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What Is the Difference Between a Fiddle and a Violin?

Updated on August 2, 2017

This is a violin:

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This is a fiddle:

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From that, you might conclude that "violin" and "fiddle" are just two names for the same instrument, and the way the word is most commonly used, you would be right. However, that is really only part of the story.

This is a traditional Icelandic instrument known as the langspil. It is also a fiddle.

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This is a tayaw from Burma. It is also a fiddle.

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This is a gaohu. The gaohu is a fiddle. It is also a huquin, which is a family of spiked fiddles used in traditional Chinese music, and there are very similar traditional instruments found in other Asian cultures, as well. Wikipedia has an extensive list of huquin instruments.

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These are all fiddles:

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And so are these:

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Ok, maybe fiddle is just a general term for anything that is played with a bow.

Double basses are played with bows.

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Except for when they aren't played with bows.

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And they are plucked quite often, across many different types of music, and often enough you could almost call the bow an optional accessory. So is it a fiddle when you do use a bow and not a fiddle when you don't?

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The problem with that explanation is that string players in an orchestra bow more often than they pluck, and some of them are irritated if not offended when their instruments are called "fiddles."

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Gordon Swift writes in Strings Magazine that he once believed "violin" to be the proper term when the instrument was used in classical or jazz music, while "fiddle" was more appropriate for "folk, country, and bluegrass." The problem with that definition is it is way too narrow. There are musicians who play styles in both of those arbitrary categories who still favor one term over the other, and there are so many violinists who play other genres of music that are omitted by those categories. However, although Swift no longer uses the term that way, there are still many who do.

The reason the term "fiddle" is so confusing is because there is no international agreement among English speakers concerning the word's definition. Depending on where you live and the musical traditions to which you have been exposed, and also how you were trained if you happen to be a musician, the word "fiddle" may have any of the following meanings (some of which are in conflict with how others might use the same word):

  • A violin.
  • An affectionate nickname for a violin.
  • A violin that is less expensive and not treated with the same care and reverence as the violins commonly played by classical musicians. If it's a fiddle, you can carve it, write on it, paint it, or as the old joke goes, spill beer on it, and no one will care.
  • A violin that is used to play folk or country music.
  • A violin that is used for any style of music other than classical or jazz.
  • A violin that is not used to play classical music but might be used to play jazz or any other style of music.
  • A violin that is frequently used to play non-classical music, but only when it is not actively being used to play classical music.
  • A violin that is played by someone who has not had formal violin lessons.
  • A violin that has been manipulated to make it easier to play folk music.
  • A member of the violin family, which includes violin, viola, and cello.
  • Any folk instrument played with a bow.
  • Any string instrument played with a bow.

That list is probably not all-inclusive, but as you can see, there is quite a bit of prejudice involved in some of those definitions. As far as the dictionary is concerned, it doesn't matter which term you use, but you might insult someone who prefers one term over the other. Some classical musicians see folk music, and those who play it, to be inferior. Some folk musicians see classical musicians as handicapped because they often do not know how to improvise and rely on standard notation but rarely understand the theory unless they have a degree. When classical musicians play folk music, they tend to not play it in an "authentic" style, but when folk musicians play the same music, classical musicians cringe when they see all of the technique issues they have been so carefully disciplined to avoid. Some folk musicians prefer a bridge shape that makes it easier to play multiple strings and might prefer steel core strings over the gut core strings often favored by classical musicians, and as a result, a "fiddle" used for folk music might not actually sound the same as a "violin" used for classical music. It might not be tuned the same way, either. However, classical musicians can and do play multiple strings at the same time, and when they have been trained to play double stops and chords with their current tuning and setup, it doesn't make sense to them to change things to make them easier when "easier" means having to re-learn what they are already comfortable doing their way. Therefore, as classically-trained violinists become interested in other styles, the idea that the fiddle and violin are not tuned and setup the same way is quickly becoming an outdated distinction.

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