What is a Violin and What is a Fiddle?

by Peter Zaret

What is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Not much. 80-90% of violinists refer to their instrument as a fiddle. Fiddle can be a noun or a verb. Violin is just a noun. (He plays a fiddle; he fiddles. He plays a violin; he violins?)

Fiddle has 2 syllables violin has three. It is easier to say fiddle. Something about the pronunciation of fiddle rolls off the tongue. Violin is more cumbersome.

One typically uses the term violin for orchestral and classical settings and fiddle in mostly country or pop music, said Doug Droste, director of orchestral studies for the music department of Ohio State University. “The terms are really interchangeable” he said. “Fiddle is just a little more slang than the violin, which is actually the real name of the instrument”.

 The fiddle is a violin played as a folk instrument. It is also the colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music. Fiddle playing, or fiddling, is a style of music.

Itzhak Perlman said it’s a compliment to tell another violinist. “That’s a pretty nice fiddle”.

The most frequently asked question: what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? The non-serious answer: “Nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle.” Itzhak Perlman calls his Strad a fiddle. You wouldn’t spill beer on it, though. And concert violinists sometimes refer to their colleagues as “fiddlers.” But, this is just a loose way of speaking.

A violin is sometimes informally called a fiddle, regardless of the kind of music being played with it. The words “violin” and “fiddle” come from the same Latin root, but “violin” came through the romance languages and “fiddle” through the Germanic languages.

Historically, the word fiddle also referred to a predecessor of today’s violin. Like the violin, it tended to have 4 strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Is it okay to call a violin a fiddle, or is that a gross insult? Yes. It is okay to call a violin a fiddle. Though it seems that when one calls a violin a fiddle they have implied that that particular instrument is for whatever reason not a violin of quality. Let me explain: way back in the medieval days any instrument that was played with a bow was called a fiddle, or depending on one’s native language, a fedylle, fiele, ffythele, phidil, vithele in English; viele, vielle, viula, in French; Fiedel, Videl, Vigel in German; viella, vidula, viola, in Latin; fele, in Norwegian; and vihuela de arco in Spanish. Colloquially, “fiddle” is the term most often used for a member of the violin family or for the “kit,” the dance master’s fiddle.

You can see from sounding out the words above that fiddle is probably the term that would have most easily evolved if the English and the Germans had perfected the instrument that we know today as the Violin. But it came into its own in Italy. And the Italian words for “fiddle” sound more like “violin”.

Are the violin and the fiddle the same instrument? Well, yes and no, it depends. What it depends on is who’s playing it, and in what cultural context you are speaking. When I was growing up, I felt uncomfortable using the term fiddle. “Fiddle” meant “country and western fiddle” and I wanted no part of that. However, you hear violinists of the highest caliber, like Stern and Perlman, for example, referring to the violin as a fiddle. . . but their cultural context is Eastern European, which included gypsy-like so-called “fiddle” music, which is not the same at all as the American genre. The instrument itself may be the same, though folk players of violin (and other players who are playing something besides art music) may take more liberties with respect to the way the instrument is held, its fittings, and so on. Aside from some small details, however, the instrument is pretty much the same; there is no separate genre, fiddle, which is not also a violin.

Structure of the Violin and Fiddle

Q. What is the difference in the structure of a violin and a fiddle?

A. Not much. They are the same basic instrument. Fiddlers generally prefer a flatter curve on the top of the bridge and four fine tuners.

One very slight difference between “fiddles” and ordinary violins may be seen in American bluegrass and old time fiddling: in these styles, the top of the bridge may be cut so that it is very slightly less curved. This reduces the range of right-arm motion required for the rapid string-crossings found in some styles, and is said to make it easier to play double stops and shuffles, or to make triple stops possible, allowing one to play chords.

Most classical violinists prefer a more rounded curve to the top of the bridge that allows them to articulate each note more easily and clearly. In practice, most instruments are fitted with a rounded bridge to better accommodate the shape of the fingerboard. The difference between “round” and “flat” is not great; about a quarter or half a millimeter variation in the height of one or two strings. A fiddle strung with steel will work best with a bridge which is as much as a millimeter lower overall. For gut, nylon or other synthetic-core strings, the action may be set suitably higher. As a violin’s bridge is relatively easy to replace, modifying the bridge does not permanently make a violin into a fiddle.

In construction of the actual instrument, fiddles and violins are exactly the same. A humorous answer to the first question is “a fiddle is a cheap violin covered in rosin dust with a flattened bridge”. Actually there is no difference in the instrument itself, only in the way that it is played.

Gut strings possessed a rich and full quality ideal for orchestral playing. They weren’t perfect for the bank account, however, and fiddlers resorted to the cheaper alternative: steel. Steel strings have a “bright” timber (tone) and carry well in a solo situation.

Steel strings are very difficult to tune with the violin’s clumsy wooden pegs — many steel strings were broken until the invention of fine-tuners, the tiny little metal mechanisms on the tailpiece that makes tuning a piece of cake. Violinists adopted this technology for use on their steel E strings which is nearly impossible to tune with the peg.

The use of fine tuners on all four strings unfortunately has become associated with less skilled musicians since fiddlers used them. This is absolutely not true. There is also evidence that fine tuners alter the quality of harmonics (higher frequencies), but this it’s to be debated too. Thus a ridiculous stereotype was invented: violinists use the pegs, and fiddlers use the fine tuners.

