Where Does the Violin Come From?

The violin cuts a strange figure in our modern world. In our daily lives we usually see only sharp angles and utilitarian “function”. The violin’s distinctive rounded shape and intense sound naturally evoke a different era. Children often seem pleasantly surprised when they ask why the scroll of the violin looks the way it does, and the answer comes: “Just because it looks nice”. Because of this, inquisitive children often ask where the violin comes from. This is a bewilderingly complex question to answer, which means, of course, that it is a great question. This blog will be an attempt to do it some justice. This post will be useful for people who are still deciding on an instrument to learn.

The History of the Violin Family

The violin belongs to a family of instruments. If you’ve ever seen a symphony orchestra, you know that there is a wide range of wooden, stringed and bowed instruments of various sizes.

In this picture we can see all four members of the modern violin family. The largest one is the double bass. The player has to sit on a stool, or stand, in order to play it. The bass provides the lower harmony. A full orchestra will have about 6 of these in the string section. The double bass also features widely in Jazz music, especially for to its unique pizzicato (plucking) sound.

The next largest member of the family is the cello. The people who play these are called cellists and they usually play while sitting. People love the cello for its capacity to make warm, rich tones. About 8 cellists usually make up the cello section in an orchestra.

Violin or Viola?

In order of size, the viola comes next. The player holds this under the chin, so the viola is often mistaken for a violin. The viola is bigger and deeper than a violin, and like the cello, produces a warm tone. The smallest member of this family is the one most people can recognize – the violin. In an orchestra or a quartet, violins divide into first violin and second violin sections.

Because these instruments all have an antique look to them, people tend to think that the violin family is extremely ancient. In truth, these instruments, in the form that we all recognize, originated in the 16th century. It is a testament to the genius of the (mostly Italian) craftsmen of the Renaissance period that their design properties and specifications have stayed in vogue for almost half a millennium. The most famous of these Italian masters is undoubtedly Antionio Stradivari, the great luthier of Cremona. His violins combined an artist’s aesthetic with deep mechanical and acoustic insights. The instruments that survive from this era fetch outrageous prices at auctions, as you can see in the video below:

When these new instruments arrived on the scene they quickly overshadowed the less well known viol family of instruments. These are bowed and strung, with frets, like a guitar. They also have inimitable names like viola da gamba (viol of the knees) and viola d’amore (viol of love). While these instruments still exist and specialized ensembles continue to make music with them, they are unfortunately obscure.

The Violin’s Ancestors and Cousins

The modern violin form was the culmination of thousands of years of development. The most obvious candidates for the direct ancestor of the violin are the rebec, still in wide use in balkan folk music, and the vielle (pictured right). Stringed instruments are found in almost all human cultures.

The innovation that sets the violin and its ancestors apart was the bow. The first step involved plucking strings to make pitches – and even modern bowed instruments do this (it’s called pizzicato). Then, someone (or most likely, many people simultaneously) decided to pull a stretched length of hair over the string to vibrate it in a different way.

The results of this discovery proliferated across the world. Today, we are fortunate enough to be able to see the huge array of bowed instruments across the globe. China has the ehru, while the kamancheh can be found throughout the Middle and Near East. This adds more complexity to our initial question: “Where does the violin come from?” It’s clear that “17th century Italy” is at best a partial answer. The truth is, as always, messier and more profound. The violin, like all its relatives, is a product of the human spirit.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: