Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is the Difference Between a Fiddle and a Violin?

Written by MasterClass

Jun 11, 2019 • 3 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

Have you ever seen a photo of a violin and a fiddle side by side? Were you able to tell which one was which? If you answered “yes,” then brace yourself for some bad news: they’re the same instrument.

But is there a difference between violin playing and fiddle playing? Yes. As a general rule, a violin is used for classical music and a fiddle is used for folk, country, and bluegrass. In the rock and jazz idioms, the terms are used more interchangeably. But however you play your violin or fiddle, you’re still dealing with the same four-string wooden instrument that dates back to sixteenth-century models from northern Italy.

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What Is a Violin?

A violin is a wooden instrument in the string family. Traditionally it has the following characteristics:

  • Four strings, tuned in 5ths: G3, D4, A4, E5
  • Strings were originally made from sheep gut (confusingly called catgut), but steel strings are the most common types today
  • Can be played with a horsehair bow (arco), with the wooden back of the bow (col legno), or with fingers (pizzicato)
  • Occupies the soprano voice in a string choir
  • Sound is produced by vibrating strings atop a hollow wooden body
  • Constructed with a spruce top (or soundboard), with maple used on the rest of the body
  • Contains a fretless fingerboard where players depress their fingers to sound certain pitches. Pressing down on a string is known as a “stop.” The term “double stops” refers to simultaneously pressing two strings at once. Triple and quadruple stops are also possible.
  • Is tuned using peg tuners at the top of the instrument and fine tuners along its tailpiece
  • A player tucks the instrument between her chin and shoulder. She uses her right hand to bow or pluck and her left hand to sound notes on the fingerboard.

The violin is arguably the most iconic instrument within the string family. Countless classical composers have written concertos and sonatas to showcase the violin, from legends like Mozart and Beethoven to contemporary greats like John Adams and Christopher Rouse.

Famous contemporary violinists include Itzhak Perlman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn, and Joshua Bell. Some of the most celebrated violinists from history include Niccolò Paganini, Georges Enesco, and Mischa Elman. In the world of jazz violin, Stéphane Grappelli is particularly iconic, while contemporary jazz violinists like Regina Carter continue to thrill audiences.

What Is a Fiddle?

The word fiddle can mean one of three things:

  • It can be a colloquial term for a violin played in the traditional classical style.
  • It can refer to a violin used in the country, bluegrass, and folks idioms. (This definition is the most common.)
  • It can refer to any stringed instrument used in the aforementioned folk idioms. For instance, a “bass fiddle” may refer to a double bass that’s used in this style.

In medieval Europe, fiddles emerged concurrently with ancestors of the modern violin. But as the violin rounded into its present form, it became the primary medium for “fiddling.” Fiddle music existed throughout Europe, but it holds an iconic place in traditional Irish music.

Scotch-Irish people—those of Scottish ancestry who settled in northeast Ireland—migrated en masse to America in the nineteenth century, bringing their fiddle traditions with them. (At this point “fiddling” was almost exclusively done on traditional violins.) Many Scotch-Irish settled in the areas of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee that serve as the bedrock of Appalachia. From there, a distinctly American musical genre, bluegrass, evolved. The fiddle is elemental to bluegrass, along with guitar, banjo, and mandolin.

Famous contemporary fiddlers include Alison Krauss, Mark O’Connor, Charlie Daniels, Sara Watkins, and Natalie MacMaster.

What Is the Difference Between a Fiddle and a Violin?

In the vast majority of cases, fiddles and violins are the exact same instruments played in different styles. However, some instruments are expressly designed for fiddling as opposed to classical playing. Such instruments often have a flatter bridge, which brings the strings slightly closer to the fingerboard. This makes certain fiddle techniques, like rapid string crossings and chording, more manageable.

Overall, however, the main distinction between violin and fiddle is the style of music performed by the player. And because many violinists affectionately refer to their instrument as their fiddle, the meaning of the word will simply be specific to the person speaking it.

Learn how to play violin in Grammy and Emmy-award winning violinist Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.