In this lesson, we’re going to talk about the modern violin. We will discuss a broad scope of the instrument including its history, how its played, and what it can do.

What Is A Violin

The violin is the soprano member of the string family, which also includes such instruments as the viola, the cello, and the bass (sometimes referred to as the ‘double bass’ or ‘contrabass’). It is one of the most versatile instruments ever created, a characteristic reflected in the vast and varied repertoire available for the instrument from all corners of the globe. It can just as easily sustain a tone as it can perform the most agile of musical passages. In terms of pitch, the violin can play all chromatic pitches and microtones across its massive four-octave range. The capabilities of the violin are extraordinary, and yet its limits are still being pushed to this day through extended techniques and the sheer determination of ambitious musicians. To quote the New Grove Music Dictionary, ‘In short, the violin represents one of the greatest triumphs of instrument making.’

Where Did It Come From?

The construction and use of string instruments in general began very early in human history, so finding the exact origins of the violin can prove to be a bit vague. We can however, discuss the contemporary violin, which, like many instruments, can be more or less discussed in terms of its shape. The outline for what we consider to be a contemporary violin first became standard in Italy around 1550 AD, but at the time there was a great deal of change and experimentation by instrument makers, leading to variations on this form appearing in northern Europe into the 1600’s.

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How is it Played?

To play the violin, the performer positions the instrument on their left shoulder, securing it in place with the side of their chin. The neck of the instrument is held by the left hand by positioning the thumb underneath the fretboard, and the fingers above the strings to allow for the fingering of pitches.

playing a violin

The right hand controls the bow, which when drawn across the strings causes them to vibrate and produce sound. In addition to basic bowing, there is a wide array of different bowing techniques that produce variations on the traditional sound. Some of the most common of these alternative bowings include ponticello, détaché, staccato, and legato. The strings can also be plucked, a technique referred to as pizzicato. It’s important to note when discussing pizzicato that the sound produced by plucking will be significantly quieter than the sound produced by drawing the bow. As we saw with a variety of bowing variations, there are also variations to the plucking technique, some of the most common of which include snap pizzicato (occasionally referred to by its creator as Bartok Pizzicato), two handed plucking, and even strumming. There are also a wide variety of less standardized approaches to the instrument, particularly in modern classical music, that include things like bowing the strings with the back of the bow, a piece of glass, and other creative ways to invent new sounds from the instrument.

Tuning

The violin has four strings that are tuned in perfect fifths to the pitches pictured below. As a soprano, violin music is written in the treble clef.

The tuning of the violin

Occasionally, a violin’s strings will be tuned to alternate pitches, a technique referred to as a scordatura.

Range

The exact range limits often vary based on the skill and experience of the performer, but in most professional orchestras, it is safe to assume a practical range up to E7. In solo and chamber music however, notes can reach as high as B7 or even further through the use of harmonics.

The Range of a Violin
violin range

Parts of the Violin

The violin is made up of numerous parts that comprise the whole, best explained through the graphic below.

The Parts of the Violin
violin parts chart labels

Lesson Summary

The violin is the highly versatile soprano member of the string family that has existed in its modern form since around 1550 AD, where it was first developed in Italy. It is tuned in perfect fifths, reads in the treble clef, and has a range exceeding 4 octaves. To play the instrument, we generally draw a bow across the strings, but there is a great deal of alternative techniques.

Terms Associated With the Violin

Terms Explanations
Violin the soprano member of the string family
Soprano the high pitches
Viola, cello and bass other members of the string family
Chromatic half-step pitches between all the notes
Microtones a tone smaller than a semitone
Bow a tool that, when drawn across the strings, causes them to vibrate and produce sound
Ponticello, détaché, staccato, and legato bowing techniques
Pizzicato plucking the strings
Bartok Pizzicato creator of snap pizzicato
Strumming playing the violin like a guitar
Treble clef lines of the musical staff that alto, soprano, and tenor instruments use
Scordatura alternative technique for tuning a violin
Harmonics overlapping tones which create harmonious sounds

Learning Outcomes

Study this lesson with the goal of completing these actions:

  • Characterize the violin
  • Share the history of the instrument
  • Explain the various ways in which the violin can be played and tuned
  • Recognize its parts