performer uses the fingertips of her/his left hand to alter the vibrating length of a string by pressing it against the fingerboard, thus making it possible to produce numerous pitches on any given string. By lightly touching, instead of pressing, the strings at specific points, the harmonics of a string's fundamental pitch are produced. The strings are set into vibration in one of two ways: bowing or plucking. Rubbing the rosined horsehair of the bow, held at its frog end with a special right hand grip, at a roughly perpendicular angle to the length of a string excites it into the desired mode of vibration. Alternatively, one or two fingers of the right hand can pluck the strings to set them into vibration (called pizzicato). The basic timbre of the instrument can be subdued by placing a comb-shaped mute over the instrument's bridge. For performance in the classical music and in many other traditions the standard tuning of the four strings is: G3 - D4 - A4 - E5 (an interval sequence of P5 - P5 - P5); other tuning and interval sequences are used for some Western classical works and in many vernacular and classical traditions around the world. The highest practical note producible on most violin fingerboards is E7, giving the instrument a nearly four-octave range of G3 to E7. Higher pitches can be produced by either pressure stopping the E-string beyond the fingerboard or by producing harmonics on the E-string. Parts for the violin are typically notated at pitch in the treble clef. Because the fingerboard of the instrument has no frets, the performer can produce either chromatic intervals or microtonal ones over the violin's entire range. This design feature also makes the performance of subtle and bold ornamentations and sliding pitch inflections possible. Additionally, there are several effects that may be produced with the bow. Finally, two strings can be sounded simultaneously, and this technique is incorporated into many styles of violin playing. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the violin.

Origins/History/Evolution

Around 1800 a number of changes were being made to the violin design of the preceding 250 years (see Baroque violin). Four interdependent modifications taking place around that time were of primary importance to the emergence of the modern violin: string design and strength, neck dimensions and angle, bridge height and shape, and bass-bar and soundpost bolstering. Stronger wire wound strings (gut core wound with silver thread), already in use for the G-string, were being used for the D- and A-strings. The additional tension necessary to tune these strings put excessive strain on the neck, so makers started throwing back the neck (giving it a greater downward angle from the resonator to the scroll) to add structural strength. They also lengthened and narrowed the neck slightly (many old violins either had their original necks modified or replaced with newly designed necks). A consequence of the new neck angle is that the resonator-end of the fingerboard was higher than before, necessitating a higher and slightly more arched bridge. As string tension increased the downward pressure of the bridge on the resonator belly increased, thus making it necessary to make the soundpost and bass-bar more robust. A louder instrument resulted from these changes, one that was capable of keeping up with the expanding size of orchestras and performance spaces during the 19th century and beyond. Starting around 1820 the chin rest became a standard add-on feature to the violin. The final significant change that took place in the 20th century was the use of steel for the E-string and various materials other than gut (such as nylon) for the core of the other strings.

Bibliographic Citations

Boyden, David D. (I-II), Boris Swartz (III). Peter Cooke, Alastair Dick and others (IV). 1984. “Violin,” NGDMI v.3: 765-804.

Cooke, Peter. 1992. “The Violin--Instrument of Four Continents,” In The Cambridge Companion to the Violin. ed. Robin Stowell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 234-248.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Monical, William L. 1986. “Violin.” In The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. ed. Don Randel. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 917-922.