A Complete Guide to Violin
A beautiful and soulful musical instrument, the Violin is the smallest and the highest pitched string instrument among its family.
The sounds from a violin can be described as dark, sonorous, lustrous, metallic, mellow, full sounding, intense bright as it is truly that diverse. Forming an integral part of the Western classical tradition, violins are used in a variety of musical genres. In fact, it is starkly influential in Indian music. The soft, sweet, merry or clear and brilliant sounds of a violin make it an eloquent instrument.
Violin is perhaps one of the most widely used stringed instruments in the world apart from guitars. A standard violin can be employed for classical, folk, funky, Western, Pop or almost any kind of music. It also frequently features in jazz and various forms of rock and roll.
While violins can be instantly recognized in country and blue -grass music, they are also widely used for non-Western Music styles. Several renditions of violins have been used in Indian music for centuries.
Played with horsehair bow, a violin produces a treble pitch. Having its origin in 16th century Italy, violin features a characteristic hour glass shaped body. In its most standard form, it consists of four violin strings, a neck, a bridge, two end blocks, four fine tuners, two f-shaped sound holes that produce sounds and an optional chin-rest fitted on the tail piece.
How is it played?
Mostly, a violin is played while sitting (however, artists can also stand while playing the instrument). The position of a violin is just below the shoulder. Played with a bow, it includes tunings at intervals of fifth. The fingerboard is unfretted and it is the shallower body of the violin that gives it more tone, greater flexibility and dynamics.
Some of the most prized violins in the world have been made by Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari families from the 16 -18th century. Newest prized possessions come from Jacob Stainer, Cremona and Brescia. These violins are usually purchased by collectors. Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Bohemia are some industries that produce modern day violins in mass numbers.
While the origin of violin is credited to Italy, it is well known that the history of this instrument can be traced to instruments like Chinese Erhu or Greek Kithara, which were played in 8th century AD and 7th century BC respectively. However, it is believed that they don’t directly relate to the actual violin and were mere inspirations.
Origin of the Violin
Let’s explore the history of violin.
- Instruments like Greek Lyre were considered to be the first stringed instruments, which were plucked. In the equestrian cultures of Central Asia, the first stringed instruments were bowed in style.
- These instruments spread to India, China and the Middle East, leading to the development of Chinese Erhu and Esraj in India.
- The present day violin is inspired by these stringed instruments. It emerged in its present form in 16th century Northern Italy. The original designs were further elaborated taking inspiration from medieval European Vielle instrument, which itself was derived from Byzantine Lyra.
- The earliest impressions of violin can be traced back to 1530. Pictures and paintings of three string violins are available from this era. However, during those days, it was known as ‘Vilino’ in official documents.
- By the late 16th century, the violin had begun to spread across Europe. While it is not clear who invented the violin, it is definitely known that the small design and the ability to create diverse sounds made it popular. From King Charles IX to street musicians, everyone loved it.
- Decorated violins from the same period reflect how notable they were in the European culture. In fact, Charles IX is also the name of the oldest surviving violin. This decorated instrument was ordered for in 1560.
- About two centuries later, in 1790, the violin was introduced in India. It came with military bandsmen of the East India Company who helped Indians get acquainted with this instrument.
- Baluswami Dikshitar is credited with the popularity of the violin in Indian music. The brother of renowned Carnatic Composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, Baluswami learned how to play violin from military bandmaster in Madras.
- It was Baluswami, who in the late 18th century and early 19th century adapted the style of playing violin to suit Carnatic Music. Soon after, two styles of violin playing were designed in India – Carnatic and Hindustani. And, that is the reason why violin is such an integral part of South Indian Music.
- Over the years, significant changes were introduced in the design of a violin. This includes 18th century changes in the length and angle of the neck. It also includes the development of a heavier bass bar. This is also the period when the Indian rendition of a violin was introduced.
- 19th century was also the time when the most expensive violin was made. Unknown to the maker Arthur Catton Lancaster at that time, this violin went on to fetch millions of dollars.
- Violin, particularly the Indian violin version is used in Indian Classical or Hindustani Music. The designs of these two violins are similar. However, the tuning is different. Even the way a musician holds the instrument is different.
- For instance, in Indian music, the musician sits cross -legged, on the floor and rests the instrument on the right foot. This helps in keeping the violin in a steady position.
- When used solely, the Tabla or other percussion instruments accompany the violin. Otherwise, it is used to complement vocals on the stage or during a music recording.
How is a Violin Constructed?
While the playing ranges of musical instruments in the Violin family may overlap each other, it must be known that their tone quality and overall size distinguishes them from one another. For instance, while playing Violin, the ranges are from G3 to E7 whereas for Viola, it is C3 to A6.
- The construction of violin is such that it can be played below the neck. Its body is made using two arched plates that are fastened with animal hide glue. Different types of wood may be used.
- Back and ribs of the violin is made from maple and matching striped figure. The neck is compatible to the ribs and back.
- It also carries a fingerboard, which is made from ebony. Ebony is used for the purpose because it has superior resistance to wear, it’s hard and has the right kind of appearance. The bridge shows a flecked figure and forms lower anchor point for the vibration of strings.
- Sound post is in the back and top. It supports the top under the string pressure. Tailpiece is a part that’s made from carbon fibre, plastic, wood, metal or anchor. Tuning pegs are used as well. Bow is the part of the design and made using horsehair strung between tip and frog or nut.
Types Of Violins
Over the years, Violin has evolved significantly and the ones used around the world are roughly categorized or divided into different genres, sizes and their time period. These three categories are used to determine the type of a violin.