Some think that fiddles are simply cheap violins. At one time this could have been true, as poorer or rural folks usually played home-made fiddles, not Strads browse around here. They were less likely to afford private lessons or attend the symphony, but learned traditional tunes at jams and ceilidhas (kay-lees).

Playing the Violin and the Fiddle

Some people believe it is easier to learn how to fiddle than how to play violin. In the beginning stage of learning, there is little, if any, difference between violin and fiddle. That comes later in the intermediate stage. The paths diverge then.

Creating the Sound

If you are learning violin, you will put a lot of effort into mastering vibrato. That’s the primary left hand technique for attaining constancy and ravishing tonal beauty. In the right hand it is controlled pressure and smoothness.

For fiddling, your left hand will be learning slides, 4th finger drones and Irish cuts, rolls and graces. Your right hand will produce repeating bow patterns of light rhythmic accents.

Same instrument, different technique.

Since many fiddlers never had formal lessons, most couldn’t read music and played everything by ear, whereas violinists could read music usually but could not improvise. Another stereotype was invented.

Holding a violin with one’s jaw makes it nearly impossible to talk and play simultaneously (similar to walking around with your pants around your ankles, but perhaps not as taboo). Square dancing fiddlers dealt with this difficulty by holding the violin down on their arm rather than under the chin, freeing up their jaws to “call” the dance moves. This technique is a big no-no in classical playing (realm of the shoulder rest) and it created yet another rift between violin and fiddle.

Style of Music for both Violin and Fiddle

For the most part “fiddle” is a style of music, such as Celtic, Bluegrass or Old Time. Nevertheless, there are a few differences and, sadly, stereotypes between fiddle and violin music:

  • The goal of violin music is beauty and power. The goal of fiddling is danceability.
  • Violin music is often harder to play than it sounds. Fiddle music is usually easier.
  • Violin performance takes more strength and concentration to play than fiddle music.
  • Fiddle music is usually improvised in part. Violin music is rarely improvisational. (One of the last vestiges of improvisation in violin music is in the cadenzas that are sometimes written by the performer.)

“Serious music” has a higher purpose than having a good time. And so it leaves many people standing out in the cold. Only so much room in the Church, in the castle, in the merchant’s concert hall.

The fiddle, as we can plainly see, makes music of the people, by the people and for the people.

In any culture dominated by the priest class, the military class, the merchant class, or any combination, music will serve the purpose of the rulers of that society, seen or unseen. Only in the remaining class, the workers, is music free to be spontaneous and interactive.

This means that the authentic choice of populist musical expression, free of coercive restraint, or blatant payoffs, is fiddling, not violin playing. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

How About That Sound?

Here is the esthetic analysis of violin and fiddle: the goal of violin playing is beauty, power and mystery. The emphasis is on beauty and power. For fiddling, the dominant esthetic is rhythmic energy and mystery. (Energy could be just a different way of looking at power.) For fiddlers, beauty is not a big value.

This distinction of esthetic value leads to a huge difference in the sound. You recognize that concert violin sound the moment you hear it. Just as you know that danceable fiddle sound when you hear it.

Another difference between the instruments are the techniques used to play them, said Laura Talbott, assistant professor for violin and viola for the Ohio State University Music Department. “Fiddle playing is a little more folk based, and it doesn’t emphasize one proper way of doing things over another,” she said.

Dance Music and the Concert Hall

Supposing the main difference is in the sound, where did this distinction come from? What’s the historical lineage of the fiddle and the violin?

For serious violin music, the historical origin is the church. Sacred music was the only music that paid the bills for serious composers like Palestrina. Using instruments from the string family was well established by the time of Bach.

The Movement of Many Feet

Fiddle music, historically is dance music. We’re talking about generations and generations of people moving their feet rhythmically to the sound of a few easily portable musical instruments. A bowed string instrument has been popular in most cultures, just as a plucked string instrument of a flute or a reed horn of some kind.

You want to have a good time? Get a fiddler.

Fiddle music tends to come from the folk-dance tradition, with a strict rhythm for the dancers, and melodic improvisation to add color. Classical music, particularly in the age of Vivaldi and Bach, also followed these trends. A gigue is a jig. But since that time, the two branches of music have diverged.

Come Together!

Luckily it seems the violin/fiddle gap has narrowed considerably in the past few years. Most players use new hybrid strings that possess a full and rich, yet clear, tone and respond well to both classical and fiddle playing. Most modern violinists aren’t so sticky about fine tuners anymore as they are seen as an advantage over using stubborn old pegs.

The resurgence of fiddle music in pop culture has created an opportunity for fiddlers to aspire to a higher level of playing ability and for violin students to branch out and try other genres of music. Hence fiddlers and violinists alike have finer instruments and a formal music education.

Fiddle technique is being abandoned by many fiddlers who have discovered the benefits, such as greater speed and fewer backaches, of the classical technique. New programs in music education have produced fiddlers who can read music and violinists who can improvise.

As more musicians branch out musically and develop new ways of playing there will be little difference between “violin” and “fiddle”. Musicians will feel much more comfortable playing with each other and the stereotypes will fade away, both violin and fiddle will be valid.