Bowed instruments like the violin can produce different tones and rhythms depending on the occasion and player. As a result, not many people can tell the difference between violin playing and fiddling, which are two styles of playing the violin. So, what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
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Is a Fiddle Different From a Violin?
The simplest answer is no. A violin is also a fiddle, a four-stringed instrument usually played with a violin bow, though you can also play it with fingers. So, when you come across a violinist and a fiddler, they will both have the same instrument but will play different tones using different techniques.
The fiddle is the older of these two terms or definitions used as far back as the 10th century. It was a small and portable stringed instrument used in many cultures across Medieval Western Europe. However, the violin became the more preferred of the two instruments after being introduced in the 16th century in Northern Italy.
Today, the terms are used to differentiate the type of music played, where the violin is more common in classical playing styles for formal audiences, while the fiddle is associated with energetic folk music across the globe. In addition, it is not uncommon to hear experienced players use the terms synonymously, such as a violin player calling their instrument a fiddle.
That said, there are differences in how the instruments are designed or played. These include:
1. Physical differences
Sure, the violin and fiddle are the same instruments. But, when a player dedicates their instrument to playing either classical or folk music, they can prefer their violin with different physical attributes such as:
Curved or flat bridge: In some cases, the violin comes with a curved bridge, while a custom fiddle will come with a flatter bridge. This flat design makes double and triple stops easier for a fiddler, while the curved design allows a violinist to play more articulate notes easily.
Strings used: Different violin strings produce different tones, and some players choose some materials over others. Most violins were made with gut strings during the early violin days, but that has changed with time as more violin brands make synthetic core strings or steel strings.
Since the string material can affect the tonal outcomes, most classical violinists prefer gut and synthetic core strings, while fiddle players prefer steel strings. Gut strings also tend to be more expensive since they produce rich and full tones, making them ideal for formal orchestral music.
Back in time, when the fiddle was the most common instrument, many players could not afford the expensive gut strings, so they always preferred the cheaper steel strings. However, in today's fiddle music, steel strings can produce bright tones that sit well with danceable music.
Tuners: Violin players need to tune their instruments to suit the melodies they wish to play. But, when choosing the best violin strings to play on, the players also have to get the best and easy-to-use tuners. For example, most classical music players using gut and synthetic core strings can use wooden pegs to tune, but most fiddles will require fine tuners to tune the steel strings.
2. The Type of Music Played
Violins are played in classical music where you read notes from a sheet, whilst a fiddle is played in folk music, and the notes are learned by ear (not read as that would be difficult to maser in a performance).
In most cultures around the world, classical music refers to formal music characterized by complexity and organization. The genre is rooted in the patronage of royal courts and churches. A violin is mostly played in an orchestra or jazz group, and the tone follows the composer's notes. As such, the player, in most cases, does not improvise the playing technique.
On the other hand, a fiddle is played for more relaxed audiences for genres like country music, traditional folk music, and bluegrass. Also, compared to playing the violin, where the player needs to read notes from a sheet, a fiddle player will not read notes. This dissimilarity comes from Medieval times when most fiddle players could not read or write.
In addition, folk or fiddle music will not have composers, unlike what you see on violin playing, where there are famous composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Fiddle music is rooted in a deep sense of community, and a lot of concentration goes into creating rhythmic tones that people can dance to. Unlike violin playing, a fiddle player can improvise tones to meet the audience's needs.
Another way to distinguish between a fiddle and a violin is by understanding the repertoire. The repertoire, in this case, refers to what the player can play with their instrument. A violinist can choose from different repertoires like:
The sonata. A sonata is a musical piece composed for a violin and may be accompanied by another instrument in an orchestral performance.
The concerto. It is a piece of music composed for a solo violin (or several violins). While it is mostly played as part of an orchestra, this repertoire is designed to showcase the violinist's prowess.
With fiddle playing, the fiddle can play different repertoires such as a jig, reel, waltz or hornpipe.
4. Playing techniques
Fiddle and violin are the same, but the playing technique determines what tones are played. When playing these stringed instruments for the different tones, a player uses the same techniques, but there are some variations that produce different tones. These are:
Double stops or two simultaneous notes. You can play double stops in any violin performance, including when playing classical and folk music. In classical music, or when playing the violin, double stops are longer and more defined. On the other hand, in folk music, or when playing the instrument as a fiddle, the double stops are undefined or not played (very short).
Ornaments. You can introduce ornaments as notes that improve or embellish the principal notes when you play violin. When playing a fiddle, you have more liberty to use ornaments since the music is intended for a fun, informal audience. These ornamental tones are sharp and easy to recognize once played.
When playing the violin, especially in classical or orchestral performances, it is harder to introduce ornaments since the player will be reading notes. However, they are also played in classical music as long and defined secondary melodies.
Chops. A chop is a style of playing the violin or fiddle where you place the bow on the strings to create a beat. This style of play is more common when playing a fiddle rather than a violin since you need to create a danceable beat for the audience.
Neck: In most cases, you can use the entire length of the neck in classical music, while you will use the lower part of the neck playing the fiddle style.
Beats: When playing instruments in the violin family, you need to understand different notes, but it is also imperative that you count the beats properly to produce beautiful rhythms. When playing the violin in classical music, you play your melodies after the 1st and 3rd beat, and in folk music, you play the melody after the 2nd and 4th beat.
Tone dynamics. In violin music, dynamics refer to the ranges of musical expression the player works with. When determining between violin and fiddle playing, you notice that the environment affects the tonal quality of each melody.
For example, in classical violin music, the environment is calm, and the player has notes to follow. As a result, the players have more control of their body movement and the speed at which they strike the bow and how much weight they put into it. Therefore, their notes will range from softs to vibratos precisely.
On the other hand, fiddle music is played in active environments where you can find different fiddlers playing the same melodies. As a result, there is not a lot of focus on the tonal quality since the music focuses more on the beat.
As you have seen, the fiddle is the same instrument as the violin, and the terms are often used interchangeably across different musical genres. However, you can use the instrument to play different types of music for different audiences. So, if you are trying to choose what type of violin player you want to be, this article can help you decide which playing style is best for you.