That’s not all. The differences in Violin do not exist majorly because of the time period or the size. Rather, the differences are more individualistic in nature. Famous Violinists may get their instruments customized as well.
For instance, variations in makers or the country of origin, the designer of the violin etc. are some major factors that determine how a violin is actually going to look. Certain types of Violins are discussed below.
- By Size – Usually, violins employed for professional purposes or for artistic performances have a similar size. The sizes mostly vary during the period of learning. For instance, there are fractional violins that are used for children. The smallest could be 1/16th of an actual violin. These sizes begin to increase as the child grows. Generally, the adequate size of a violin is measured by testing it with a child, whether s/he is comfortable and can manage it without dropping.
- Baroque Violin – Considered the forefather of the modern violin or the classic violin, this kind of violin was made during the 16 -17th centuries. The baroque violin featured a shallower angle on the neck. String tension was lower on these violins. The range of these instruments was lower as well.
- The Acoustic Violin – Also known as the modern violin, this instrument was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This development is credited to increase in string tension and increased range or sound projection of the violin. The new violin now features a more slender neck and has higher string tension. They are also made of different types of wood and have more comfortable fittings. The sound produced has improved considerably.
- Semi – Electric Violin – Produces sound acoustically so that the sounds can be electronically amplified. Pickups used in these violins can actually be added to your existing classical violin.
- Electric Violin – These are the violins that produce sound electronically. They have no sound-box or f-holes for producing the sounds. However, a lot of them still feature traditional designs to retain the original appeal. The sounds can be distorted or diversified based on one’s requirements.
- 5 Stringed – This is the violin that can either be acoustic or electric. It has a C string below the G string. This kind of violin can be used to adapt to different musical styles as it has the range of both the violin and viola in a single instrument. This type of violin is used often in country music as the sounds can be filled with lower notes. The decreased angle between strings makes it easier to perform as well.
Violin in Indian Music
Indian culture and violin aren’t foreign to each other, even if the instrument itself has foreign roots. Indians were introduced to violin by military bandsmen of the East Indian Company and their sounds or styles were adapted initially to suit Carnatic Music. However, it’s the similarity of Violin with other stringed instruments from India that gives it an edge.
A violin is often used for supporting vocals or used in conjunction with Tabla and flute to provide an ethereal Indian classical music experience.
The Indian violin has a special tuning. The instrument is tuned in such a manner that IV and III strings are do-sol pairs and sound the same. This tonic ‘do’ may not be fixed, but mostly it is used to accommodate the vocalist or player, which makes it different from the Western version.
In the Indian culture, the violin is used for both Carnatic and Hindustani music. Over the years, the popularity of violin has expanded to pop and Bollywood music styles.
Violinists with an Edge
India has produced several famous violinists that work on Western and Carnatic Music. Some of them work equally on both styles.
Malaikkottai Govindawamy Pillai – One of the noted exponents of Violin, Pillai was born in 1878 and is considered to be one of the most popular players of violin. He was the one who furthered the cause of violin for Indian music in the 20th century. His works in Carnatic Music are still discussed. An inspiration, Pillai was well known for experimenting in different genres of Carnatic Music.
T.N. Krishnan – A Carnatic Music Violinist, Krishnan was born in Kerala and learned music from his father. He made his debut at the age of eight and has worked with other music legends. Over the years, he has been awarded the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. Krishnan gives importance to expressional restraint in his music and presents different ragas in unique shade and light.
L. Subramaniam – An exponential violinist, composer and conductor, L. Subramaniam has experimented with Western and Carnatic Music styles. He is renowned for his virtuoso playing techniques.
With over 200 recordings to his credit and several historic solo albums, he has collaborated with major musicians like Stanley Clarke, George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and others. He has also performed and written for orchestras, ballets and films. Awarded Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri by the Government of India, he has secured several Grammy Nominations as well.
Violin Strings are the main component of a violin. But there are so many other accessories that are used too.
- Rosin – Your bow won’t work without the rosin, as it creates friction between strings and horsehair, which in turn helps in creating vibrations.
- Shoulder Rest – Don’t want to experience shoulder pain and slippage while playing music? Then you need this accessory.
- Mute – Orchestral Mutes are great for violinists who practice every day. Mute can stay on the instrument when you aren’t using it.
- Music Stand – Investing in a music stand is important, if you want to ensure that the music that’s played is correct. Music stands are particularly important for people who play for orchestra or for public performances.
- Tuner – Tuners can help in playing at the right tempo. As you progress at playing violin, you might want to invest in a tuner or metronome play at the right tempo. You can opt for a custom tuner or get a violin with a tuner.
Smallest Playable Violin – The record for world’s smallest playable violin is held by Mohit Jangid, a Rajasthan based craftsman who created a violin of the size of 13 cm. This violin is playable and features four strings for proper functioning. The record was established in 2014.
Youngest Carnatic Performance (Non – Indian) – Sandeep N. Bharadwaj is an American who established the record of Youngest Non – Indian to perform Carnatic Music using a violin. Sandeep is born to Indian parents and performed in 2007 to gain the title.
In a Nutshell
An important instrument in wide variety of musical genres, Violin is prominently used in Indian music, particularly in Indian Classical Music. While Indian violin may have certain differences in the design, it is essentially the same as Western Violin, so can be used interchangeably.
It features in many varieties of Indian music styles, including Carnatic, South Indian and Indian classical music and combines several styles together. India has produced several violinists such as Malaikkottai Govindaswamy Pillai, T.N Krishnan, L. Subramaniam and Mysore Brothers. These violinists perform different styles breathtakingly.
If your child is interested in learning violin, get them into training quickly. Training in violin, while young can help in faster learning and development of skills. Get in touch with YoGems to find the right expert for your child.