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Violin: History & Facts

Instructor: Logan Wright

Logan is an active Jazz Guitarist, and classically trained composer with an affinity for contemporary musical styles.

In this lesson, we're going to talk about the modern violin. We will discuss a broad scope of the instrument including its history, how its played, and what it can do.

What Is A Violin

The violin is the soprano member of the string family, which also includes such instruments as the viola, the cello, and the bass (sometimes referred to as the 'double bass' or 'contrabass'). It is one of the most versatile instruments ever created, a characteristic reflected in the vast and varied repertoire available for the instrument from all corners of the globe. It can just as easily sustain a tone as it can perform the most agile of musical passages. In terms of pitch, the violin can play all chromatic pitches and microtones across its massive four-octave range. The capabilities of the violin are extraordinary, and yet its limits are still being pushed to this day through extended techniques and the sheer determination of ambitious musicians. To quote the New Grove Music Dictionary, 'In short, the violin represents one of the greatest triumphs of instrument making.'

Where Did It Come From?

The construction and use of string instruments in general began very early in human history, so finding the exact origins of the violin can prove to be a bit vague. We can however, discuss the contemporary violin, which, like many instruments, can be more or less discussed in terms of its shape. The outline for what we consider to be a contemporary violin first became standard in Italy around 1550 AD, but at the time there was a great deal of change and experimentation by instrument makers, leading to variations on this form appearing in northern Europe into the 1600's.

How is it Played?

To play the violin, the performer positions the instrument on their left shoulder, securing it in place with the side of their chin. The neck of the instrument is held by the left hand by positioning the thumb underneath the fretboard, and the fingers above the strings to allow for the fingering of pitches.

playing a violin

The right hand controls the bow, which when drawn across the strings causes them to vibrate and produce sound. In addition to basic bowing, there is a wide array of different bowing techniques that produce variations on the traditional sound. Some of the most common of these alternative bowings include ponticello, détaché, staccato, and legato. The strings can also be plucked, a technique referred to as pizzicato. It's important to note when discussing pizzicato that the sound produced by plucking will be significantly quieter than the sound produced by drawing the bow. As we saw with a variety of bowing variations, there are also variations to the plucking technique, some of the most common of which include snap pizzicato (occasionally referred to by its creator as Bartok Pizzicato), two handed plucking, and even strumming. There are also a wide variety of less standardized approaches to the instrument, particularly in modern classical music, that include things like bowing the strings with the back of the bow, a piece of glass, and other creative ways to invent new sounds from the instrument.

Tuning

The violin has four strings that are tuned in perfect fifths to the pitches pictured below. As a soprano, violin music is written in the treble clef.

The tuning of the violin

Occasionally, a violin's strings will be tuned to alternate pitches, a technique referred to as a scordatura.

Range

The exact range limits often vary based on the skill and experience of the performer, but in most professional orchestras, it is safe to assume a practical range up to E7. In solo and chamber music however, notes can reach as high as B7 or even further through the use of harmonics.

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