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Revisited: The Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle.

Posted by fiddlepogo on Saturday, September 7, 2013

(I had thoughts about posting this as a new thread, but my second was that I should spare you!)

I happened across this after clicking on the video for "Peat Fire Flame" that Haggis mentioned in another thread:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlmUCZKjkuY

And somehow, I find the answers rather unsatisfying.

This is my take.

First of all, you have all these instruments that are all modeled on the same design, or one of a few similar designs, and technically you COULD call all of them "violins".  Just like you have beef suitable for fine restaurants, and beef suitable for dog or cat food, not all instruments designed as  "violins" turn out the SAME.  They differ in tone.  Some have flaws in playability, but those can usually be fixed if you're willing to throw enough money at the problem.

But the tonal problems may remain.  No two pieces of wood are the same, and the maker's skill or lack of it is a big factor.

THEN....  you have two basically different approaches to playing the instrument.

One is centered around the way the instrument was used in the royal and aristocratic courts of Europe.  This approach is called "classical" or "violin" music. There are many different aspects to this approach, but one central aspect is THE USE OF DIFFERENT POSITIONS to get different notes, and notes with different TONES.   An E played on the open E string, on the A string or on the D string will NOT sound the same.  Classical music exploits this difference in tone in different positions, and sometimes has a preference for higher positions.

The other approach is centered around the way the instrument was used by folk musicians that got ahold of (probably lesser) examples of the same design.  Not even every instrument that came out of Cremona in the early days was "A" quality.  Apprentices had to learn how to build violins, and it took time and the production of many inferior violins or components of violins before their work was fit for royalty and the aristocracy.  A few may have been so bad they were destroyed immediately, but even these inferior examples had time and materials invested in them, and since the violin maker's shops were BUSINESSES, those instruments must USUALLY have been sold to recoup the costs of making them.

Now, one thing that's common among folk fiddle styles is the tendency to play almost exclusively in the first position.  IF you have a fiddling style that uses second and third position much, it's very likely the influence of classical violin technique behind it.

Old Time uses first position almost exclusively, so does Irish, Cajun, various Canadian style.  Scottish seems to use first position for the dance tunes, but positions for the slow airs, which is where I think the most classical influence is in Scottish fiddling.

In the key of G, you have more than TWO octaves available.   Since very few singers have more than one and a half octaves (the amount needed to sing the Star Spangled Banner) and most have less, more than two octaves gives you enough range in one position to play virtually all song melodies.

And it gives you enough range to be able to double the melody in a lower or higher octave, which is a common technique in folk fiddling (Sliabh Luachra Irish fiddling uses this a LOT).

If you just want to play the notes and play them in a lively fashion, the more than two octaves available in first position is quite enough.

And since folk fiddlers often had some other kind of work to do (farming, fishing, mining, or other laboring jobs) they didn't have a whole lot of time to devote to advanced techniques like perfecting the intonation in the upper positions.  So first position fiddling is attractive from that standpoint.

Basically, in a nutshell:

Classical violin favors fingered notes and playing in upper positions.  Open strings are usually avoided.  Instruments are required that play well and sound good all the way up the neck, and in all keys.  The instrument is set up in such a way to make this possible. Variations in tone of the same notes played on different strings are exploited for the sake of expression.

Fiddlers avoid shifting positions wherever possible, and prefer to change strings to get a note.  The strings changes are actually exploited in various ways for the styles (melodic and ornamental bow rocking) and the instrument is set up to make string changes easier.  The instrument is only required to sound good in first position.

To muddy the distinction, hybrid styles have emerged, like Bluegrass, Swing, Jazz, and Gypsy fiddling, where playing up the neck is a virtue.

These styles have much of the flair and flavor of folk fiddling, but the players are often professionals, and devote a lot of time, possibly including some classical violin study to play in upper positions and in as many keys as possible.  One thing they usually share with folk fiddlers is that they seldom perform with sheet music.  But they are more likely to value the same instruments as violinists.

When you consider ALL violin-type instruments produced, yes, they all look about the same, and are based on the same design.

However, only a limited subset of them meet the high requirements for classical music (the volume and projection needed for orchestral and solo playing, and sounding good all the way up the neck).  Because of the select requirements, higher prices can be expected for these instruments.

Of the remainder many are adequate to excellent for playing first position folk styles.  Lower prices.

Others are adequate for violin students to learn on, even if they don't sound that good- much as obsolete military aircraft were often relegated to duty as "trainers".  Also lower prices.

Some are really inadequate for ANYTHING except as something for visual artists to exploit for the shape, and fully deserve the name "Violin Shaped Object"!

Anyway, I guess even the "nutshell" is pretty complicated, leading to the attractiveness of simple statements like
"There is no difference, they are the same instrument!"

"A violin has strings, a fiddle has strangs!" or something like that!

I suppose you could say that a position-oriented approach and a string-change oriented approach interface with the supply of existing instruments to create categories of suitability for those approaches:  Violins, Student Violins, Fiddles and VSO's.

Of these categories, there is probably the greatest overlap between Student Violins and Fiddles, and indeed, the difference may be just a matter of setup... the Student Violins being set up to optimize playing in positions, and the fiddles optimized for first position playing and quick string changes.



2 comments on “Revisited: The Difference Between a Violin and a Fiddle.”

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Sunday, September 8, 2013 @4:38:15 AM

Current Classical stylists use vibrato like my kids use syrup, all over the place and sticky, thin, gooey, syrupy sweet and full of artificial motifs; folk fiddlers use vibrato like I use honey, just enough to sweeten, organically grown and full of natural goodness. I'd write more about this important distinction but I'm for some reason hungry.

fiddlepogo Says:
Sunday, September 8, 2013 @7:32:18 AM

Good point.... you SHOULD SERIOUSLY write about that... if you can think of anything more to say, without resorting to too much spoofery!

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