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What is a Violin and What is a Fiddle?

by Peter Zaret

What Is the Difference Between a Violin & a Fiddle?

I’d say that roughly 80-90% of violinists refer to their instrument as a fiddle. Fiddle can be a noun or a verb, whereas “violin” is just a noun. (He plays the fiddle; he fiddles. He plays the violin; he violins?)

“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."

What is a fiddle? 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.

Are the Violin & the Fiddle the Same Instrument?

Well, yes and no. It depends on who's playing it and in what cultural context. Aside from some small details, however, the instrument is pretty much the same; there is no fiddle that is not also a violin. (Learn more interesting facts about violins in this blog.)

When I was growing up, I felt uncomfortable using the term fiddle. “Fiddle” meant “country and western” and I wanted no part of that. However, you hear violinists of the highest caliber, like Stern and Perlman, 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.

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. Fiddle is usually just an informal way of referring to the violin. Though it seems that when one calls a violin a fiddle, they have implied that the particular instrument is not a violin of quality. 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. They were less likely to afford private lessons or attend the symphony, but learned traditional tunes at jams and ceilidhs (kay-lees).

Itzhak Perlman calls his Strad a fiddle. And concert violinists sometimes refer to their colleagues as “fiddlers.” But this is just a loose way of speaking. Itzhak Perlman said it’s a compliment to tell another violinist: “That’s a pretty nice fiddle.

What Is the Origin of the Words Fiddle & Violin?

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 four strings, but came in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Way back in the medieval days, any instrument that was played with a bow was called a fiddle, depending on one’s native language:

  • In English: “fedylle, fiele, ffythele, phidil, vithele”
  • In French: “viele, vielle, viula”
  • In German: “fiedel, videl, vigel”
  • In Latin: “viella, vidula, viola”
  • In Norwegian: “fele”
  • In Spanish: “vihuela de arco”

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.”

What Is the Difference in the Structure of a Violin & a Fiddle?

Not much. In construction of the actual instrument, fiddles and violins are exactly the same. There is no difference in the instrument itself, only in the way that it is played.

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 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.

Different Strings & Tuners for Violins & Fiddles

Gut strings possess 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 are nearly impossible to tune with the peg.

The use of fine tuners on all four strings has unfortunately 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.

Playing the Violin & 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 the 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 there is controlled pressure and smoothness.

For fiddling, your left hand will be learning slides, fourth 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.

What Styles of Music Are Used for Violins & Fiddles?

For the most part, “fiddle” is a style of music, such as Celtic, bluegrass, or Old Time. Nevertheless, there are a few differences 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 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 violin music” by the violin 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. 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.

The fiddle, as we can plainly see, makes music of the people, by the people, and for the people. This means that the authentic choice of populist musical expression, free of coercive restraint, or blatant payoffs, is fiddling, not violin playing.

Different Sounds & Aesthetic Values

Here is the aesthetic analysis of the violin and fiddle: the goal of violin playing is beauty, power, and mystery. For fiddling, the dominant aesthetic 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 aesthetic 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.

What Are the Historical Origins of Fiddles & Violins?

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?

Dance Music vs. Concert Hall

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.

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 or a flute or a reed horn of some kind.

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.

Want to have a good time? Get a fiddler!

Violinists & Fiddlers, Come Together!

Luckily it seems that 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.

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