Do you struggle to tell the difference between a fiddle and a violin? Sure, you may have heard them used in different contexts or music genres, making it easy to assume they are different instruments.
However, there is little difference between a violin and a fiddle; they are the same 4-stringed instrument played with a bow or fingers.
While a violin and a fiddle have the same design, there are notable differences in how each is played, hence the dissimilarity in names. A violin is played in formal settings where organization and complexity are key, while the fiddle is played in informal settings for energetic audiences.
If you want to start playing the violin, you will choose between becoming a violinist, fiddler, or both. In this article, we will explore the main differences between a violin and a fiddle to help you choose your best playing technique.
So, are violins and fiddles the same?
Read on to find out!
What is a Violin?
The violin is a classic (16th century) wooden stringed instrument with these characteristics:
- Four strings tuned in 5ths: A4, D4, G3, and E5.
- Synthetic core or gut strings
- A hollow maple body
- It can be played using one's fingers (pizzicato), a horsehair bow (arco), or the wooden back of this bow (col legno).
- Produces sound when its strings vibrate over its hollow wooden body
- Players tuck it between their chin and shoulder; one hand to bow or pluck the strings, and the other to sound notes on the fingerboard
The word ‘violin’ is mostly used to describe this instrument when it is used in orchestras, chamber music, symphonies, and classical music. Still, the word ‘fiddle’ is colloquial, and many violin enthusiasts affectionately call their violins ‘fiddles.’
When Is the Term ‘Fiddle’ Used?
The violin is one of the most iconic stringed instruments for classical music, but the word 'fiddle' often comes up as an informal name for it. When a violin is being used to play folk idioms, bluegrass, Cajun, Appalachian, or country music, it may also be called a fiddle.
Earlier in medieval Europe, the fiddle emerged along with the first forms of today’s violin. However, as the violin continued to evolve and improve, it became the main stringed instrument for ‘fiddling’ as it was called.
According to Masterclass, fiddle music had always existed throughout Europe, but it was especially prominent in Ireland. So when the Irish-Scottish community migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they brought their traditional music and the use of the fiddle along with them.
Today, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians defines a fiddle as a term for any stringed instrument (chordophone) played with a bow. This includes the violin plus other diverse instruments like the North Indian sarangi.
What Is the Difference Between a Fiddle and a Violin?
The fiddle and violin are the same instrument but played in different music genres. The main difference between a violin and a fiddle relates to where the instrument is played. In an orchestra, the instrument is called a violin, while in a traditional setting, the instrument is called a fiddle.
That said, some violins may be designed specifically for fiddling, while others are built more for classical genres. Here are the differences between a violin and a fiddle:
- Type of sound produced
Those are the key differences, but let's break them down...
Differences In The Bridge
The instruments designed for fiddling have a flatter bridge, which brings the strings closer to the fingerboard. This unique design makes fiddling techniques like chording and rapid string crossings easier to execute.
Fiddlers prefer instruments with a flatter bridge than the classical violinist's traditionally arched bridge. Flatter bridges reduce the angle between strings so that a fiddler can simultaneously play two or more notes.
Synthetic Core Strings Vs. Steel Strings
You can also tell the difference between the two instruments by observing their strings. Classical violinists choose synthetic core or gut strings, while fiddlers prefer steel core strings that produce a sharper, crisp sound.
A 5-string fiddle with an additional lower fifth C-string has also brought another distinction from the violin.
Type of Sound Produced
Classical violin music sounds more formal and complicated, while fiddle music is simpler on paper (fiddlers rarely leave the first position). However, fiddlers still require a lot of skill to maintain their music style’s raucousness.
Compared to classical violin, fiddle players must be able to produce the kind of melody and rhythm that keeps listeners nodding their heads or tapping their feet.
The most notable distinction between a fiddle and a violin is the style that they are played. Often, the violin is played for classical music, where the violinist reads notes from a sheet. Conversely, fiddlers learn their notes by ear, adjusting their playing techniques like string bending to complement the beat and music style.
This fiddling technique comes from Medieval times when fiddlers could not read or write. As such, they improvised tones on the fly to create music the audience could dance to.
The classical violinist at the London Symphony Orchestra and the fiddler in the Zac Brown band are playing the same instrument, however different their tones sound.
But, since the terms are used in varying contexts and the sound and styles are so diverse, assuming they are different is easy. Hopefully, this information will make distinguishing between the two terms easier for you.