Construction and Playing

The main parts of the violin are the front, also called the belly, top, or soundboard, usually
made of well-seasoned spruce; the back, usually made of well-seasoned maple; and the ribs,
neck, fingerboard, pegbox, scroll, bridge, tailpiece, and f-holes, or soundholes (see
illustration). The front, back, and ribs are joined together to form a hollow sound box. The
sound box contains the sound post, a thin, dowel-like stick of wood wedged inside underneath
the right side of the bridge and connecting the front and back of the violin; and the bass-bar, a
long strip of wood glued to the inside of the front under the left side of the bridge. The sound
post and bass-bar are important for the transmission of sound, and they also give additional
support to the construction. The strings are fastened to the tailpiece, rest on the bridge, are
suspended over the fingerboard, and run to the pegbox, where they are attached to tuning
pegs that can be turned to change the pitch of the string. The player makes different pitches by
placing the left-hand fingers on the string and pressing against the fingerboard. The strings are
set in vibration and produce sound when the player draws the bow across them at a right angle
near the bridge.

Among the prized characteristics of the violin are its singing tone and its potential to play rapid,
brilliant figurations as well as lyrical melodies. Violinists can also create special effects by
means of the following techniques: pizzicato, plucking the strings; tremolo, moving the bow
rapidly back and forth on a string; sul ponticello, playing with the bow extremely close to the
bridge to produce a thin, glassy sound; col legno, playing with the wooden part of the bow
instead of with the hair; harmonics, placing the fingers of the left hand lightly on certain points
of the string to obtain a light, flutelike sound; and glissando, steadily gliding the left-hand
fingers up and down along the string to produce an upward- or downward-sliding pitch.

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The violin emerged in Italy in the early 1500s and seems to have evolved from two medieval
bowed instrumentsthe fiddle, also called viele or fiedel, and the rebecand from the
Renaissance lira da braccio (a violinlike instrument with off-the-fingerboard drone strings).

Also related, but not a direct ancestor, is the viol, a fretted, six-string instrument that appeared
in Europe before the violin and existed side by side with it for about 200 years.

The earliest important violin makers were the northern Italians Gasparo da Sal (1540-1609)
and Giovanni Maggini (1579-c. 1630) from Brescia and Andrea Amati from Cremona. The craft
of violin making reached unprecedented artistic heights in the 17th and early 18th centuries in
the workshops of the Italians Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, both from Cremona,
and the Austrian Jacob Stainer.

Compared with the modern instrument, the early violin had a shorter, thicker neck that was
less angled back from the violin’s front; a shorter fingerboard; a flatter bridge; and strings
made solely of gut. Early bows were somewhat different in design from modern ones. These
construction details were all modified in the 18th and 19th centuries to give the violin a louder,
more robust, more brilliant tone. A number of 20th-century players have restored their
18th-century instruments to the original specifications, believing them more suited for early

Used at first to accompany dancing or to double voice parts in vocal music, the violin was
considered an instrument of low social status. In the early 1600s, however, the violin gained
prestige through its use in operas such as Orfeo (1607), by the Italian composer Claudio
Monteverdi, and through the French king Louis XIII’s band of musicians, the 24 violons du roi
(“the king’s 24 violins,” formed in 1626). This growth in stature continued throughout the
baroque period (circa 1600-c. 1750) in the works of many notable composer-performers,
including Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, and Giuseppe Tartini in Italy and Heinrich Biber,
Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Sebastian Bach in Germany. The violin became the
principal force in the instrumental genres then currentthe solo concerto, concerto grosso,
sonata, trio sonata, and suiteas well as in opera. By the mid-18th century the violin was one
of the most popular solo instruments in European music. Violins also formed the leading
section of the orchestra, the most important instrumental ensemble to emerge in both the
baroque and classical (circa 1750-c. 1820) eras; and in the modern orchestrastill the most
important instrumental ensemble in Western musicthe violin family


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