How can you tell the difference between a fiddle and a violin? The short answer is you can’t – they’re actually both the same instrument.
Though different musicians can sometimes use the two different terms to refer to their instrument, it is still basically the same four stringed instrument that you see in classical orchestras and folk bands alike.
So why do people refer to the same instrument by two different names? Is there really any difference between the two distinctions? Find out more about fiddles and violins and all the semantics below!
Classical music vs folk music
While the fiddle and violin is indeed the same instrument, the way that a musician defines it generally comes down to the type of music that they play.
A violin is generally better associated with classical music and more classical techniques. You’re more likely to see a violin in an orchestra or string ensemble playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
Though some classical musicians do affectionately refer to their violins as fiddles!
A fiddle on the other hand is better associated with folk, country, or bluegrass music, and fiddlers tend to use varying techniques and expressions to produce a more folky sound.
You’d be more likely to spot a fiddle in the dance hall playing music for the masses as opposed to more technically demanding concertos.
A classical violinist will focus more on precise techniques such as perfecting their vibrato. They will tend to play their classical pieces exactly how it’s written, with very little freedom for expression.
This allows them to play the more technically challenging pieces which are more associated with classical music.
Fiddlers tend to use more freedom of expression. Often they will even learn a piece from memory rather than read music so as to allow them more freedom while playing.
It is thought that some fiddlers of the past were even unable to read music due to a lack of conventional lessons and instead played by ear. Fiddlers are often better able to improvise, too, even if they haven’t finessed the more traditional techniques that classical music requires.
A brief history of the traditional violin
The violin as we know it first emerged in 16th century Italy. Some of the earliest pictures of the first violins show an instrument with three strings, but the four stringed instrument became immensely popular at the time.
The violin grew from strength to strength and soon spread across Europe, growing in popularity. Violins were popular with both nobles and street musicians alike!
Violins in the 18th century went through significant changes in terms of their body and sound. Instruments made during this time – what has been referred to as the “golden age” of violin making – are still sought after today. Classical violins such as a Stradivarius are worth in the millions of dollars.
Instruments made during the 18th century are heralded as the standard of perfection that many luthiers – those who make violins – have tried to achieve since.
Some of these older violins are still able to produce an unparalleled sound, despite their age, and are sought after by classical musicians today.
Fiddle vs violin structure
So why does a fiddle differ from these more traditional violins at a glance? That’s because while a fiddle and a violin are technically the same instrument, fiddlers tend to prefer a different set up to that of a more traditional violin.
They like to adapt their instruments to suit their playing technique in order to get the right sound for their music, depending on the style of music they like to play.
Differentiations can include a different style of bridge, different types of strings, as well as different bow techniques. While the more traditional violin strings are made using sheep’s intestines – also known as catgut – fiddlers prefer to use either steel or synthetic strings.
The traditional catgut strings are more expensive and more temperamental than their metal and synthetic counterparts, but may be needed for some of the more classical pieces.
These tend to be for pieces of music written during the Baroque period.
Some fiddlers may have their bridge cut so that it’s less curved. This is because it can make it easier for fiddlers to play double stops, triple stops, and shuffles. Classical violinists prefer the more rounded bridge as this gives more room to the violin’s fingerboard.
There’s not much difference between the height of these variations – typically a few millimeters at most. This will also depend on the strings the fiddler or violinist has chosen to use.
Some fiddlers may hold the bow in different positions to a classical violinist to get different sounds from their instruments, too.
It’s all in the skill
At a glance, it may be tempting to think that classical violinists are the better talented musicians. They’ve got the better technique and can play more technically challenging pieces. However, you shouldn’t write off the fiddlers just yet.
Fiddlers often have to play their music very, very fast, even if at first glance it appears to be simpler in terms of technical ability.
These pieces can be very demanding, and a fiddler will need to be highly skilled to keep up the right rhythm that the piece demands.
The structural simplicity of some of these pieces also allows the fiddler more freedom of expression in terms of their playing style. It means they can also improvise and get to show off a little.
Something which more classical musicians who have spent years and years perfecting certain techniques don’t have the ability to do.
While it may be tempting to weigh the skills of a fiddler and a classical violinist against each other, mostly it comes down to personal preference.
Just because a fiddler has learned different styles of playing doesn’t make them less talented than someone who plays first violin in the chamber orchestra.
So in short, there isn’t much difference between a fiddle and a violin. While they are both technically the same instrument, the nitpicky difference between a fiddle and a violin mostly comes down to technique and playing style.
It’s easier to think of a fiddle being more commonly used for folk music, and a violin being used for more classical pieces.